Home Society As the far right surges, Europe heads toward its Donald Trump moment 
As the far right surges, Europe heads toward its Donald Trump moment 

As the far right surges, Europe heads toward its Donald Trump moment 

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As the far right surges, Europe heads toward its Donald Trump moment 

As the far right surges, Europe heads toward its Donald Trump moment 

If the polls are correct, this week’s European Parliament election will reorder the Continent’s political landscape.

By STEPHAN FARIS, JAMES ANGELOS, HANNE COKELAERE, BARBARA MOENS and VICTOR GOURY-LAFFONT
in Magdeburg, Germany

Illustration by Justin Metz for POLITICO

The far-right politician Oliver Kirchner offered his party’s supporters an unexpected hot tip on the next big trend: “Invest in diapers.” 

His logic? The rise of his far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) had so shocked the “old parties,” he explained, that the establishment was now soiling its pants.

Ditching the puerile humor, Kirchner, one of the AfD’s state representatives, then hardened his tone at a Q&A session with the party faithful in the eastern city of Magdeburg last month. It was, he went on, time to boot out the traditional parties and give them their comeuppance “for what they’ve done to this country, what they’ve done to the citizens and what they’ve done to theVolk.”

Across Europe, the radical right is on the rise. This week’s European Parliament election will reveal just how much.

In France, the far-right National Rally party is on track to receive a third of the vote, more than double the support of its nearest rival, President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party. In Germany, despite a series of scandals, the AfD is headed for second place, ahead of every partner in Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s governing coalition. In Italy, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing Brothers of Italy party is floating far ahead of the chasing pack.

Marine Le Pen and the National Rally’s candidate for the European election, Jordan Bardella. Christophe Simon/AFP via Getty Images)

In a Continent that has prided itself on laying to rest the ghosts of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco, the re-emergence of the radical right as a political force is coming as a shock. While Europe’s populist, nationalist parties are likely to remain too fractious to exert blunt power after the votes are counted on Sunday night, the sheer fact of their success will trigger a political upheaval equivalent to that caused by Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president in 2016. The results in the European Parliament, after all, serve as a barometer of where national politics is headed in some of Europe’s most crucial capitals.

Five years ago, a “Green wave” in the 2019 European Parliament election spurred the Continent’s leaders to launch an epochal restructuring of the economy aimed at making the EU climate-neutral by 2050. This year, the tide is flowing in the opposite direction. An even stronger performance by parties once shunned as too toxic to work with will likely have an even larger effect as Europe’s political leaders realize the radical right is no longer at the gates — it’s inside the palace and can no longer be ignored.

What’s behind the rise of the far right

On a recent evening in the Belgian town of Dworp, Tom Van Grieken, leader of the far-right Vlaams Belang party, took the stage to a rockstar reception. His party — which wants to break off Belgium’s Flemish-speaking region into an independent state — draws a great deal of its support from young men eager for change.

“You just feel it, we are the hope of so many Flemish people,” Van Grieken said. “What are these politicians doing? Gender nonsense, climate madness, and — ‘oh no’ —  the end of the world. They’re not paying attention to what more and more Flemish people are concerned about: Not the end of the world, but financially the end of the month.”

Europe’s insurgent extremists have many names: far right, radical right, hard right, Euroskeptic, populist. Their critics call them fascists or authoritarians. They prefer to describe themselves as conservatives, sovereigntists, nationalists — even democrats.

“Europe has to stop talking about the far right,” said Gerolf Annemans, a member of Vlaams Belang and the president of the far-right pan-Continental European Identity and Democracy party. “If you look at the policies, if you look at where we are in power, we are not at the fringes of politics anymore. We are now the center right,” he added.

EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS

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For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

While the radical right comes in an array of flavors, what unites them is a view of the world centered around an ethnic nation-state, hostility toward migrants, especially if they’re Muslim, and skepticism toward supranational organizations like the EU, the United Nations and, in some cases, NATO. 

Some radical-right politicians are economic libertarians, but more espouse a strong, protective state — at least when it comes to those they consider citizens. Apart from the factionalism that plagues the passionate, Russia is the biggest point of division. Some parties, like the AfD or Austria’s Freedom Party, are open fans of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Others like Meloni’s Brothers of Italy or Poland’s Law and Justice party are, for reasons of conviction or convenience, among his staunchest opponents.

As the radical right breaks out from the fringes, it is drawing votes from large swathes of society. Supporters include farmers and workers who blame EU policies for the disappearance of their livelihoods and middle class voters fretting about immigration and the dissipation of what they consider traditional values. They increasingly include young people anxious about the rising cost of living, or simply enchanted by the next new thing.

Migration plays a central role in the attraction, but so do culture war issues like access to abortion or LGBTQ+ rights. More recently, Europe’s populist parties have added rage over environmental regulations to their list of hot-button issues.

Germany’s AfD or Austria’s Freedom Party are open fans of Russian President Vladimir. | PutinSean Gallup/Getty Images

Adding to the radical right’s momentum is a lack of attractive alternatives. Usually in times of instability — wars, pandemics, economic uncertainty — voters flock toward the traditional parties of power. Today, those parties have, in many countries, disintegrated. For decades, the European right and left have fought for the center, and like two punch-drunk boxers, they’ve collapsed, leaving the arena open for new challengers.

In the last round of European elections, this led to explosive opportunities for liberal insurgents like Macron in France or the Greens in Germany. This time, the ones stepping into the center of the ring hail from the other side of the Continent’s emerging political divide.

The radical right’s arrival on the European stage will have a long-lasting impact. Political allegiances formed in early adulthood tend to last lifetimes. And unlike in the United States, where support for Trump and his MAGA Republicans is concentrated among the elderly; in Europe, the insurgents have also captured the youth vote — likely locking in support for decades to come.

The radical right breaks through

It was a cloudy January day in Agen, a small city in southwestern France, when dozens of growling tractors rolled up to cause trouble. For days, farmers burned tires and poured manure across the fronts of the city’s banks and public buildings. “If this is what it takes to get a reaction, so be it,” said Aurélie Armand, a farmer and the local leader of the protest movement. 

High taxes and environmental regulations, she said, were behind the angry outbursts from farming communities across the Continent. To leave no doubt where the blame was being laid, protestors set a European flag on fire, sending black smoke rising into the white sky.

For decades, leaders of the major political parties believed they could keep the radical right out of politics altogether. Setting up what the French call a cordon sanitaire — or firewall — they simply refused to rely on their votes to form a government or pass legislation. In 2000, when Jörg Haider, the leader of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, joined a coalition government, the EU’s other leaders reacted with fury, shunning the country diplomatically for months.

Voters, for the most part, went along. No matter how many votes France’s far-right leaders like Marine Le Pen or her father received in the first round of an election, citizens from all other stripes of the spectrum rallied around their opponent in the run-off round to keep them at bay.

In Portugal, the far-right party Chega, which means “enough,” drew on young people’s frustration with the housing crisis. | Patricia De Melo Moreira/AFP via Getty Images

Today, the cordon sanitaire has collapsed. Radical right parties are in power or support the government in seven of the EU’s 27 countries, including Italy, Sweden, Hungary and the Czech Republic. The Netherlands is about to join their ranks, with the anti-Islam firebrand Geert Wilders holding the reins. In Austria, the heirs to Haider’s Freedom Party are ahead in the polls with an election planned for later this year. If they take power in Vienna, a full third of the EU’s national governments will be reliant on the far right for their survival.

Even before it entered the halls of power, the far right had changed the trajectory of European politics. The very threat of its rise hardened policy on migration and frightened centrist parties into moderating their efforts to save the planet. This week’s gains could easily shape the discussion on support for Ukraine and on social policies like support for access to abortions or LGBTQ+ rights. 

As in the U.S., where Trump’s election is widely seen as giving license for people to espouse political views they once might have considered too extreme, the rise of the European radical right has moved the so-called Overton Window, the range of ideas considered acceptable to discuss. 

The role of Hungary is an illustrative example of how the right can shape policy when it occupies an important office. Though the country is a relatively small one, with fewer than 10 million inhabitants, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has played a blocking role in Brussels, disrupting the EU’s efforts to redistribute asylum-seekers and support Ukraine in its fight against Russia.

Looming over any discussion of Europe’s political reordering is France, where the two largest far-right parties are projected to rake in some 40 percent of the vote in this week’s election, according to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls. If the results are confirmed on Sunday, it will raise the question of whether voters are ready to give the radical right a chance at the presidency when they next head to the polls in 2027.

Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy are on track to become the largest national party in the ECR group. | Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images

The ascension of Meloni in Italy has already shifted European politics on issues like migration. But while the Italian prime minister has hewed to the mainstream on issues like support for NATO and Ukraine, few believe a President Le Pen would do the same.

The far-right leader has pledged to yank France out of NATO’s integrated military command and called for the EU to be stripped of many of its powers. A 2023 French parliamentary report accused her party of serving as a mouthpiece for the Kremlin. Should Le Pen or another far-right leader be given the keys to the Elysée Palace, the EU might not just make a sudden and possibly irreversible swerve to the right — it could start to unravel.

The real concern about the radical right

At the AfD event in Magdeburg, Kirchner and his party colleagues portrayed Germany as being in an almost cataclysmic state of decline. The political elites, in their depiction, had let the country be overrun by asylum-seekers, had introduced green policies that brought about the deindustrialization of the economy and were pursuing bellicose policies toward Russia that risked drawing Germany into war.

Kirchner portrayed the attempts of mainstream politicians to cast the party as antidemocratic as part of a grand conspiracy to repress the will of the German people, declaring the current government to be worse than the Stasi, the East German secret police.

“We are the ones who are really trying to save democracy in this country,” he said.

As with Trump, the most important question about Europe’s radical right is not what it will do with its power. It’s whether it will ever give it up.

Many of Europe’s radical-right parties carry the DNA of decidedly undemocratic regimes. Björn Höcke, the leader of the AfD in the eastern German state of Thuringia, was recently fined for using a banned Nazi slogan. In Italy, Roberto Vannacci, a candidate for the far-right League party, has urged voters to mark their ballots with a Roman numeral X, a reference to Xª MAS — or La Decima — a unit of Benito Mussolini’s army famous for carrying out reprisals against civilians following partisan attacks. Austria’s Freedom Party was founded in the 1950s by a former SS general.

The Netherlands has a governing agreement for a new right-wing ruling coalition. | Koen Van Weel/ANP/AFP via Getty Images

Hungary, where Orbán has been prime minister since 2010, again offers a look at what could be to come. The government has been accused of undermining the judiciary, eroding media freedom and rigging the electoral system. The country’s most recent election in 2022 was “marred by the absence of a level playing field,” according to a report by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Some worry that Rome is following in Budapest’s footsteps. Meloni and her allies have deployed defamation lawsuits against left-wing critics in the media. Journalists at the state broadcaster RAI have accused her administration of “attempting to turn RAI into a mouthpiece for the government.” She is also seeking to limit the power of the judiciary and rewrite the constitution to empower the prime minister and weaken the president’s ability to keep the government in check.

While previous Italian governments have made similar proposals and faced similar accusations, actions like these ring differently when the ruling party’s electoral logo is the tricolor flame, a symbol used by the neo-fascist political party formed by Mussolini’s former chief of staff at the end of World War II.

Whether it’s time to invest in diapers or not, Kirchner, the far-right politician, was right to say that Europe’s mainstream parties should be worried. The question that will be answered in the coming months and years is whether they were worried enough. 

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