In the Netherlands, story of the far-Right in Europe
The political landscape of Europe is steadily changing, and the sheen of Right-wing populism seems here to stay.
In a first in post-war Europe, a far-Right party became part of the governing coalition in Austria in 2000. It sent shockwaves across Europe. Today, over two decades later, the far-Right is no longer a fringe in European politics: Populist anti-establishment parties are gaining ground across the continent.
The latest one is Geert Wilders and his far-Right Party for Freedom (PVV). In the recent elections, it emerged as the single largest party in the Dutch parliament winning 37 of the 150 seats and 23% of vote share. The results followed a snap election that was called after the collapse of outgoing centrist Prime Minister (PM) Mark Rutte’s coalition. Wilders, of course, needs the backing of 76 legislators to become the first far-Right PM of the Netherlands. Even though the path ahead will comprise months of negotiations before a new governing coalition takes shape, the Netherlands may well undergo profound changes as a nation. Wilders advocates for “Nexit” (a Netherlands exit from the European Union), ending military aid to Ukraine, and banning the Quran.
From Hungary’s Viktor Orbán to France’s Marine Le Pen, congratulatory wishes for Wilders poured in from far-Right leaders, suggesting a wider tide across Europe. In Italy, Giorgia Meloni and her Brothers of Italy party preside over the first far-Right government in post-war western Europe; in Finland, the far-Right Finns are in power, and Fidesz has been in office in Hungary since 2010. The Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) is amongst the strongest contenders for upcoming elections next year, and in Germany, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) is ahead of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats. In Greece, three far-Right parties have made it to Parliament, and recent polls in France allude to Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) as the most trusted party. Even in pro-European Union Spain, the far-Right Vox fared well in regional elections, while the conservative Swedish government is supported by the far-Right Sweden Democrats. In Britain, the Tories are tilting to the Right more than ever with their rhetoric on immigration.
The surge in the far-Right’s popularity can be attributed to the 2008 financial crisis and the 2015 migration crisis. A backlash against multiculturalism followed, accompanied by a rise in support of traditional Christian “White” values. More recently, inflation coupled with the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Ukraine war have boosted the prospects of Right-wing groups; these parties sometimes swept elections, at other times finished as junior coalition partners. The spillover of the Israel-Hamas conflict into the streets of Europe has also laid bare the many divisions and security risks in European countries.
Interestingly, the Right-wing rhetoric is illustrative of some key trends. The centre-Right is leaning further to the Right on issues concerning migration and identity and co-opted some of the far-Right’s agenda. For instance, see French President Emmanuel Macron’s hardline rhetoric on Islam. While the mainstream helps in legitimising the far-Right, the far-Right is moderating some of its inflammatory rhetoric. Meanwhile, the Eurosceptics, having learned the cautionary lessons from post-Brexit Britain, now wish to reform the EU from within rather than exit it. A case in point is Meloni, who is working with the EU and supporting the key EU policy on Ukraine.
However, the rise of the Right has implications for decision-making in Brussels, given that the EU functions through consensus. Far-Right figures playing spoiler in polls potentially complicate EU positions on issues such as migration, the Ukraine war, ties with China, and the green transition. The EU elections are scheduled for 2024. If the far-Right becomes kingmakers, it could have profound ramifications for the EU, and for the future of liberal democracy and human rights. The aftershocks could be too many to contain.
The Right owes its success as much to the failures of mainstream political rivals to respond to voter insecurities, especially on the hot-button issue of migration. True, the far-Right has also had some setbacks. The Law and Justice (PiS) party is trailing in Poland while Spain’s Vox lost a large chunk of its seats in Parliament. Yet, the political landscape of Europe is steadily changing, and the sheen of Right-wing populism seems here to stay.
Harsh V Pant is vice president for Studies at Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and Shairee Malhotra is associate fellow, Europe at ORF. The views expressed are personal