Europe’s far-right populists are on the march again
Each time the tsunami of populism engulfing the Western world appears to have been discredited and defeated, a new wave of far-right victories compels liberal pundits to eat their words.
Scarcely a country in the democratic West has remained unscathed, as these radical hooligans scale the walls and seize the seats of national power. Now Sweden and Italy are their latest two scalps.
I was a regular visitor to Sweden through my role in the Tallberg Forum, an annual discussion series that explored the question: “How on earth can we live together?” Sweden’s liberal traditions enjoy worldwide respect and emulation. Is all this now to be tossed into the dustbin of history?
The radical anti-immigration Sweden Democrats won over 20 percent of the vote in last month’s general election, making its 73 MPs a central force in any new administration. This is a party founded by Nazi sympathizers (one of them was a member of Hitler’s Waffen-SS!) and just a decade ago it was perceived as being too far outside the political mainstream to be taken seriously.
Meanwhile, further south, many people are spooked by Italy’s next prime minister, Giorgia Meloni — the first post-fascist leader to win an Italian national election since the Second World War. Meloni’s political movement, Brothers of Italy, also has close associations with neofascism. Like Marine Le Penn in France, Meloni sought to win national power by displaying a softer image to the electorate, while still seeking to galvanise support by playing on tropes that whip up fears about immigrants, foreigners and liberal tendencies. It has been argued that Meloni will have to govern moderately because she dare not risk losing massive EU funding to Italy, but she will also want to adopt populist measures that excite her political base.
Meloni is a close ally of Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s Mateusz Morawiecki, who suddenly look far less isolated in the European arena. A warm congratulatory message to Meloni from Orban’s office ominously declared: “In these difficult times, we need more than ever friends who share a common vision and approach to Europe’s challenges.”
The EU risks reaching a tipping point at which it can no longer be considered a “liberal club,” but an entity in which a critical mass of illiberal, anti-democratic elements collaborate to subvert its institutions for their own ends.
The European Parliament recently declared that Hungary had mutated into an “electoral autocracy,” and warned about the loss of judicial independence in Poland. There are fears that Italy, after decades of chronic political instability and revolving-door governments, may follow a similar path.
This far-right surge has compelled center-ground parties to move further rightwards. This creates a dangerous Europe-wide dynamic, similar to Israel’s post-1990s lurch toward the extreme right, in which political discourse and public consensus mutate beyond recognition.
Moscow has cultivated intimate ties with extremist factions in Serbia, Denmark, Norway, Austria, Moldova, Bulgaria and elsewhere, viewing them as Trojan horses for shattering fragile European unity. The Ukraine conflict is meanwhile exacerbating economic and social tensions, undermining energy and food security, fueling inflation, and straining national budgets.
Citizens must witness that the snake-oil bags of tricks sold by populists such as Trump, Orban and Meloni will only make their lives worse.
With over 100 million people worldwide displaced by conflict, anti-migrant parties exploit popular fears. Tellingly, Sweden and Hungary during the 2015 peak of refugee arrivals were the two European states with the highest per-capita numbers of asylum seekers. Italy has borne the brunt of arrivals, adding fuel to the narrative of fascists who pledge to toss refugees back into the sea.
Britain’s Conservative Party under Boris Johnson and now Liz Truss has also flirted with the culture wars and xenophobia of alt-right populism. In her latest concession to the reactionary right, Truss is now speculating about moving Britain’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Somebody who has been foreign secretary should understand that such a step would be a further knife in the back for Middle East peace. How could she challenge Vladimir Putin’s annexations, when such a decision would give tacit blessing to an equally blatant occupation, condemned repeatedly by the UN?
Truss’s judgment is equally in question after radical tax cuts that disproportionately benefit multimillionaires, leaving inflation-hit citizens to foot the bill. Markets panicked and sterling plummeted in reaction to this kamikaze economics.
I am writing this from the US, where Donald Trump and his MAGA supporters embrace the lunacy of QAnon conspiracy theories with ever more impassioned abandon. The interminable scandals and investigations around Trump further entrench America’s polarization. Are Republicans rendering themselves permanently unelectable, or creating new, perniciously resonant narratives of grievance and resentment that will pave their way back to power in the 2024 elections? Only time will tell.
Until relatively recently, all that was required to keep extreme-right tendencies in check was to ignore them. The Second World War left such a mark on the Western psyche that for several generations far-right fascism was rightly synonymous with the worst forms of evil.
Perhaps new generations with no personal experience of such horrors must witness for themselves how truly terrible such tendencies are in the flesh, before this populist fever can break. Citizens must witness that the snake-oil bags of tricks sold by populists such as Trump, Orban and Meloni will only make their lives worse. The kind of leadership the world has at this moment of manifold crises is the opposite of the kind of leadership we desperately need!
Britain’s latest economic meltdown has shattered the Conservative Party’s decades-long reputation for economic rectitude, with a succession of disastrous missteps leading to talk of the party rendering itself unelectable. This is how populism becomes unpopular!
Similarly, we can only hope that the excesses and self-inflicted calamities of populism reawaken the appetite for competent and conscientious politicians — leaders who don’t breathe fire or threaten to burn down entire political systems, but rather offer a credible path for leading the Western world out of chronic dysfunction and back to a status quo in which good governance, the rule of law and social justice are considered values worth fighting to defend.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.