European politics is ripe for a radical right breakthrough

14 Feb 2017

It’s very easy to both comfort and delude yourself with the notion that Europe overwhelmingly opposed Trump’s attempt to impose a partial Muslim ban.


Senior European politicians and much of the press condemned the move, whilst tens of thousands protested against the ban in cities across Europe. It appeared that Europe, with its long history of religious and ethnic hatreds, had seen Trump’s policy for what it was and firmly rejected it.


Unfortunately, this analysis is incorrect.


On 7 February YouGov released a poll of more than 10,000 people from ten European states, asking them if they wanted a ban on ‘all further migration from mainly Muslim countries’. In all ten states more respondents supported a ban on Muslim immigration than opposed it, and in most by a significant margin.


This is just the latest sign that European politics is moving in the direction of the radical right. Those of us who believe in liberal-democratic values should identify this situation, and react accordingly. The European radical right is growing in strength, and could make a breakthrough. We must avoid the mistake of our American counterparts, who failed to appreciate the popularity of Trump’s nationalist-authoritarian politics until it was too late.


We should start with an examination of public opinion, by which I mean real public opinion, rather than demonstrations, or what your friends are posting on social media. The YouGov poll I referenced earlier found that across the ten countries surveyed 55% of respondents wanted a ban on immigration from Muslim countries, whilst only 20% disagreed.


For reference the UK figure was 47% supporting a ban, against 23% who are actively opposed (the remainder were undecided). That means that a majority of Europeans, including a near majority of Brits, back a policy which is significantly more restrictive than the ‘Muslim ban’ Trump actually attempted to impose.


Trump’s ban was theoretically limited to 90 days, and only targeted seven Muslim majority countries rather than all of them. We need to confront the fact that, for whatever reason, anti-Islamic sentiment is now rife across Europe. And it’s contributing to a significant resurgence of the radical right.


European states, and especially Western/Central European states, are confronting a number of difficulties which have combined to present a systemic challenge.


Fundamental flaws in the Eurozone remain unresolved, resulting in high unemployment in several European states, whilst there is a very real possibility that the Eurozone crisis could soon re-erupt.


The political mainstream have long failed to reflect the level of public anxiety over immigration and associated cultural change. This is now being combined with the threat from home-grown Islamic fundamentalists, and the aftershock of the 2015-16 refugee crisis, to threaten the postbellum European order. That order is already fragile after Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the entrenchment of authoritarian-nationalist governments in Poland and Hungary. It could be about to get much worse.


The radical right has the potential to make a breakthrough in several European countries this year.


The far-right party Dutch Freedom Party could come first in next month’s Dutch Parliamentary election, though it’s unlikely to end up in Government. The leader of the Party, Geert Wilders, wants to ban the Koran - the Freedom Party is not simply a Dutch equivalent of UKIP soft populism.


More dramatically Marine Le Pen of the Front National has a serious chance of winning the French Presidential election in May 2017. Having France led by an authoritarian nationalist would upend the current European order. Le Pen wants to take France out of the Eurozone, NATO and possibly the EU itself.


Even if both the Dutch Freedom Party and Front National fall short this year they are almost certainly going to make gains. It increasingly looks like it’s a matter of when, not if, a west or central European country elects a government or head of state of the radical right.


The radical right threatens the current European order, and  many liberal-democratic politicians are underestimating the threat. There’s been a widespread misreading of public opinion in Europe, on issues like Trump’s partial Muslim ban, which have resulted in the political mainstream dramatically underestimating the popularity of nationalist-authoritarian policies.


The American political mainstream made exactly the same mistake. They were convinced that Trump’s latest outrageous comment, whether about women, Mexicans or Muslims, would finish him because it was so unacceptable amongst those they knew well.


The status quo is looking increasingly unsustainable. 





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