Next week, for the first time, the EU will have a major far-right political grouping in the European Parliament. And although it will only rank fifth in size, its influence reaches well beyond the ballot box, writes Faisal Al Yafai.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. He contributed this op-ed for the Syndication Bureau, an opinion and analysis article syndication service that focuses exclusively on the Middle East.
At the start of next week, the new session of the European Parliament will begin, after elections at the end of May. Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) traditionally sit not in the political parties belonging to their national governments, but in wider, cross-national political groups.
Next week, for the first time, the EU will have a major far-right political grouping. Identity and Democracy (ID), as the new group is called, is the brainchild of the two largest far-right parties in the parliament, Italy’s The League and France’s National Rally. They will be joined by far-right MEPs from seven other EU countries. Together, they will be the fifth-largest grouping.
From one perspective, the new grouping is alarming: 73 lawmakers openly adhering to far-right politics. From another, however, it is less dramatic, and only 10% of all the MEPs will belong to ID. However, merely looking at the number of seats is misleading. The influence of the far-right is far more widespread across Europe’s political parties.
It is the most successful political trend in Europe today, with clear and growing momentum. It has achieved that by espousing straightforward – if ultimately unworkable – solutions to real, concrete problems.
The success of the far-right’s ideas is not rooted merely in rhetoric: they address hard realities in the lives of many in Europe today.
The reasons for their remarkable reach lie in a multitude of factors: the sophisticated use of social media, simple political messaging and charismatic leaders. But more than that, it is grounded in the hard realities of Europe’s recent history. Three major shocks have taken place across the European Union this century, which taken together have shaken the established political tribes.
The first was the major EU enlargement of 2004, when 10 countries joined, swiftly followed three years later by Romania and Bulgaria. The effect on the richer, western countries of the EU was enormous: within a few years, millions had moved westwards from the former eastern bloc.
Then came the financial crash of 2008, which stagnated wages and ushered in austerity measures, which hurt already disadvantaged communities. Within a few years, the migrant crisis had begun, culminating in the mass movement of hundreds of thousands of people to Europe, predominantly from African and Asian countries.
Taken together, these shocks have created political conditions that centrist parties could not easily respond to – and to which far-right and populist rhetoric appear to have clear answers.
At the top of that list is immigration. An influx of migrants, both from the Christian east of Europe and majority-Muslim countries, have changed predominantly white working-class districts, bringing with them economic and cultural dislocation.
Immigration poses a challenge for both center-left and center-right parties, but it is a particular challenge for liberals, for whom openness to migration is part of their political DNA. But given the real economic realities of many center-left voting areas, the political parties have adapted, seeking to adopt versions of far-right positions on immigration and so neutralize it as a topic. Rather than stealing the clothes of the far-right, they merely steal the colors.
While immigration is an easier topic for the center-right to deal with, far-right ideas on sovereignty and austerity are harder to deal with. Center-right parties are usually closer to big business and global finance, both traditional bogeymen for the far-right. Austerity is also a problem in the aftermath of the financial crash, with populist parties often promising an increase in welfare spending (through the recovery of funds from the EU or foreign aid budgets). These are harder policies for the center-right to adopt because they would alienate their core voters.
Finding centrist answers to these very real concerns is the major challenge of the moment. Liberal parties, in particular, have tried to wish away immigration issues, only to find themselves hammered at the ballot box.
Those who, instead, have accepted the need for harder-line migration policies – such as Denmark’s Social Democrats, who this month sidelined their far-right challengers with a much harder line on integration, or Spain’s Socialists, who in April won the largest share of the vote by putting “safe, orderly” immigration at the heart of their platform – have found their way back to power.
For now, concern over immigration, cultural changes and other political traits of the far-right are here to stay, because they are founded on hard realities.
The rise of a new far-right grouping within the EU’s parliament only tells part of the story, because their influence doesn’t lie merely in the ballot box. Until centrist parties can find answers to the very real dislocations and dispossessions of millions of Europeans, far-right parties will keep making the political weather – and keep forcing parties across the political spectrum to adapt to save themselves from the storm.