Analysis: A far-right European Union could be around the corner


Five years ago, Spain’s foreign minister explained why his country had so far resisted the siren song of right-wing populism. “We have been vaccinated by the [Spanish] civil war and by the long years of [Francisco] Franco’s dictatorship,” Josep Borrell told me in an interview in Washington, arguing that Spain’s turbulent experience of anti-democratic, fascist rule inoculated it from the “virus” of ascendant nativism and illiberalism seen in some of its European neighbors.

Half a decade later, Borrell, now the European Union’s top diplomat, may be wondering whether the continent – and, in particular, his nation – is in need of a booster dose.

Spanish voters go to the polls Sunday in a snap election that could well see the far right return to power for the first time since the era of Franco’s dictatorship, which fell almost a half century ago. Opinion polls show the right-wing establishment People’s Party (PP) ahead of Spain’s center-left Socialists, who have been in power in coalition governments for the past eight years. But if given a mandate to form the next government, the PP will likely need support from ultranationalist Vox, a party to which some PP politicians vowed never to find common cause.

Vox is a faction that’s a little more than a decade old. It emerged from the far-right fringes, steeped in an ethos of Catholic traditionalism, animosity to Catalonian and Basque separatism, antipathy to migration, climate science denialism, and ideological fury at pro-feminist and pro-LGBTQ+ laws and protections in Spanish society. Despite the PP’s initial aversion to Vox, the more mainstream right-wing party has in the last couple years allied with the latter to form a handful of local and regional governments.

Now, Vox’s particular brew of 21st-century culture warring and 20th-century illiberalism has earned it a solid base of some 10 to 15 percent of the Spanish vote. It’s a bloc that’s no longer on the margins of Spanish politics and may determine the fate and agenda of the country’s next government. That’s certainly the warning of Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who urged voters to opt against bringing the values of former president Donald Trump or former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, both far-right firebrands, to the halls of power in Madrid.

But never mind the politics across the Atlantic. The developments in Spain mark only the latest, albeit perhaps most striking, chapter in a larger European story. Steadily, far-right parties once considered beyond the pale have entered into the continent’s mainstream and in many places wield genuine power. Illiberal nationalists already rule in Italy, Poland and Hungary, and support governments in Finland and Sweden. The far-right is surging in Austria and Germany – where, dramatically, recent polls show the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, overtaking the ruling Social Democrats and their allies, the Greens.

There’s no single source for the momentum of powering these movements. In a recent essay in the Journal of Democracy, German political scientist Michael Bröning pointed to a “collapse of trust” in political institutions that is “compounded by an extraordinary lack of optimism” felt by many in the European public, certainly in Germany. In such a gloomy void, far-right nativists offer a simpler, emotive appeal than their establishment counterparts.

“As the soft-spoken nationalism of mainstream European parties made it impossible to integrate the continent and erect a continental public power that would respond to the many worries of Europeans, the far right has stepped in with its overt, aggressive ethnic nationalism, offering the masses intimidated and confused by the problems of the modern era a familiar place of shelter: the ethnic nation,” wrote Italian academics Lorenzo Marsili and Fabrizio Tassinari.

Meanwhile, the far right in quite a few European countries has co-opted or supplanted the center right that once held sway. The most illustrative case in point is Italy, whose Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni leads a party that can trace its political lineage to Italy’s 20th century neofascist movement. “The distinction between what is the mainstream right and what is the far right is less and less clear,” Pietro Castelli Gattinara, an Italian scholar of the far right, explained in an interview last year. “It’s also more difficult to set apart the European model from what we’re seeing in the U.S. and in other parts of the world, where similarly, the distinction is becoming less and less clear.”

What’s clearer now than, say, half a decade ago, is that Europe’s far right finds itself closer to continental power and influence. Last week, Meloni beamed virtually into a Vox rally in Spain, urging solidarity among “patriots” in Europe. “It is crucial that a conservative, patriotic alternative be established,” she said. “Europe needs to become aware of its role and influence again to be a political giant instead of a bureaucratic one.”

That larger illiberal vision for Europe is no longer just a fantasy lurking in the demagoguery of fringe populists or the gnarled resentment of politicians like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. “We tend to idealize the E.U. as an inherently progressive or even cosmopolitan project – making it seemingly incompatible with far-right thinking,” wrote Hans Kundnani, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. But, he went on, that implicit faith in the E.U.’s “expression of cosmopolitanism” may have blinded analysts to other political possibilities, including the embrace of a European project tethered more around what he calls “ethnoregionalism,” or a narrow European identity that’s connected to the “idea of whiteness.”

Kundnani added that far-right parties are also defying assumptions around their inability to cooperate and coordinate on the international stage, and, instead, “seem to be cooperating with each other quite effectively – and some may even be willing to accept further integration, for example on migration policy, provided it is on their terms.”

Marsili and Tassinari concur: “As opposed to the superficial Euroscepticism of its previous incarnations, the new European far right increasingly uses Europe, its institutions and its superior negotiating power to its own advantage.”

Spain assumed the rotating presidency of the European Union this month. There’s the distinct possibility that a far-right-backed government may soon be in a commanding position to push policy in Brussels.



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