Europe’s politics: volatile and drifting rightwards

Editorial – The Guardian

New research exposes the growing influence of the radical right on more mainstream forces. A counteroffensive is overdue

The taxation of property in the eastern German state of Thuringia would normally be a subject of strictly local concern. But last week a vote to cut stamp duty in the regional parliament in Erfurt made national headlines. Ignoring a cross-party taboo on collaborating with the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party, local Christian Democrats and liberals co-opted its support to force the measure through. Loud condemnation duly followed. But with the AfD running second in national polls, there are grounds for fearing that this will not be the last occasion on which the cordon sanitaire surrounding the party is breached.

The Thuringia vote is just one sign of changing and volatile times in European politics, as the radical right expands its influence on the mainstream. New PopuList research by 100 political scientists in 31 countries, reported in our new digital Europe edition, finds that almost one-third of Europeans voted for anti-establishment parties in national elections held last year. Half of that number voted for the far right, which is increasing its vote share among these disaffected voters most rapidly. Illiberal, nationalist parties hold power in Italy, Hungary and Poland. They have a share of it in Finland and Sweden and anti-establishment forces have every chance of acquiring it in forthcoming elections in the Netherlands and Slovakia. Austria’s Freedom party, ostracised at the time of its emergence in the 1990s, is well ahead in the polls, with elections due next year.

As Europe seeks to meet immense challenges relating to migration, the transition to net zero and growing geopolitical instability, the trend is deeply concerning. A nativist hostility to immigration still drives most radical-right parties. But the researchers found that the climate emergency, the cost of living crisis, various culture wars and post-lockdown conspiracy theories have allowed them to diversify and forge new coalitions of voters.

Perhaps most insidiously, the higher profile of the radical right is normalising agendas that until recently would have been seen as beyond the pale. The AfD – which has embraced climate change denialism in the past – has successfully weaponised anxieties about net zero measures, orchestrating a backlash which (as in Britain) is seeping into mainstream politics. Italy’s prime minister  , Giorgia Meloni, hopes to use next year’s European elections to effect a merger between the centre right and her own radical-right grouping in the European parliament. Should that project succeed, ensuring that EU values and norms are upheld in countries such Viktor Orbán’s Hungary and a Law and Justice-led Poland will become even harder.

Europe’s apparent rightwards drift is not a fait accompli. But there is a risk that, as mainstream parties accommodate more and more of the radical right’s agenda, it becomes one. Years of austerity, followed by the pandemic and the Ukraine-related cost of living crisis, have led to chronic economic insecurity for less well-off Europeans. That has created an opening for ugly political movements and populist leaders to exploit. In Poland, for example, which goes to the polls in a few weeks’ time, the Law and Justice party has ruthlessly demonised minorities and irregular migrants, but also offered generous welfare benefits to struggling families. If progressive forces are to shift the dial in a more inclusive, liberal direction, they will need to restore faith in the capacity of mainstream politics to deliver in anxious economic times. The latest PopuList research underlines the urgency of the task.