Over the past few years, extreme right-wing parties have gained popularity across Europe: performing strongly in opinion polls, winning seats in parliaments, and exercising greater influence over governmental decisions. While the movements vary in constitution from country to country, they are typically populist nationalist parties characterized by some combination of anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, xenophobic, and anti-EU policies. France, the Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark have all recently seen particularly high growth in far-right parties. The expanding influence of these right-wing movements can be seen not just in their increased political power, but also in street demonstrations throughout Europe, and, in its most extreme form, in the violence wrought by Anders Breivik, the right-wing extremist who killed 69 people near Oslo in July 2011. Although far-right parties are by definition nationalist, and are therefore rooted country-specific grievances, many of the issues that have driven their recent resurgence are common across Europe, including anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment and discontent with the European Union, particularly in light of the Eurozone crisis.
Europe is no stranger to right-wing movements, but the current revival has some unique features. Reactionary politics have generally tended to be popular among older generations, but the recent movement has a uniquely youthful bent. Demos, a British think tank, recently undertook an extensive survey of right-wing parties and movements in Europe and found that two-thirds of the people affiliated with them were younger than thirty. The study also claimed that the number of youth involved in the broader movement is probably greater than the number formally affiliated with any other parties. Social media has become a popular tool for disseminating far-right views, although it is difficult to determine whether this is a cause or effect of the increased youth involvement. The influence of social media can be observed in the increasing number of alliances between far-right groups as they use technology to build networks of like-minded people. The rhetoric used by right-wing politicians and other leaders has also generally shifted from the overt racism of past movements to vaguer talk of the importance of maintaining traditional culture and values, the incompatibility of Islam with these liberal values, and other more subtle rhetoric.
The current right-wing movements in Europe are focused on Islam to an unprecedented degree. Many of the countries where far-right parties have been gaining prominence have large Muslim populations. In France, for example, people of North African descent—who are predominantly Muslim—make up the largest minority group in the country. Members of the National Front, the major right-wing party, claim that Islam is incompatible with French culture and poses a fundamental threat to the French republican ideals of liberté, égalité, and fraternité. Anti-Muslim rhetoric is often focused on the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and July 7, 2007. The latter attack is particularly troubling to the far-right because the perpetrators were second-generation immigrants; some politicians cite this as further evidence of Islam’s incompatibility with traditional European culture. Some parties have reacted against Islam by reaffirming, and attempting to codify into law, what they believe is the Christian character of their own countries.
However, the anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies do not only target Islam: most of the far-right movements are committed to greatly reducing all immigration into their countries. One of the reasons that right-wing parties tend to oppose the European Union is that they do not want their immigration policies dictated by an outside force. Interestingly, the European Union has been consistently tightening restrictions on who can enter Europe, even as it expands free movement within the continent. Many of the countries seeing growth in far-right parties are not EU members, and therefore have immigration policies that are much stricter than those of the European Union itself. This phenomenon is particularly evident in Scandinavian countries, which have historically had very homogenous populations. Right-wing politicians there have made the case that much of the success of these countries is due to this cultural and ethnic homogeneity, so restricting immigration is in the best interests of the entire society. The influence of the right-wing Denmark People’s Party—which has often been part of coalition governments—can be seen in Denmark’s immigration laws, which are the strictest in Europe.
The Euroskepticism that characterizes these right-wing movements has been exacerbated by the financial crisis sweeping Europe. Not only is the Eurozone crisis used as evidence that individual countries should never have relinquished any of their sovereignty to the European Union, but the bailouts of Greece and Portugal have escalated the controversy. The north-south divide in Europe has become more pronounced as right-wing parties in northern countries protest against having to help the collapsing southern economies. European unity, never particularly strong to begin with, is being further torn apart by the reactions of right-wing parties to the Eurozone crisis. It will certainly be interesting to observe how the influence of the far-right changes as the financial crisis develops further.