Coming to grips with the proliferation of populist movements in Europe is not a new preoccupation. Right-wing and left-wing protest parties have long been part of the political landscape. Until recently, they have not advanced much beyond the local or regional levels of support and some have almost completely disappeared over time.
Yet today we are seeing the emergence of a larger base for such movements. We’ve seen in the recent elections in France and the Netherlands, when both Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders garnered significant support as well. In both cases, they remain in the opposition. In Germany, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) has just won a presence in a thirteenth state parliament after the elections in North Rhine-Westphalia.
When one looks around Europe, the presence of protest movements is widespread in various degrees and numbers. There are many shared characteristics: a backlash against immigration; a fear of globalization embodied for some in the institutions of the European Union; a nationalist fervor wishing to regain a form of sovereignty, both politically and culturally. On the right side of the spectrum, there is a trend toward authoritarian responses to these threats—and some governments currently embody that trend. But the populist movements circle around the opposition between the common people and elites, the rejection of elected officials, a return to authority and indeed moral values, and an emphasis on national security.
The authors of Far-Right Politics in Europe, a rather academic examination of far-right phenomena, set out to examine the common denominator of the populist movement in Europe, but they also see the need to emphasize the diversity within the broader context. For example, the impact of right-wing movements in Germany since the end of World War II has been constrained by the impact of the Nazi experience on German society in ways that are not comparable to the scenario in France or Holland. However, the authors do suggest that two major tectonic shift in the last fifteen years have contributed to an enhanced movement of populist parties: the 9/11 attacks in the United States and the world financial crisis in 2008-2009. The argument is that these two events unleashed a sense of anxiety and fear about the future while also undermining trust in government and in social institutions. They argue that this has generated a complex series of identity questions which many people are having difficulty answering in Europe. As a result, many find consolation in right-wing leaders and movements as a community with which they can identify.
The authors also argue that the appearance of these movements underline the need for reform in liberal democracies throughout Europe: “in a globalized and uncivil society, where citizens are no longer incorporated into the political realm through trade unions, parties, and churches, there is a demand for a protective enclosure. For the moment, the only path leading in that direction involves a critique of cultural liberalism and a demand for social authoritarianism” (p. 204).
The authors tend to suggest that the appearance of these populist movements provides Europe with the choice to include more people in the democratic process and thereby keep these movements on the periphery of politics. It’s likely that there are a lot more complications and indeed more dangers than they indicate with this argument. In an earlier chapter, they reference the emergence of the fascism that destroyed Europe in the first half of the twentieth century.
To what extent such dangers now might emerge in the twenty-first century is left unanswered in this book. There seems to be a suggestion that as long as the right-wing movement stays out of power it will stay out of inordinate influence. Whether that is true remains to be seen.
Dr. Jackson Janes is the President of AICGS. Follow him on Twitter @DrJJanes.
The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.