Economics only part of the solution

By Matthew Goodwin, May 28, 2014
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Once again, the far right is dominating Europe’s media and political debate.

The latest set of European Parliament elections has seen significant gains by parties that are commonly included in the far-right family.

In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Front won the election outright, attracting one in four voters. In Germany, the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party won representation. In Greece, the openly neo-Nazi Golden Dawn entered Parliament with three seats, and in Hungary, the antisemitic and anti-Roma Jobbik retained its three seats.

However disturbing, these gains were broadly predicted and point to significant challenges.

Voters feel that their identity, values and way of life are under threat

One of the biggest myths is that the rise of these parties has been fuelled simply by the post-2008 economic crisis.

The reality is rather different: the extreme right in Europe has been rallying support at least since the 1970s, benefiting from the way in which specific social groups have felt left behind in the shift towards globalisation.

Increasingly, these voters who share intense levels of anxiety over immigration, the state of their domestic politics and rapid social change have become increasingly unwilling to offer their loyalty to the established political class.

This has coincided with a period of European political history in which levels of public trust in political leaders have reached an all-time low.

While many commentators continue to link the far right’s appeal to concerns over scarcity of jobs, housing and welfare, research in the social sciences has shown how its roots are far more complex.

Financial anxieties are important but they take us only so far. Central to understanding the appeal of Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, the Sweden Democrats and even the Golden Dawn in Greece are feelings among disadvantaged voters that their identity, values and ways of life are under threat from rapid social change, immigration, ethnic minorities and, increasingly, Islam. These cultural concerns cannot be resolved simply by underscoring the economic benefits of migration or membership of the EU.

The challenge facing Europe’s political leaders will increase if they try to resolve these cultural grievances only through an economic narrative. Our politicians need to work harder.

In contrast to earlier decades, modern far-right leaders also recognise the need to adopt a professional strategy and moderate their language. Increasingly, the most successful of these parties have distanced themselves from the naked extremism of Golden Dawn in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary and the National Democratic Party of Germany, which are all aligned with violent neo-Nazi and paramilitary groups.

These more extreme cases are unlikely to build a sustainable force in the same way that Marine Le Pen is quickly building a resilient electoral coalition. It is these more sophisticated forms of right-wing extremism in Europe that pose the most pressing challenge to Europe’s political leaders, and one that we must all work harder to resolve.

Dr Matthew Goodwin is associate professor of politics at Nottingham University

Last updated: 4:52pm, May 29 2014