Europe must wake up to the far-right threat

Europe must wake up to the far-right threat

The election results seem to indicate that fascism, nationalism & the prospect of war are today “en marche” in Europe again -AFP
The election results seem to indicate that fascism, nationalism & the prospect of war are today “en marche” in Europe again -AFP
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If you want to gauge how bad the results of last week’s European Parliament elections were for the future of the EU, its centrality, stability and cohesiveness, look no further than Moscow. Russian politicians gloated over the heavy defeats for the mainstream parties in France and Germany and praised the results achieved by right-wing and ultra-right parties across the bloc.

Russia has never harbored any love for the EU project. But what is sure is that Europe’s nationalist, populist and ultra-right parties have capitalized on voters’ disquiet over spiraling prices, immigration, the war in Ukraine and the cost of the green transition to raise their representation to approaching a quarter of the assembly’s seats.

Most worrying of all is that these parties, who once were the go-to address for marginal, disgruntled, middle-aged white individuals only, have been doing particularly well among younger voters, especially young men. According to a survey conducted before the elections, some 26 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds in France backed Marine Le Pen’s National Rally.

European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen’s complacent statement that “the center is holding” should spell more fear than reassurance. What these elections have demonstrated is the scale of the failure both nationally and within the bloc’s institutions to tame the hard right, as well as to contain the change in attitudes across the union, as people no longer see voting for populist right-wing parties a mere protest or lost vote.

These elections have demonstrated the scale of the failure both nationally and within the bloc’s institutions to tame the hard right

Mohamed Chebaro

Today, these parties claim to speak the language of the common citizen, understanding their fears and grievances and sometimes even stoking them. They have always focused on two issues: one is the sense of failure of the state, its traditional leadership and its diminishing welfare; and the second is the feeling that their countries are being taken over by immigrants and foreigners.

Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown predicted in a newspaper article in April that the rightward drift in EU policies was likely to become a tidal wave after these elections. Brown expressed his fear that the bloc of 27 will have to contend with ultranationalists, demagogues and populist-nationalists, who will force the hand of the political system into more extreme anti-immigration, anti-trade and anti-environment policies.

And the problem is that these populists and demagogues are already leading, with nationalist prime ministers in countries like Hungary, Italy and Slovakia. Right-wing parties are governing or supporting the government in Finland and Sweden and are about to form a government in the Netherlands under the anti-immigrant, anti-Islam Freedom Party of Geert Wilders. Others in France, Germany and Spain are sitting in second place and hoping to get a shot at the top job as their numbers in the polls improve.

This right-wing shift is not just a European problem, it seems, but a global one. With a Trump 2.0 presidency on the horizon, a more aggressive nationalist and protectionist agenda is likely to add more tension to an already volatile world.

In the EU, many believe that many years of low economic growth, which have spurred austerity policies, are one of the key causes of the general feeling of discontent that has seeped into many societies.

The result is a downward loop of frustration, exaggerated by a less than innocent digital realm, leading to pessimism. Later, a blame game is set in motion against the segments of society we think are holding the country’s fortune back, such as the so-called establishment politicians, immigrants, foreigners and minority groups. Meanwhile, the traditional mainstream parties have failed to win the arguments in the face of the “soothing” yet simplistic and empty slogans of the populist extreme-right.

A more aggressive nationalist and protectionist agenda is likely to add more tension to an already volatile world

Mohamed Chebaro

Anyone visiting the major cities of Europe cannot help but notice the increased number of foreigners on their streets. But the majority of migrants are often a crucial part of the labor force in countries with dwindling populations, which have to resort to foreign workers to keep their economy afloat.

During the years of economic boom and prosperity, those immigrants and foreign workers were celebrated as contributors to the growth of the economy and society. In times of economic decline, they often become the catalyst that rallies support for extremist and populist parties, which call them “invaders” and say that “they don’t look or speak like us” and have a poor grasp of their host country’s culture and values.

None of the euroskeptic parties are likely to advocate exiting the EU, a la Brexit, and are instead likely to continue to pull the EU to the right from inside, with even harder lines on immigration, opposition to the green agenda, reduced support for Ukraine and an undermining of EU multilateralism through clawing back national control from Brussels.

But maybe it is not yet time to start packing in preparation to abandon ship, emigrate or leave the EU, as I still believe there is a larger European majority that does not want to lose the best of EU life. They simply need to be mobilized and galvanized to push back. They must not simply accept the narrative that the hard-right parties will eclipse themselves after a few years in power.

Ironically, Europe last week celebrated the 80th anniversary of the Allied troops’ landings in Normandy to rid the continent of war, nationalism and fascism. The election results for the European Parliament seem to indicate, however, that fascism, nationalism and the prospect of war are today “en marche” in Europe again.

National governments and EU institutions should double down on their efforts to win the argument by providing more answers to the uncertainty and fears felt by a large number of Europeans. They should deliver housing for the young, as well as the jobs and life chances many claim they have been denied and the security and safety many are craving. The question is, will Europe and the Europeans wake up before it is too late?

  • Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist with more than 25 years of experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy. He is also a media consultant and trainer.
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