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What is “far right” in Europe?

Right of the traditional centre-right liberals (ALDE) and the European People’s Party (EPP), there has been an ever-surging crowd for some years now. But, what is far right? Is it xenophobia, Euro-skepticism, anti-Islamic convictions, or could it merely be us? Could it be that the far right is no longer that far, but in fact mainstream, because electorates rather than parties are turning more to the right? Put otherwise, could it be that mainstream parties, left and right, are increasingly converging to a right-wing agenda.

Anti-Federalism and xenophobia

The European Conservatives and Reformists call themselves “sovereigntists” and were founded by the British Prime Minister, David Cameron.  The movement holds certain libertarian principles. But, in declaring allegiance to free enterprise, trade, competition, minimal regulation, low taxation, small government, including an ever smaller but allegedly effective welfare state, one would be in good company both ALDE and the EPP. In most EU member states, one could hold on to these values and feel comfortable with Social Democratic parties, save for titles like “General Secretary.” By the same token, a commitment to liberal democracy, “family values,” and the transatlantic partnership (NATO) are mainstream for decades.

What makes right-of-centre parties distinct is, allegedly, an entrenchment in the nation-state, a fixation with local rural communities, an explicit opposition to EU federalism, and a nearly obsessive opposition to immigration. However, one finds hard to believe that Mr Orban would see the company of Bernd Lucke or Beata Szylo objectionable. Although he might find David Cameron a bit too soft, he is certainly less aggravating than Angela Merkel, when it comes to migration policy.

The group, of course, suffers from (national?) ideological cleavages, like any group in the European Parliament. The alleged commitment of the British Conservatives to green politics – treating nuclear power as “green energy” – would not go well with the Polish Pis insistence with carbon as a “national” or “strategic” fuel. But, that is not a disagreement that would divide the group, because the environment is not a core value.

What is at the heart of the group is an eclectic relationship with the project of European Integration and xenophobia. None of these parties would voluntary sign up to the European Monetary Union, which is considered a failure or allow Syrians to cross their national borders in any significant numbers.  But, an objection to asylum seekers is quite a “mainstream.” The Social Democrat Roberto Fico would also feel at ease in ECR when it comes to migration policy. During the Danish legislative elections in June 2015, the Social Democratic candidate and incumbent Prime Minister, Helle Thorning Schmidt, spent a good time of her campaign explaining how she planned to reduce the number of asylum seekers in Denmark and run an anti-immigration campaign featuring posters bearing the motto “If you come to Denmark, you must work.” Previously, as a Prime Minister, Helle Thorning Schmidt introduced a new type of temporary asylum seeker residence permit that would allow the deportation of asylum seekers as soon as conditions in their own country were perceived to be better, independently of the course of their life in Denmark.

The British Conservatives, the Polish PiS and the Alternative for Germany stand shoulder to shoulder in Europe, which they find “instrumental” rather than central to their identity. Europe is but the means to an end, an export market, a source of funding for farmers – a strong constituency for all three parties – and perhaps as the second pillar to the Euro-Atlantic architecture. But, Europe is also dangerous, if it obliges them to accept asylum seekers. But, there is nothing far about this right.

In fact, parties with the “brand” far right are in a sense willing to meet this traditional or moderate right half way. Europe waited until December 5th, 2015 to be shocked by Front National. But, that is naïve. Since February 2015, FN never fared below 29% on the polls, which suggests that the terrorist attacks in Paris had very little to do with their success. If anything, the peak of Front National was in March 2015, when polls gave FN 33%. After all, Marine Le Pen is no longer the anti-Semitic and violently thuggish devil her father used to be. She portrays herself as defending “the Republic” and laïcité, against Islamic terrorism and Europe.

A love affair with Russia

In many respects, the cleavage between the British-dominated ECR and the French-dominated Europe of Nations and Freedoms (ENF) is more historic than substantial. However, there is a cleavage of substance, and that is a relationship with Russia. The relationship with Russia is what in effect if not in principle draws the fine line between ”sovereigntists” and nationalists in Europe.

Russia appeals to far-right parties in Austria, Belgium, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Italy, France, Greece, Germany, or the United Kingdom. This is not only a relationship founded on ideological and programmatic affinity: some of these parties have admitted direct financial support from Russia. In February 2014, Mrs Le Pen confirmed that Front National took a € 9,4 million loan channelled by the First Czech-Russian Bank in Moscow and, separately, Mrs. Le Pen personally took a second €2-million loan from a company in Cyprus linked to the Kremlin.

But, is this “extreme” or “far-right”? Not really, if one had the memory to recall the relationship between Mr Berlusconi and Mr Putin.  The ideological fascination with the Kremlin’s strongman is no longer a “fringe phenomenon.” Days before the Paris attacks, Sarkozy flew to Moscow to meet President Vladimir Putin. That is not a “momentary mistake.” In July, Thierry Mariani, and ten other centre-right Republican Party MPs arrived in Crimea, the Ukrainian territory annexed by Russia. Before paying this “private” visit, the French Republicans had met Russian MPs in Moscow.

Russia’s attraction too is becoming mainstream, if not in Eastern Europe, then in France, Italy, Britain, Greece, and elsewhere in Europe, not for its own sake, but for its anti-systemic quality. From time to time, a little money also helps as well. But, it is the idea that the state, any state, can resist playing by the rules of an increasingly globalised economy appears appealing, to the right, but also to the left, all the way to Syriza. 

In this sense, Mr Sarkozy, who has rebranded himself a Republican, is very much like Donald Trump, who finds in the association of personal leadership, power, and the state, something very French, very Gaullist, but ultimately also very right, in the most profound sense of the tradition. In December, Vladimir Putin branded Donald Trump “flamboyant,” “talented,” and the “absolute leader”; in turn, Donald Trump went on to call Vladimir Putin “a highly respected leader” with whom he could work together to boost trade and security ties, “defeating terrorism and restoring world peace…” In sum, when it comes to the very populist right, it takes one, to know one.

So what’s the far right?  

A French focus group study published in November suggests that 40% of the French would welcome an authoritarian government. Depending on how one understands authoritarianism, this number could be closer to 60%. The study conducted by Ifop engaged over 1000 French adults and involved polling of groups divided according to their party preference – National Front, Republican, Socialists, far left – and asked to what extend they agree or disagreed with the following statement: “Some people think that France should undergo deep reforms to avoid decline but not a single politician elected by universal majority vote has the courage to make good on these reforms; and in this respect the future direction of the country has to be entrusted to an authoritarian political power, which may even weaken the democratic methods of control [of the people] over the government.”

Authoritarianism appeals to 60% of FN voters and 47% of Republican voters (Sarkozy), but also a surprising 33% of socialist voters. However, the groups were also asked whether the country should be run by “unelected experts who would put in place necessary but unpopular reforms” instead of elected politicians. To this prospect, 67% of respondents reacted positively. Technocratic authoritarianism appeals to 80% of Republican (Sarkozy) supporters, 76% of FN supporters and a resounding 54% of Socialist Party supporters. As far as demographics go, the younger the respondent, the more likely to support autocratic and autocratic-technocratic governments. More men favour autocratic government, but there is no gender divide in the preference for technocratic governance.

In sum, the verdict is out: “we” are the far right, in Europe.