The Rise of a European Far-Right? 4 January 2015

The latest EU elections led to a rise of far-right parties across the spectrum. We speak to Dr Matthew Feldman from the Centre for Fascist, Anti-Fascist and Post-Fascist Studies to understand why.

Is it correct to speak of the rise of the far-right?
Yes, to some extent I do think we are witnessing a rise in the ‘populist’ far-right – which I understand as denoting contemporary, mass-based parties seeking to return candidates at European and national levels – exemplified by the Front National in France.

Is it fair to group all the far-right political parties together? What unites them and what separates them?
To be sure, there are many differences between these movements. A key thing linking all these groups tends to be the use of scapegoating of minorities (such as Roma and Sinti peoples, Jews, Muslims and non-EU migrants). Broadly speaking, those further to the west tend to focus on the phenomenon of immigration and perceived ‘Islamicisation’ – while far-right parties further east (e.g. Bulgaria’s Ataka party, or Hungary’s Jobbik) have tended to be more ‘unreconstructed’ and are often still taken with traditional out-groups like Jews and travellers.

How dangerous is this resurgence of far-right politics?
Above all, this depends on what one means by ‘danger’. In terms of political violence, radical right terrorism is probably now posing the greatest danger in terms of potential loss of life – whether in the case of small ‘cells’ like the National Socialist Underground in Germany, or the ‘lone-wolf’ attacks in Norway by Anders Breivik on 22nd July 2011. Yet other forms of ‘danger’ may also exist: whether in terms of straining policing budgets and community cohesion as seen by street based movements – such as the recent rise of ‘Defence Leagues’, based on the English Defence League – or the so-called ‘counter-jihad’ movement that is closely affiliated, but which also has an oversized presence online. Then there is the ‘danger’ that might be seen at a political level with groups gaining parliamentary representation (or MEPs), which has long been the case, for example, in Italy with groups ranging from the Tricolor Flame to the Northern League.

Are these far-right groups also fascist groups? Or are they something new altogether?
In terms of distinguishing between far-right and neo-fascist, this has long been a subject of debate in the academic community. By way of shorthand, neo-fascist movements tend to be more overtly willing to draw upon the historical experiences of interwar fascist movements.

Some of these do so in very explicit ways, like the CasaPound movement in Italy – who refer to themselves as ‘Fascists of the Third Millennium’. In contrast, many groups which some scholars now refer to as the ‘new far-right’ have consciously tried to distance themselves from the legacies of fascism, and often use the language of democracy in advocating a more exclusive form of liberalism. Here, a good example is Geert Wilders’ PVV in Holland, which accepts certain historically marginalized groups (such as Jews and homosexuals), while focusing squarely against others (Muslims, non-EU migrants more generally).

What is fuelling the rise of the new far-right in Europe? Economic recession has often been linked to radical politics – would it be correct to look at underemployment and austerity measures as being responsible in the modern era?
It is certainly true that anti-EU sentiment – especially in places like Greece – can fuel the rise of the radical right, as can economic considerations like unemployment and austerity.

Yet as Cas Mudde amongst other leading scholars on the area have shown, one might put the question the other way: if Europe is currently in the worst financial crisis since the 1929 crash, it might be legitimately asked why the far-right is not doing better than it actually has been of late? Put another way, conditions have rarely been so ripe for the rise of fascist or fascist-type parties, but few have been able to move out of the electoral ghetto in the way that Jobbik has, with nearly 21% of the national vote earlier this year.

In short, we must be careful to read too much into the very unique example of Nazism and the Great Depression in the early 1930s – for all sorts of reasons this might not provide the kind of lesson from (economic) history that many seek to draw. In short, austerity is but one of a suite of areas seized upon by the radical right in the 21st century (e.g. anti-EU, immigration, even liberal democracy).

Are government strategies doing enough to tackle far-right groups?
After an understandable period of focusing on the threat from jihadi Islamism, the number of instances of late involving right-wing extremists like Breivik has reinforced the idea that the revolutionary right – particularly those willing to engage in political violence – remain a concern in Europe. While I don’t think policing and security services ever ignored this threat, I do feel that greater attention is being paid now than, say, over the last decade or so. I do think there have been government strategies in place (like Britain’s Prevent agenda) that do take threats from extremists seriously – including those from nationalist-separatist groups.

You are an expert on fascist ideology and the contemporary far-right in Europe and the USA. Do you see some differences between these USA and European contexts?
There are as many similarities as differences, and it depends, really, on where one chooses to place emphasis. In short, there might be use in the idea of a ‘generic’ nationalism that applies to all case studies, but as soon as you start talking about specific national traditions (St. George’s Day in Britain, Bastille Day in France, etc.) the differences will always be accentuated. Philosophers of yore called it the debate between realists and nominalists. What you are referring to relates to this in terms of generic fascism (e.g. applying to all countries) and specific manifestations of it in the United States and Europe (but also elsewhere since WWI). In terms of the Europe, this is complicated by potential pan-national or transnational forms of the far-right, or indeed regional parties like Flemish Interest in Belgium or the Northern League in Italy. So the American radical right – as the work of Leonard Weinberg and others has shown – has a number of specific traditions that are very different than the far right in Europe (for example around gun ownership and the Second amendment).

There are lots and lots of differences, even if academics like myself often tend to look for ‘generic’ similarities that enable comparisons between groups (such as a revolutionary ideology or willingness to engage in political violence in the case of the extra-parliamentary extreme right). Here, neo-Nazis in Europe and the US might be good bases for comparison.

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