Many observers think that Germany’s regional elections in March were a harsh judgment on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s welcoming policies toward refugees. The right-wing AfD (Alternative for Germany) party, which campaigned against immigrants, gained seats across the country and became the second-largest force in one regional parliament. Meanwhile, in Brussels, police had to break up scuffles at shrines for the March bombing victims. Anti-Muslim, far-right groups shouted fascist and nationalist slogans.
These hints of fascism aren’t new — but they are fueled today by harsh economic policies supported by Germany and other rich Northern European states, as I will explain below. Since the period between the World War I and World War II, fascism has made appearances in Europe and even across the Atlantic. Let’s look at that history — and at what policies are provoking its return today.
Fascism across Europe since 1945
Fascism, in one form or another, didn’t disappear from Europe after 1945. We use fascism here as scholars do, meaning a basket of beliefs in nationalism, authoritarianism, the urgency of halting the moral decay of one’s culture and nation, the superiority of one’s own community or people, and rejection of impure “others.” All these beliefs are held while following a charismatic leader, rejecting traditional party politics, and spurning democratic institutions and compromises. We see some of these tendencies in Europe today.
European neo-fascism found new followers in Europe as early as the 1980s, when Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front began winning seats in France and in the European Parliament. Since the 1990s, such parties surfaced in many European nations, modernizing their propaganda by positing immigrants as a challenge to national traditions and European (white) civilization. Some mainstream forces picked up this idea and legitimized this xenophobic discourse.
In 2016, we can see many more signs that narrow nationalist politics, one aspect of fascism, are on the rise. For instance, in January, Europe of the Nations and Freedom attracted more than 1,000 people to its inaugural congress in Milan, launched with the slogan “Freer, Stronger! Another Europe is possible.” That alliance was seeded in June 2015 by Marine Le Pen’s National Front, which brought the European Parliament’s far-right parties into this official political group. She was aided by Matteo Salvini, from the Italian Northern League, who proudly announced, “We are the international group of common people.”
What is more, the brand-new neo-fascist People’s Party-Our Slovakia won 8 percent of the vote in Slovakia’s March elections. In January, the leader of the right-wing Dutch Freedom party, Geert Wilders, proclaimed, “Get used to it: We are the future.” Wilders’s future is one without immigrants or Islam, but with plenty of fences and border protections.
Parallels are emerging across the Atlantic. Donald Trump, like right-wing candidates in Europe, appeals to some who prefer a cultural and political “integralism” — when people want to maintain their ethnic identity in an increasingly pluralistic world. A number of his followers are involved in political groups linked to modern right-wing nationalism.
The mainstream parties do not appear prepared for the backlash to austerity policies
Mainstream politicians and European Union institutions don’t seem ready for any of this.
Much of the problem is that the center-left and the center-right have recently embraced economic austerity policies. But tighter budgets meant dismantling Europe’s anti-fascist “postwar consensus,” which provided social protections and placed some emphasis on welfare and labor. Without this social safety net (and anti-fascist ideological background), mainstream parties have not been able to offer proposals that counter the right’s appeal to workers and people scared of globalization, capitalism and immigration.
More austerity does not really make an attractive political platform. It also challenges solidarity among people and generates mistrust among E.U. member nations.
A way to get out of the present and political downturn would be changing the European Union’s monetary and fiscal formulas and promoting a more social and inclusive Europe. The very important report, “Completing Europe’s Economic and Monetary Union,” released in the summer of 2015, did not seem to recognize this. It spoke of the bloc’s economic dimension as “a means to create a better and fairer life for all citizens,” but it said nothing about the rise of Euroskepticism or what’s needed to counter the rise of nationalistic and authoritarian politics. Rather, it mentioned how euro-zone member states “must stick to the rules” and recommended “surveillance of those experiencing financial difficulties.”
Elites are not grappling with the far-right’s arguments and appeal
As austerity is undermining a common European agenda and sense of belonging, and a number of citizens seem unhappy with the E.U. project, ultra-nationalist thinking is becoming legitimate and more popular than ever. Instead of tackling these difficult problems, Europe’s leaders are allowing right-wing forces to argue that they will reverse national misfortunes and defend citizens against all of their “enemies.”
If E.U. elites are not interested in promoting another image of the European Union, sociologist Zygmunt Bauman may be right in wondering whether “the centuries-long European adventure [is] running out of steam and grinding to a halt.”
Andrea Mammone is a historian of modern Europe at Royal Holloway at the University of London, is the author of “Transnational Neofascism in France and Italy” and is writing a book on the recent nationalist turn in Europe.