The rise of right-wing politics is one of the most crucial recent political developments across Europe. While some parties have taken office, others have become the main opposition voice, and even those yet to gain a political foothold have forced centrist leaders to take note of them. In part, this can be seen as a backlash against political establishments in the wake of the financial and migrant crises. However, the wave of discontent also taps into long-standing fears about globalisation and a dilution of national identity. Although the parties involved span a broad political spectrum, there are some common themes – such as hostility to immigration, anti-Islamic rhetoric and Euroscepticism.
Tracing the Surge
The EU is plagued by deep divisions over how to shape its future. The Brexit referendum of 2016 represented the worst-case scenario for the European Union. Brexit not only changed the internal political atmosphere, but had crucial political repercussions within the EU and on its relations with other countries. It became evident after the Brexit vote that Euroscepticism draws strength from opposition to mass immigration, cultural liberalisation, and the perceived surrender of national sovereignty to distant and unresponsive international bodies. The Brexit referendum illustrated a wider challenge to the Union in the form of anti-EU parties that were well entrenched in most member states.
However, in the Dutch and French elections of 2017, voters appeared to have stymied the right-wing by depriving Marine Le Pen’s National Front (FN) and Geert Wilders’s People’s Party — both EU-antagonistic, xenophobic nativists — of victories. However, the votes garnered by these two parties presented a different picture: Le Pen captured a third (33.9%) of the Fifth Republic’s vote for President. On the other hand, Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands expanded its seats in the parliament from 15 in 2012 to 20 in 2017, making it the nation’s second-strongest party. Similarly, the triumph of Austria’s liberal candidate for president, Alexander Van der Bellen, in December 2016 was welcomed, even though his opponent, the Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer, received 46% of the votes. However, the events subsequent to these elections proved that the right-wing wave was still significant.
Latest example of this phenomenon is of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which won 12.6% of the votes and entered the Bundestag with 94 seats, upsetting Germany’s post-war political order. Their success has been interpreted as a sign of discontent with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy for refugees, which resulted in almost a million people arriving in Germany. Also in October 2017, another right-wing party was not only able to get substantial votes but became member of the coalition government. The Freedom Party of Austria, which was founded by former Nazis and campaigned against Austria joining the bloc when it was put to a referendum in 1994, won 26% of the popular vote, up from 20.5% in 2013, and joined the governing coalition with the People’s Party. It was not the first time that the Freedom Party had been in government. It was part of a coalition government between 2000 and 2005 – however, at that time there was uproar among EU leaders for the inclusion of the far-right party in the governing coalition and in protest diplomatic relations were frozen.
The biggest backlash was visible in the Italian elections of March 2018; the big winner was the populist Five Star Movement, which formed a coalition with the anti-EU party, The League. The formation of a right-wing government in Italy added to a growing movement which rejected what Europe had become in the decades following the end of the Cold War, as well as its ideological underpinnings. The two halves of the new coalition – the Lega and the M5S – disagree on many issues, but they are united in blaming Italy’s problems on the European Union. Italy’s new government has started its mandate on a collision course with Europe, as top ministers have taken harsher stances on migrants and have implemented a number of spending measures. More recent is the case of the Swedish elections of September 2018, where the right-wing party Swedish Democrats won 17.6% votes up from 13% in 2014. Sweden has welcomed more asylum seekers per capita than any other European country and has one of the most positive attitudes towards migrants, which became a major issue for Swedish Democrats. The run-up to the elections in Sweden showed that the wave of anti-EU feelings is catching up in countries that were known to be most stable democratically.
The unfolding political scenario in Central and Eastern Europe (CEEC) has the potential to create further division in the EU. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has long presented himself as the defender of Hungary and Europe against Muslim migrants, warning of the threat of “a Europe with a mixed population and no sense of identity”. He is arguably the leading voice among the Visegrad countries in Central Europe – Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – that oppose EU plans to compel countries to accept migrants under a quota system. Another party that has condemned the EU’s handling of the migrant crisis is the Polish conservative Law and Justice party which secured a strong win in the 2015 elections. Some of the party’s most high-profile policies, like taking control of state media and judicial reforms that allow the government to sack and appoint judges, have alarmed the EU. These CEEC member states are accused of openly defying EU norms and values. These countries are increasingly defining their national identity in exclusionary ethnic and religious terms. Although governments in Poland and Hungary are not identical in their political outlook, both governments frequently strike nationalistic and Eurosceptic tones. The differences with Poland and Hungary are an “unprecedented test” for Brussels because it may be tricky to find a consensus over how to deal with these countries given that many Eurosceptic and right-wing populist parties have now joined other European governments. Still, the European Commission has taken the exceptional step of triggering the Article 7 process against Poland and has concluded a vote to trigger the same against Hungary.
Reactions from the Union
The EU has achieved success on a scale its founders could barely have imagined. Although, the European Project has sometimes given the impression of being in perpetual crisis, Jean Monnet saw this as the best way to advance to his preferred goal of “ever closer union”, arguing that “Europe will be forged in crises, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises.” However, today it is in deeper trouble than ever. A big reason for this is the politics in EU member countries. One reason for the success of right-wing is that Europe’s economic mood is so glum. Although growth has returned and the euro zone has stabilised, growth rates are still low and, notably in the Mediterranean, unemployment (especially among youth) is extremely high. Public debts across the union remain large, and progress on liberalising structural reforms has largely stalled. The euro zone has a partial banking union, a centralised bail-out fund and a European Central Bank (ECB) prepared to act as a lender of last resort, but its architecture remains incomplete and there is little agreement over how to finish the job.
Migration remains a huge issue. The common thread that unites Europe’s right-wing movements is hostility to immigration, particularly from the Muslim Middle East. The massive influx has resulted in increasing xenophobic and Islamophobic sentiment and given the right-wing a political opening to campaign on the preservation of their national cultures, values, and identities against dilution and denigration by what they characterize as an invasion of foreigners. The number of migrants reaching Europe’s shores is actually much lower now as a result of moves to close the route through the Balkans as well as deals with Turkey and Libya. Despite decreasing numbers, the issue remains at the centre-stage for right-wing parties. This situation has been termed as a delayed political reaction to the migration crisis in 2015.
Amid the rise of right-wing parties in several member states, in his State of the Union Speech in September 2018, President Juncker said, “Europe has to embrace its destiny… Europe must remain a tolerant open continent and it will remain so. Europe will never become a fortress turning its back to the world; in particular to the suffering part of the world. Europe must and will remain a multilateral continent because the world belongs to everyone and not just the few.” He spoke of the need for a distinctly European ‘enlightened patriotism’ that does not exclude or turn against any single individual. Juncker insisted, that both pan-European and national patriotism are not antithetical and stressed on the need to “…show the EU a bit more respect and stop dragging its name through the mud. Let us embrace patriotism and reject exaggerated nationalism that projects nothing but hate,” said Juncker.
However, the real test for EU and the right-wing parties is yet to come in May 2019, when the elections of the European Parliament are due. With the right-wing parties grabbing more levers of power, anti-EU rhetoric is now a regular feature in national government commentary about the EU, and has footholds in four European political groups: the European People’s Party (via Hungary’s Fidesz party), the European Conservatives and Reformists (Poland’s Law and Justice party), Europe of Freedom and Democracy (Italy’s 5Star and League parties), and Europe of Nations and Freedoms (Marine Le Pen’s National Front). These parties — whose raison d’être is campaigning against the Union in its own elections — naturally take the vote more seriously than parties with a broader base. A populist takeover in Parliament would enable anti-EU politicians to dictate the bloc’s powerful executive body, the European Commission, with whom the Parliament shares co-decision power. These parties are gearing up for May 2019’s European parliamentary elections, which will decide the future make-up of the Brussels leadership.
To conclude, it can be said that the right-wing success in the EU reflects popular disillusionment and lack of trust in mainstream parties and institutions. In their discourse, these parties have not only discussed the failures of the ruling elite but have projected themselves as a possible solution to the various problems faced by the society and nation. These parties have been able to exploit the opportunity available to them because voters have identified with their programs and agendas – providing the legitimacy that had previously eluded them. The reason for the rise of right-wing politics is multi-faceted – the emergence of new unaccounted issues including the crisis of representation, increasing political and societal alienation and the dissatisfaction with traditional features of political systems and for politics as such. Despite the fact that the EU attempts to advocate for a higher level of European cooperation to improve common economic, social and political measures, many parties continue to lobby for Euroscepticism. The presence and success of these parties has profound repercussions for the ways in which political parties with governing experience will deal with the issue of European integration in the near future.
By Dr. Ankita Dutta,
Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi
 The Rise of European Populism and the Collapse of the Centre Left, Brookings, 8 March 2018, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2018/03/08/the-rise-of-european-populism-and-the-collapse-of-the-center-left/
 BBC, 10 September 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36130006
 Reuters, 15 December 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-austria-politics/austrian-conservatives-bring-far-right-into-government-idUSKBN1E928K
 BBC, n.2
Article 7 is a mechanism of the Lisbon Treaty that ensures “all EU countries respect the common values of the EU.” It was envisaged as a way to mitigate and prevent member states from backsliding on European values and the rule law. The mechanism is triggered when there is “a clear risk” of an EU member state breaching the bloc’s fundamental values, which include: “human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.”
The Future of the European Union, The Economist, 25 March 2017, https://www.economist.com/special-report/2017/03/25/the-future-of-the-european-union
 New Europe, 12 September 2018, https://www.neweurope.eu/article/juncker-details-vision-global-for-europe-last-state-of-the-union-speech/