What is the European nationalist right, when did it emerge and why is it on a steady course of success? Joachim Becker has some answers.
A spectre is haunting the EU and its member states: right-wing nationalism. This spectre is not new, but it has grown strongly over the last years.
The rise of the nationalist right has been concomitant with the rise of neo-liberalism both at the level of the EU member states and the EU and the erosions of forms of social solidarity and the systematic weakening of the welfare state.
Starting point: 1970s
The rise of nationalism started in the 1970s. The British conservatives were the first mainstream party in the EU to resort to aggressive anti-migration and nationalist rhetoric back in Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 successful election campaign. Margaret Thatcher used this mandate for attacking trade union power and making sweeping privatisations.
In the 1970s, a new form of right-wing parties emerged in several Scandinavian countries. They revolted against taxes and were critical towards the welfare states. Soon, they turned to anti-migration rhetoric. With this turn, they broadened their electorate towards workers.
The nationalist right achieved a major breakthrough with the rise of Freiheitliche Party Österreichs (FPÖ) under the leadership of Jörg Haider in Austria and of the Front National in France in the 1980s. Other parties in the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy… followed.
As the French political scientist Pierre Martin points out, the successful parties combined “neoliberalism and ethnocentrism”. The emphasis of the election campaigns in Western Europe was primarily on migration, not on the economic programmes of the parties. They insinuate that welfare has to be cut in order to ascertain competitiveness and that social security should be cut for those who do not deserve it – the lazy, the poorest and foreigners. They propagate an exclusionary welfare state. After 1989, nationalist right-wing forces emerged as part of the pluralised party systems in Central Eastern and Southeast Europe.
The financial crisis as an accelerator
The nationalist right was already well established in quite a number of EU countries when the financial and economic crisis started to hit the EU member countries in 2007. The crisis laid bare the vulnerabilities of the neo-liberal economic order and the rifts in the euro zone and the wider EU.
In a number of cases, the emergence and strengthening of nationalist right-wing parties can be traced back to the financial crisis and crisis management which entailed emergency credit programmes and put the adjustment burden unilaterally on countries in the periphery.
In Germany, the nationalist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) emerged as a reaction against the EU credit programme for Greece. The rejection of credit programmes for the periphery and eventual transfers to the peripheral Eurozone countries started to loom large in the programmes and the rhetoric of other nationalist parties in the Eurozone as well – including Slovakia where Sloboda a Solidarita (SaS) made the coalition government collapse on the issue.
In Italy and France, the euro was increasingly debated as one of the key causes of structural economic problems and de-industrialisation. Both Lega and Front National had already started to adopt some heterodox, national-conservative economic policy elements before the crisis and moved more decisively in that direction after 2008. In Central Eastern Europe, former mainstream right wing parties like Fidesz in Hungary and PiS in Poland moved more strongly towards the right and adopted an economic policy with stronger national-conservative accentuations, promoting domestic business groups.
In Hungary, the electoral triumph of Fidesz was partially a political reaction to scandals, the deep 2008/2009 crisis and the IMF-led crisis management of the social-liberal government. In Poland, PiS took up the discontent with the social imbalances – e.g. precarious work contracts – and huge regional differences in their 2015 election campaigns.
Crisis and the EU crisis management led to a more sceptical view on the EU in Central Eastern and Southeast EU countries. In several countries of the periphery, particularly in Southeast (e.g. Greece and Bulgaria) and Central Eastern Europe (e.g. Slovakia and Hungary), openly fascist parties have grown visibly stronger since the crisis.
The crisis management became increasingly concentrated in the EU and the countries outside the Eurozone, like the UK and Poland, have become institutionally increasingly side-lined. This was one factor behind the Brexit decision. Forces of the nationalist right received a major boost already by the financial crisis and before the arrival of a high number of refugees from the war-torn areas of the Middle East.
There is a tendency among liberal intellectuals, like Ivan Krastev, to attribute the current crisis of the EU and the accelerating rise of the nationalist right to the arrival of refugees and more generally to the so-called migration crisis. It is true that the arrival of refugees gave a new impetus to nationalist forces, particularly of the far-right. Their rise, however, started prior to that and has much more complex reasons.
Mapping the nationalist right
The nationalist right has not only grown over the last years, but it has become more diversified as well. Three strands can be identified: a neo-liberal, a national-conservative and a fascist one.
In the Northwest of the EU – the industrial core countries around Germany, Scandinavia and the UK – the neo-liberal strand of nationalism prevails. In these countries, neo-liberal nationalists have aimed at radicalising neo-liberal policies. They have cut back institutional trade union influence, reformed taxes in favour of business and the (upper) middle class and made cuts in the welfare provision. The ÖVP/FPÖ coalitions and, until recently, the Belgium government with the strong presence of the Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA) have been clear examples of this. These policies were in line with the demands of business associations and in line with the export oriented, neo-mercantilist growth model.
In order to reach out to broader electorate beyond the middle class, the nationalist right inserted the neo-liberal agenda into a nationalist framework targeting different social groups. The demand for limiting EU expenditure and the rejection of a so-called “transfer union” in the Eurozone are targeted at the middle class. German, Austrian, Finnish … tax payers are not to pay for the poorer regions. The demand for an exclusionary welfare state is addressed to the lower middle class and workers. The ÖVP/FPÖ government that collapsed in spring 2019 took some measures in that regard which affect migrants from the EU, refugees and families with many children. The far right has been the original advocate of an exclusionary welfare state, but such demands have been taken up by some mainstream parties, particularly in the Christian Democrat party family.
The nationalist neo-liberals in Central Eastern Europe, like ODS (Občanská demokratická strana) or SaS, tend to be even more radical in the neo-liberal design of economic and social policies. Their economic nationalism takes the form of advocating more national powers in order to offer lower taxes and lower standards to transnational corporations. This is the paradox form of economic nationalism in an FDI-based economic model. Their stand against migration is limited to migration from outside the EU.
In the Visegrád countries, parties like Fidesz and Prawo i Sprawiedłiwość (PiS) have adopted a profile with more national-conservative elements. Fidesz and PiS defend a national-conservative vision of the state. The two parties have extended the power of their cadres over the state. They have interpreted their electoral victories as strong national mandates that would permit them to weaken the partition of powers. They have drastically reduced the independence of the judiciary. They have sought to extend their influence over media, cultural institutions, NGOs. The building of a party-state is much more advanced in Hungary than in Poland.
For both Fidesz and PiS, it has been a prime aim of their policies to strengthen domestic business groups, particularly in banking. Fidesz has built up a group of businessmen closely linked to the ruling party. The Hungarian sociologist Erzsébet Szalai coined the term “client bourgeoisie” for this capital fraction. This effort to build a domestic bourgeoisie has basically been confined to construction and specific service sectors.
In export manufacturing, the Fidesz government has continued to provide generous incentives to foreign direct investors. Thus, Fidesz economic nationalism is selective, as the Hungarian social scientist András Tóth underlines. In its economic and social policies, Fidesz has adopted national-conservative policies favouring domestic business and the upper middle class in sectors like banking, but has otherwise pursued radical neo-liberal policies favouring business and penalising the lower middle class, workers and, particularly, the poor.
In the fields of economic and social policies, some significant differences between Fidesz and PiS exist. The links between domestic business and PiS are looser. The diagnosis of the Polish position in the international division of labour is rather critical. More ambitiously than Fidesz, the PiS government wants to enhance the technological base of the Polish economy. Its social policies have been more inclusionary. In spite of difference in the economic policies of Fidesz and PiS, both parties, regard EU funds as crucial for their growth strategy.
It is the Fidesz model of a selective mixture of strong neo-liberal and some national-conservative elements with a strong clientelist flavour rather than the socially more inclusive and more strongly national-conservative PiS model that serves as a model for nationalist right-wing parties in Southeastern Europe, e.g. Serbia. Fidesz has established close links to several right-wing parties in former Yugoslavia. In Slovenia and Northern Macedonia, the media sphere is a key area of this cooperation.
The de-industrialising core countries Italy and France which are slowly sliding down to the periphery are the other region where national-conservative positions have grown stronger. As a reaction this economic trend, Front National, today renamed into Rassemblement National, and Lega have inserted increasingly national-conservative elements into their economic programmes. These elements are mainly target at smaller domestic business and the middle class. In the wake of the Eurozone crisis, the two parties campaigned against the Euro, but, more recently, their positions in this regard have become more ambiguous. Front National has been a forerunner in demanding exclusionary social policies – the “préférence nationale”. The Lega focused its strategy in the relatively short-lived coalition government with the Five Star Movement on campaigning against refugees. Thus, as in Northwest European core countries, migration is in the focus of both Rassemblement National and Lega strategizing.
The nationalist right in the European Parliament
The elections to European Parliament (EP) in May 2019 showed an advance, but not an electoral breakthrough of the nationalist right. Two of the major nationalist right-wing parties showed particularly strong electoral increases: PiS, which had built its election campaign around social policy topics, with an increase from 31.8% to 45.6% and Lega, which presented itself as European champion of the anti-refugee and anti-migrant forces, from 6.2% to 34.3%. Fidesz consolidated its percentage at 52.5%. Some other high profile parties of the far right like Rassemblement National (23.3%) or FPÖ (17.2%) slightly lost.
In countries like Belgium or the Netherlands, the electoral balance between different nationalist formations shifted. After the 2019 elections to the European Parliament, the main blocs of the nationalist right regrouped mainly in two parliamentary fractions. The far-right wing, strongly anti-migrant forces have formed the group Identity and Democracy (ID). West European parties totally predominate in this fraction, Central East European parties play only a very marginal role here. It seems that strongly anti-migrant discourse of the West European member parties that is partially directed against migrants from EU countries deters Eastern European nationalist parties from joining this group.
The second group – European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) – which is more moderate in outlook has a regionally more mixed membership. ID is the fifth, ECR the six largest fraction in the European Parliament. The role of the EP in the formation of the new European Commission has been fairly limited. The core decisions were taken at the level of the EU governments. Among the nationalist right-wing parties only Fidesz played a key role in the selection of Ursula von der Leyen as the new head of the European Commission. The EP, nevertheless, rejected the first choice of Fidesz for the Hungarian Commissioner.
The nationalist right in the EU is not a unified force. It encompasses forces from a more moderate nationalist right to the extreme right. The nationalist right is united in the call for more powers for the nation-states, a militarisation of external policies, and an extremely restrictive stance against refugees and migration from outside the EU. It is divided between core and periphery on other issues.
In the core countries, the nationalist parties advocate restrictive EU funding for the periphery. In the periphery, they see this funding as fundamental for the cohesion of the union and their growth models. In the core, nationalist right-wing parties propagate an exclusionary welfare state. Some of their proposed measures are targeted also at migrants from the EU. In the periphery, nationalist parties do not want the migrants from “their” countries being discriminated against. Due to these contradictions, nationalist right-wing parties have formed several groups in the European Parliament.