Rise of the far right in the EU is a clear and present danger
A lot has been written, and a lot will be written, in an attempt to understand how and why the hard right is managing to gain ground and even take center stage in the political and social narratives of democratic countries.
Why are far-right parties and their agendas increasingly becoming the new normal and in some cases dominating mainstream politics in so many nations, including the US, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden and even the UK?
The simple answer is fear. Fear for the future in an age of dwindling resources. Fear of “others” who are coming to settle in new countries, fleeing not only persecution in their home nations but also economic hardship, or perhaps simply opportunists dreaming of a better life in Europe.
But the trend could also in part be based on the mistaken belief, or fear, that the dominant national identity of a country is diluted or lost as a result of an influx of immigrants who might change the fabric of a society, including the basic linguistic and cultural characteristics upon which a modern democracy and its rule of law is based.
It seems that new immigrants who have poorly integrated into host societies are viewed as a threat, that they want to impose their imported identities, which is an easy rallying cry for the far right.
Dutch voters, like many Europeans before them, are the latest to have succumbed to those fears, which are magnified by a highly charged social media environment, sometimes deliberately manipulated to incite. This played on voters’ emotions and helped to propel longtime rabble-sourer Geert Wilders and his anti-immigrant, anti-Islam, anti-EU Party for Freedom to victory in last week’s parliamentary elections.
It seems that new immigrants who have poorly integrated into host societies are viewed as a threat
It took 37 of the 150 seats in the parliament, followed by the joint Labour-Green ticket on 25 seats, and the conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, which was previously the largest single party in the parliament and led the ruling coalition, on just 24.
If Wilders can muster enough support among the 16 smaller parties elected to the new Dutch parliament to gain a majority, not only the Netherlands but Europe as a whole could be entering a new phase of its history in which populist, far-right narratives are normalized and legitimized in core politics.
As much as migration is viewed as a problem, the question here is more about the continued viability of the EU project, which is increasingly being called into question by once-marginalized but now empowered political voices across Europe.
Wilders has said he wants to put the country first and “give the Netherlands back to the Dutch,” a hollow but rousing mantra similar to former US President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, or Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni’s demand to put “Italy and Italians first.”
The danger for the EU, and liberal democracy as a whole throughout the bloc, is that the chorus of voices at the leaders’ table could soon be dominated by those who, in essence, have long been doubters of the European project and now are working to erode its unity from within by evoking fear of a “migration tsunami” in this unprecedented era when many adversities conspire to unravel the European project entirely.
The European Commission’s reaction to the success of Wilders’ party in last week’s election was calm. It said it was not worried and continues to count on the Netherlands, a founding member of the EU, as a “strong participant” in the bloc’s affairs.
But Brussels certainly should be worried about the overall unity of the bloc, including its continued ability to support Ukraine in resisting Russia’s full-scale invasion, which is directly and openly aimed at undermining the EU project.
Despite recent setbacks for the hard right in Poland and Spain, the hard-right movement continues to gain ground across Europe and so it would be overly simplistic to dismiss Wilders’ election success as just some sort of nostalgic nationalism, or as populism that has newly emerged as a reaction to migration fears, or as a result of a cost-of-living crisis that is battering households in this age of dwindling resources.
Wilders’ rhetoric might have been easy to dismiss in the early 2000s, when his inflammatory anti-Islam, anti-EU stance required that he live under constant police protection. His rise to prominence and legitimacy, however, comes after Austria became the first nation in Western Europe to lurch to the right since the Second World War.
Wilders is expected to struggle to form a government, and might well fail, but his party’s election success has reverberated strongly across the region among leading voices of the far right, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and French opposition leader Marine Le Pen.
Domestic and localized frustrations — exacerbated by rising inflation, the fallout from the war in Ukraine, surging immigration, growing inequalities in society, and the perceived failures of the traditional political elite across Europe — might have conspired to fuel the rise of the hard right but, whatever the reasons, we cannot simply dismiss this global movement that continues to take shape and magnify populist, isolationist narratives worldwide.
Javier Milei, a far-right economist and TV pundit won the presidential election in Argentina in October this year. Eric Zemmour was an, ultimately unsuccessful, candidate in the 2022 French presidential election. And, of course, Donald Trump, who might yet return to the White House in next year’s election, is considered by many the patron of right-wing, anti-immigrant, isolationist and demagogic nationalism.
The results of the Dutch election leave me in no doubt that the presence of the far right around the table of decision-makers in Western countries is on its way to becoming the new normal for years to come. It is likely to replace, I am afraid, the traditional narrative based on the concepts of social cohesion, unity, security, stability and prosperity that inspired the forefathers of the European project in the years after the bloodbath of the Second World War.
The voices of reason that remain within the EU need to realize this if they are to have a chance of neutralizing this existential threat to the future of the bloc.
- Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist with more than 25 years’ experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy. He is also a media consultant and trainer.