Europe: The far right is here to stay


First published at Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.

“Macron 2017 = Le Pen 2022” — upon the first election of France’s uber-neoliberal president, a slogan graffitied across Paris echoed left-wing common sense about the collapsing political centre. After Donald Trump’s ascent to the US presidency and the Brexit referendum, corporate liberalism stood accused of driving the losers of globalization into the arms of nationalists promising to protect them.

Yet during the pandemic, the centre-left claimed a series of victories that, some claimed, marked the ebbing of this threat. With Trump out of office, the managerial Olaf Scholz’s victory in Germany, and even arch-elitist liberal Macron winning a second term, some proclaimed that “peak populism” had passed. In a recent New Statesman column, Andrew Marr criticized the eternal Cassandras of rising right-wing danger, citing Boris Johnson’s downfall as a show of the power of resilient institutions that have dealt with worse before. So, have centrists steadied the ship?

Not so fast

It is true: Macron’s unpopular reforms did not actually give us Le Pen 2022. But her 41 percent score was her best yet, confirmed when her Rassemblement National (RN) formed its biggest-ever parliamentary group. Despite consistent failures to win city halls, regions, or national-level elections, RN has carved out an established space in France’s political and media landscape, making its talking points ever more normal.

This kind of creeping advance has, in fact, proven more common in European party systems than abrupt Trump-style surges by genuine electoral newcomers. Take Scandinavia, where two nativist parties — the Sweden Democrats and The Finns — have, after a gradual three-decade rise, each claimed about a quarter of seats in parliament, and today provide decisive support for centre-right prime ministers. In Germany, the Alternative für Deutschland remains far from high office. However, its much-hailed poll decline during the pandemic proved ephemeral: it is again today reaching historic highs, vying with the Social Democrats for second place.

Now, two elections in Southern Europe highlight how much the nationalist right is winning the post-crisis period — and how weak are the traces of the new Left that briefly surged in that era. In Greece, the 25 June repeat election confirmed not only the hegemony of the conservative New Democracy, but also the parliamentary advance of two small far-right parties, with Syriza reduced to under 20 percent support.

Meanwhile, snap elections in Spain on 23 July seem likely to bring the Spanish nationalist Vox into national government for the first time, as a junior ally to the conservative Partido Popular. While Vox has had its electoral ups and downs — polls suggest it could even lose some seats in next month’s national vote— it has firmly established itself in the party landscape, already becoming an ally to the Partido Popular at the regional level. Yolanda Díaz’s left-wing coalition, now called Sumar, won some policy advances in government with the Socialists, but overall the Left is less dynamic than a decade ago.

In one European country, a party rooted in historical fascism is not just a junior ally to conservatives but has itself become the main force of government. Often mischaracterized as a “return to 1945” — as if on the model of David Wnendt’s film Look Who’s Back — the recent rise of the post-fascist Fratelli d’Italia is in fact neither a sudden upsurge nor a historical reversal. Rather, it is the latest stage in a decades-long normalization of the far right. Its advance, building its mainstream presence despite temporary electoral setbacks and organizational crises, contrasts markedly with the consistent withering of the Left’s social base in the same period.

If Italian governments are typically short-lived, feeding many clichés about its chaotic politics, the more durable, structural trend is the entrenchment of the far right, and the weakening of the opposition to it. Ahead of Europe’s 2024 elections, we are not seeing Italy at odds with the EU, so much as this Italian model spreading to other countries.

The Italian blueprint

Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia scored 26 percent in last September’s election, up from 4 percent in 2018 — an apparently sudden upsurge. Yet the language of the “breakthrough act” is misleading.

The party is rooted not just in postwar neofascism, but also in the party known from 1995 to 2009 as Alleanza Nazionale, a junior partner in each of Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing coalitions. Among its top leaders, there has been some ideological and generational turnover since that period — albeit not simply a “moderation”, given Meloni’s taste for racist conspiracy theories.

Nevertheless, Alleanza Nazionale’s successes were important in laying the ground for today: by 1996, it already scored 5.9 million votes, not so far short of the 7.2 million Fratelli d’Italia claimed in September. Over the last two decades, the right-wing coalition’s absolute number of voters actually shrunk, but in 2022, this base largely swung from the parties who backed Mario Draghi’s “national unity” administration (Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Matteo Salvini’s Lega) to Fratelli d’Italia, which posed as the only real alternative leadership.

There are surely many factors to explain the far right’s strength in Italy and its relatively early success in overtaking other conservative forces. While in postwar decades the neofascists were mostly shut out of office (albeit a constant parliamentary presence), the end of the Cold War exploded the party system. The Communist, Socialist, and Christian Democratic parties were all rapidly pitched into turmoil — in the latter two cases, through a vast corruption scandal which itself fed “anti-political” sentiment. This heralded rapid innovations in the means of political action, from the rise of media spectacle over mass parties, to the ultra-personalized Berlusconi era, the arrival of judges and technocrats as political leaders, and the repeated rewriting of electoral law.

The 1990s also brought a changed political economy, with Eurozone membership first seen as a panacea instead becoming an alibi for permanent austerity, zero growth and unending wage restraint. The liberalized left’s association with these ills drastically reduced its social base and considerably eased the new right’s path to power.

This is not just, or even mainly, a story of former left-wing voters directly turning to nationalist parties who claim to represent the demands of labour. Fratelli d’Italia’s political identity is not generically “neither left nor right”; rather, it headed into the last election promising to be the “real”, indeed “monogamous” right that would avoid all unnatural coalitions with more left-wing forces.

As early as the 1990s, the post-fascists’ policy drew away from protectionism and toward something more like political scientist Herbert Kitschelt’s “winning formula”, combining neoliberalism and socially authoritarian mores. If Kitschelt insisted that his framing applied above all to that moment — not least the free-market triumphalism of the “end of history” — Fratelli d’Italia remains fundamentally marked by this shift. It today combines avowedly Reaganite principles with a policy focus on reducing labour costs and a social-Darwinian culture war against the workshy.

Welfare chauvinism?

Taking office in October, Fratelli d’Italia and its allies renamed several ministries. The Economic Development portfolio became the “Ministry of Businesses and Made in Italy”, the Equality and Families brief was rechristened “and Birth Rates”, while, in a social Darwinist key, Public Education became “Education and Merit”.

As I have explained elsewhere, this mix is surely built on an ethnonationalist perspective — including an obsession with Italian birth numbers, or pushing reluctant native-born Italians into farm labour as an alternative to letting in more immigrants. The right-wing parties deny parenting rights to same-sex couples and oppose citizenship for the Italian-born children of non-Europeans. But if this discrimination imposes “chauvinism” on the existing welfare offer, its own “welfarist” element is limited in the extreme — and takes the form of tax breaks, notably to large families, more than expanding services and benefits.

Much commentary on the rise of the international far right connects the blue-collar parts of its base (even if a minority of the total) to its critique of globalization, and protectionist policies. Yet, absent real class-based mobilization, there is no inevitable reason why this element of its base should drive solidaristic policies benefiting even a native-born, white, heterosexual etc. in-group. It does not seem that Fratelli d’Italia voters have mistaken it for a party of labour rights or public spending. Italy’s last three decades — including under centre-left governments — have been dominated by neoliberal counter-reforms, in the quest for a cheaper, more flexible labour force, supposedly able to break the country out of stagnation.

Fratelli d’Italia also pursues this agenda: its planned “fiscal revolution” promises job creation by lowering labour costs, while rejecting any minimum wage. Somewhat in the spirit of Viktor Orbán’s “pro-worker conservatism”, it appeals to a section of workers through the promise of a more competitive national capitalism rather than through welfarism or labour rights per se.

In short, Meloni’s party combines nativist social mores with low-tax, low-spend economics, and on these grounds outcompetes a centre-left which has for decades undermined the bases of class-based voting. While Fratelli d’Italia’s allies in the EU-wide European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group such as Poland’s Law and Justice have gone further in the cash benefits they offer families, Meloni’s policy mix is quite typical of far-right parties who have joined conservatives in high office. What remains to be seen is whether this provides the basis for an Italian-style broad-right coalition also at the EU level.

Surely, there are reasons to doubt this possibility: in France and Germany, the main far-right parties have not yet entered government and, unlike the dominant European People’s Party (EPP), remain dubious about support for Ukraine. Yet, for the more stridently pro-Kyiv Meloni, the hope is that the May 2024 European elections will provide a chance to break out of the old grand coalition of Christian Democrats and the centre-left, and produce a “union of the rights” between ECR and EPP.

For all these reasons, optimistic talk of passing “peak populism” both mislabels the far-right threat and misjudges the success that it has achieved already. When Berlusconi’s first government was formed in 1994, new deputy prime minister Pino Tatarella headed to Brussels — only for his Belgian counterpart to refuse to shake the hand of a member of a party that was “heir to fascism”. Today, such a gesture would be almost unthinkable.

Neither a sudden breakthrough act nor a return to World War II, this political tradition is today a stable, indeed ever more influential part of the European right, well-established in national party systems and ever more integrated into EU-level politics.

David Broder is the Europe editor for Jacobin magazine and author of Mussolini’s Grandchildren: Fascism in Contemporary Italy (Pluto, 2023).