The biggest threat to the European idea is not the Eurozone crisis, it is a new breed of far right thinking that defines Europe through the very ideas it was meant to transcend. E&M looks at the current state and influence of far right politics in Europe.
The Eurozone crisis is being heralded as the downfall of the European Union. But the far more dangerous influences lie on the fringes of mainstream politics. The far right are back from oblivion, they’ve got a new mainstream face, and it’s European.
A tragedy in Norway, a wider threat
On the 22nd July 2011 Anders Breivik walked into a summer youth camp in Utøya, Norway and killed 69 young left-wing activists. It was a politically motivated killing spree that shook Europe and refocused attention to the extreme right of the political spectrum. Yet it is the far right political movements, often seen as the acceptable face of fascism, rather than the spontaneous outbursts of violence that hold the real threat to Europe.
Having given up on extreme violence and donned the suit of a politician, a wide range of far right politicians issued condemnations of Breivik’s act. These included prominent Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who described Breivik as ‘violent and sick’. Yet those same politicians who publicly denounced his violent means would also find a lot in common with the central ideas of Breivik’s 1,467 page manifesto ‘A European declaration of Independence’.
Acting as the call to a European civil war, Breivik’s manifesto displays a familiar brand of anti-immigration, anti-Islamic populism that has taken root in many rightist movements across Europe. Based upon the claim that Islamic culture is not compatible with Western European civilisation, it argues for a long term campaign to remove it from European countries. Whilst Breivik’s invocation of defensive war may be more violently extreme than anything the far right would suggest, it is the essence of what Wilders argued for when he called for the expulsion of Muslims who ’cause problems, and their whole family’ and an immediate halt to immigration into the Netherlands from Muslim countries.
The new far right
A broad consensus exists among far right parties that emphasises Islam as a dangerous and alien culture that is fundamentally incompatible with the West. In particular they emphasise that the implementation of sharia law is a natural consequence of Islam’s presence in Europe – Islam often being conflated with a radical Islamist variation. Futhermore, they argue that the state policy of multiculturalism is, instead of promoting cultures living together, leading to ‘the ongoing Islamic colonisation of Europe’, in which western culture is being placed under threat.
Key tropes of cultural annihilation are being harnessed by the far right to provoke people’s fear of the relatively new complexity in their societies brought on by a rapidly globalising world. In response, parties such as the British National Party and Front Nationale posit a wave of direct, seemingly simple measures to reverse the consequences of immigration into European countries. These include policies against the building of mosques, bans on importing halal meat, and the promise to end a perceived tide of foreign immigration.
Increasingly even the most ardent proponents of national values are adopting a wider understanding of what they are fighting for.
Furthermore, far right groups harness the ideology of populism (of the ‘people’) to distinguish themselves from the mainstream parties. As academic Cas Mudde has argued, populism emerges from promising to protect ‘the pure people’, the mass population, from ‘the corrupt elite’, who are implicated in the corrosive effects of multiculturalism. Breivik himself claims that ‘90% of EU and national parliamentarians and more than 95% of journalists’ are complicit in a conspiracy to undermine the greater cultural will of the people and should be executed for treason. By challenging mainstream parties as being unrepresentative and out of touch with the ‘common man’ they present a compelling narrative in order to capitalise on both the fears and feelings of disenfranchisement present in this politically challenging time.
A transnational phenomenon
Breivik’s manifesto complicates this growing consensus on what the far right represents and how it operates. Conventional wisdom would suggest that in appealing to the image of a ‘pure people’ the far right would adopt a traditionally national framing. And to some extent this is true; groups like the English Defence League display their perspective of what constitutes English culture through images of St. George. Yet there is a reason that Breivik’s manifesto is that of a European people under threat.
In an excellent article, academic Thomas Hegghammer argues that Breivik’s thinking is an example of ‘macro-nationalism’, a variant of nationalism that perceives nation-states as clustered together through a collective shared identity. These shared identities can be defined with terms like ‘the west’ or ‘European’. Heggammer says that Breivik should therefore be considered separately from the mainstream right wing nationalists, but I would argue that increasingly even the most ardent proponents of national values are adopting a wider understanding of what they are fighting for.
Formal transnational connections already exist between many far right parties within the European parliament. When the Polish BNP, French Front Nationale and the Hungarian Jobbik were all elected to power in the 2009 elections they formed the ‘Alliance of European National Movements’. This represented the first European party consisting of similar anti-EU, and some more explicit anti-Islamic, political voices. In their joint declaration they promised to collaborate to uphold the individuality of their national cultures and tackle the ‘destructive effects of globalisation’.
The alliance of far right parties has formed a network for the sharing of ideas and political strategies for national elections. Rather than the ‘rise of the far right’ emerging as separate national parties that simply stand opposed to the EU, we see that the parties are in fact using the arena in which to develop their trade. As such, the way far right parties operate and the ideas that they bring forward from the fringes of the mainstream are not born in isolation but are subject to wider European influences.
The Europeanising of the right is even more prominent in non-formal political groups. Since the founding of the English Defence League in 2009, a number of other ‘leagues’ have emerged in Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, France, Germany and Denmark. They hold in common the commitment to stop what they call ‘radical Islam’s encroachment into the lives of non-Muslims’ and all commit to ‘join with others who share our values, wherever they are in the world’ (EDL, mission statement). This was formalisd into a so called ‘European Defence League’ in an Amsterdam meeting to support Geert Wilders in 2010. Whilst each national league uses their own key national symbols, collectively they display a belief in the need to defend European countries from the wider Islamification of the continent. As such, they could be described as Macro-nationalist in spirit, if not in their primary intent.
The Europe of the far right is interconnected, transnational and collaborative. But this does not mean that these groups create an image of Europe in the same way as you or me. If anything, they subvert the familiar image of Europe as the ‘melting pot’ of different cultures. This image implies that each culture should be considered equally profitable and indivisible within the larger framework of Europe. In stark contrast Geert Wilders has directly critiqued this notion that cultures are equal and accused the Netherlands of suffering from an ‘equality syndrome’ in which the ‘inequal case’ of Islam is given the same status as the resident culture.
Far right movements have a distinct view of Europe as a continent divided beween a resident and a foreign culture. Carving up the multicultural reality of the current EU, they emphasise the difference between the domestic, Judeo-Christian based heritage of past centuries, and the inferior ‘foreign’ cultures emerging from the East, now resident in the European Union. Believing globalisation to be pitching the civilisations against one another and the traditional cultures of each European country to be under a dire threat from Islam, each national movement has emerged to defend their patch of Europe. As such the far right can be said to have a European conception and even a transnational scope in its actions, but their Europe is based on fear and intolerance, and represents a very different image to the European dream of 1945.
The spectre remains
The spectre of the far right hangs perpetually over Europe. Far from being limited to the nationalist skin heads of the past, though, the new far right involves a complex network of politicians and protest movements that lean on the edges of mainstream politics. There are thus sharp differences between the lone murderer Breivik and the far right groups of Europe, primarily in the refusal to endorse violence to pursue political aims. Instead, far right parties attempt to operate within the existing political framework, albeit undermining mainstream politics with populist calls on the ‘true’ people of the nation who they claim are forgotten. In a globalising world, an element of these claims may be true, but nevertheless the current positions of the far right are based on an ideology of anti-immigration and anti-Islamic rhetoric, intolerance that is used to sharpen the lines of a perceived superior and inferior culture.
Ask any far right supporter in England if they consider themselves to be European and they will deny it outright. But the emergence of multiple Defense leagues across the continent and their subsequent collaboration suggests that far right movements do have a transnational perspective to their purpose. Whilst the use of national symbols may suggest that the ‘pure’ people are understood to be English, Dutch, French etc., there is a new understanding amongst far right groups that their conflict has a European dimension.
Their definition of what Europe is varies greatly from the mainstream conceptions of what we are. They perceive an endangered domestic culture of the nation state under threat from the foreign, radical, Islamist influence. In attempting to fight this perceived threat they have subverted one of the guiding aims of Europe after 1945, tolerance. Theirs is an image of Europe that cannot be ignored and must instead be dealt with through debate. What is clear though is that the spectre of the far right remains and it is here in a different, European form.
Cover Photo: Laubfrosch Licence: CC BY-ND