When the New is Not So New: The Radical Right in Europe Today

Political observers and analysts always seem to be on the lookout for the ‘new’; that new political movement – on the right, or left, or even in the middle – marking a significant break with the past and telling us much about how politics will be in the future. Nowhere is this more common than in discussions about radical right movements and ideologies.  In the United Kingdom, the growing political presence of the British National Party has been largely attributed to the way it has developed a ‘new’ approach and therefore sanitised itself. And some are arguing that if there is a majority ‘yes’ vote’ in the 5 May referendum on the alternative vote proposal, this will be of great benefit to the BNP. What has happened in the UK is seen as part of a wider development of a ‘new’ radical right politics across much of Europe, of which the party of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, the Party of Freedom (PVV), is regarded as its most important example.

But a persuasive and sober assessment of what’s new in the ‘new’ radical right in Europe today, written for openDemoracy by Professor Cas Mudde, a veteran and highly perceptive expert on far right politics in Europe, casts serious doubt on whether the ‘new’ label is appropriate.

This new movement, some have argued, is ‘able to overcome its external and internal isolation by downplaying classic ethnic nationalism and focusing primarily on Islamophobia’, writes Professor Mudde. ‘The phenomenon is said to encompass two types of organisation: old radical-right parties that have transformed themselves, and entirely new formations.’ Professor Mudde adds: ‘The new radical right has, it is said, de-emphasised ethnic nationalism and embraced the United States and (particularly) Israel, reflecting the importance of its acquired view that there is a “clash of civilisations” between the west and global Islam.’

The genuinely new organizations and parties that have emerged have ‘even reach[ed] out to domestic ethnic minorities in their Islamophobic struggle’ and also to international collaborators. The PVV and English Defence League (EDL) have found collaborators in the US among neo-conservative and islamophobic activists and the EDL has found some sympathy among some small extreme right Jewish groups.

The propensity for pockets of Jewish opinion to be seduced by the sanitised radical right expressing regret for the Holocaust, admiration for Israel and struggling against Islam is a worrying phenomenon to which I and others have drawn attention in recent years. However, it is mostly the heirs of pre-war fascist parties and groups, such as the Alliance National in Italy and the Danish People’s Party (DFP), which have adopted these new positions.

But Mudde argues that this does not mean that ‘a new unholy alliance is emerging on the radical right’. First, despite the change of rhetoric – ‘Muslim’ exchanged for ‘Turk’ – the core business of these parties remains ethnic nationalism. Second, the new forces don’t see eye-to-eye and some of the individual parties, such as the PVV and the DFP, try to plough their own furrow, seeking allies outside of the some of the traditional radical right forces. Third, even Geert Wilders now appears not so new. He has ‘exchanged his more elitist conservatism for an outright populist welfare-chauvinism’ and now antagonistically targets East European, as well as Muslim, immigrants. ‘In short,’ Mudde writes, ‘Wilders has changed into a populist radical-right politician, combining nativism, authoritarianism and populism – just like the old radical right.’

There is no collaborative ‘new radical right’ overtaking Europe. ‘Ethnic nationalism is still the core ideological feature of all major radical-right players, and ideology and personality still prevent close inter-party cooperation.’ Professor Mudde concludes: ‘The new radical right that emerged in the 1980s might feel old by now. But it is still largely the same as it ever was, and it is here to stay for some time yet.’ And certainly the near implosion of the BNP in recent months, revealing how skin-deep its ‘new’, sanitised image always was, supports Mudde’s thesis.

The message here is not, and it not meant to be, in any sense comforting. The Islamophobic agenda remains very pervasive. It’s just that anti-Muslim racism has not replaced more traditional forms of ethnic prejudice. Islamophobia may have pushed them to one side to some degree, but they remain at the heart of radical right ideology and show signs of returning to a more central ideological position.

One country where the ideas 0f more traditional far-right groups and parties have swung into the mainstream is Hungary, as Professor István Deak dsturbingly explained in a recent article in the New York Review of Books. Not only did Jobbik, a far-right, racist and xenophobic party, get almost as many votes as the Socialists in the last general election, with nearly one million votes out of a total of 6.3 million, the authoritarian, exclusivist nationalism of the ruling Fidesz party, headed by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, is being defended against attack by a newspaper close to the government ‘using the time-honored Hungarian rightist argument that only Jews and their hirelings could be evil enough to criticize Hungary.’

Orbán’s brand of anti-democratic, populist conservatism, that is suspicious of foreign influences and ‘left-liberal intellectuals’, is genuinely worrying. Since the collapse of communism in 1989, Hungarian politics has lurched from right to left and back again, and racist and antisemitic groups have at times appeared to be gaining influence. But matters never seemed to go beyond the point of no return and the Hungarian political system managed to contain bouts of more extreme and exclusivist political fervour. But as Professor Deák says, ‘For all practical purposes, Hungary has become a one-party state.’ And that party’s philosophy emphasizes ‘family, faith and order’, the ‘role of Christianity and of the Holy Crown of Saint Stephen in preserving the nation’ and ‘the unity of national culture’.

The European Union has already exerted its influence in getting the government to moderate an anti-freedom of expression Hungarian media law, so a slide towards the grave weakening of Hungary’s democratic institutions, which Professor Deák quite rightly says would be ‘a tragedy’, is not certain. And the EU should be able to play a significant role in drawing attention to strengthening radical right political groups across Europe as a whole. Both the Commission and the European Parliament are in a position to do this. However, the EU has been greatly weakened in recent years as a result of the continent-wide backlash against further integration, the growing gulf between Sarkozy’s France and Merkel’s Germany and the twin challenges of dealing with financial and economic crises and the upheavals in the Arab world – and not dealing with them very well at all. This means that there is fertile ground in which the radical right can grow and governments and European institutions are distracted by other problems and priorities such that they are not fully able or wiling to tackle the threat.

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