Should we be afraid of the new European right?

Jiří Pehe

Politolog, spisovatel a politický komentátor

The specter of far-right nationalist populism sweeping through Europe and the United States has many faces and shades. Leaving aside the neo-Nazi and neo-fascist groups that remain on the fringes of political activity in Western democracies, the most aggressive offshoot of a relatively broad spectrum is the so-called alt-right that has emerged in the US.


The American one espouses a biological racism that defends white supremacy through the return of patriarchal culture. The ideological armoury of the ‘alt-right’ thus includes anti-feminist attitudes, the fight for the ‘traditional’ family and the ban on abortion. In relation to the world, anti-globalist positions based on isolationism and economic protectionism.


Steve Bannon, a former adviser to former US President Donald Trump who emerged from the alt-right, has attempted to create something of an international of what he calls “right-wing nationalist populism”. During a 2018 trip to Europe to promote his project, he met not only with the most famous figures of European nationalist populism, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, French National Alliance head Marine Le Pen, and Italian League of the North leader Matteo Salvini, but also with Czech President Miloš Zeman.


Paradoxically, however, Bannon’s efforts to unite and link the European nationalist right with the American one have rather shown that “right-wing nationalist populism” has too many forms in Europe and its representatives will not be able to be united in a kind of international even with offers of generous financial injections from the Bannon Foundation.


One of the fundamental differences between the American and European nationalist-populist right can already be found in the understanding of the term ‘right’. They share the same views on a number of “cultural-political” issues, such as the definition of the family, and also a general opposition to liberalism with its agenda of social equality and emancipation of various minorities. But Europe’s ‘right-wing nationalist populism’ is also in many ways left-wing in its approach to economic and social issues. Moreover, being a ‘nationalist’ in the USA, which is a world power enjoying security between two oceans on a continent that it dominates, is different from being a nationalist in European countries.


European nationalist-populist parties are thus logically split rather according to their attitudes towards European integration. Although many have burst into politics with bellicose promises to take their countries out of the EU or to smash the European integration project outright, only the British Conservatives have succeeded so far, but they have – despite the flood of populism in the Brexit campaign – remained largely on the ground of traditional conservatism.


Historical parallels

But there are more reasons for the fragmentation of the European “national-populist right”. They include a history in which European countries have fought on different sides in various wars, including two world wars. Parties espousing nationalism thus find common ground more easily in opposing European integration than in looking at history. A good example of this is the difficulties Czech nationalists have with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (and to some extent with Alternative for Germany) once they start talking about the Benes decrees and the expulsion of Hungarian and German minorities from Czechoslovakia.


Historical connotations also create a minefield in the interpretation of the identity of the newly emerging nationalist-populist movements. This was demonstrated, for example, at the end of the last century in the case of the Austrian Free Party, which was accused of Nazi sympathies, not least because of the statements of its then leader Jorg Heider. The Freedmen are also good study material for anyone who today sees the possible entry of the Sweden Democrats into the new Swedish government or the leadership role of the Brothers of Italy in the next Italian government as almost the end of democracy. Even then, it has already been shown that serving in coalition governments with traditional parties has a corrosive effect on nationalist populist entities.


Their agenda is absolutist before entering a coalition government. When they cannot pursue it, internal conflicts are triggered between the advocates of “tactical compromises” and those who claim that the party is compromising itself by cooperating with the Democrats. The shift from extreme positions to the political centre that Le Pen began put her in irreconcilable conflict with her father even before the National Front, later the National Association, had a chance to become part of the French government.


The Western national populists also cannot be compared to the national populist parties in Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, which managed to form one-party governments even due to post-communist specifics and contradictory experiences with economic transformation. They then, also because of their weak democratic traditions, set about changing constitutions and electoral systems and restricting the freedom of the media and civil society.


Not only is the scenario of a ‘one-party government’ in Western Europe highly unlikely, but the relationship with liberal democracy as a political system is less problematic for the leaders of Western European populist nationalists after almost eighty years of democratic experience.


The Italian card

The victory of the Brothers of Italy, led by Giorgia Meloni, has sparked debates about which political grouping we are actually dealing with. It is true that, in its symbols and in the former sympathies of Meloni herself, the Brothers of Italy hark back to the neo-fascist post-war movements in Italy, but the party’s programme and the statements of its leaders are a mixture of traditionally conservative positions and the ideology of today’s alternative right. The invocation of national values and the traditional family, attacks on the LGBT community or opposition to abortion overlay a pragmatic stance on the EU and continued participation in the Eurozone.


With EUR 200 billion, Italy is the largest recipient of money from the EU rescue package, which is crucial for a country with a huge debt whose new government will face major economic problems. We can therefore expect a rather pragmatic policy, which will be underlined by slogans from the arsenal of the new right in an attempt to retain more radical voters. However, the real implementation of such a policy will, as is already happening in Poland and Hungary, run the risk of losing the flow of European money.


However, the statements by some Czech politicians from the ranks of the Civic Democrats that the Brothers of Italy are simply a conservative party and that Meloni is the new Margaret Thatcher are out of touch with reality. The ODS may be together with the Brothers of Italy in the European Conservatives and Reformists group in the EP, but the Brothers of Italy are about as ‘traditionally conservative’ and ‘Thatcherite’ as another member of this group, the Polish Law and Justice party.


In fact, the Brothers of Italy can be expected to be more ‘European’ than ODS and PiS, which represent countries without the euro. And at the same time, according to Meloni, they will not belong to the group of national populist and far-right EU parties which, for various reasons, take a conciliatory stance towards Putin’s Russia.


This is where the more likely coalition partners of the Brothers of Italy – Salvini’s League of the North and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia – belong. The question, however, is what influence they will have in the next government. And also how long the coalition government will last, also because of possible disputes over Italy’s international orientation.

This article was translated from the original published at magazine Přítomnost.

published: 24. 10. 2022

Datum publikace:
24. 10. 2022
Autor článku:
Jiří Pehe