How Europe's far-right will - and won't - flourish in 2014

While the more established parties, such as the Front National and the Sweden Democrats, look set to enjoy the next year, others are likely to remain firmly on the fringe.

Thirty years ago in February, a relatively unknown French politician by the name of Jean-Marie Le Pen was invited onto a popular television programme named The Hour of Truth. The event, which introduced Le Pen’s beliefs to French voters, became a pivotal moment in the history of his party, the Front National. Shortly afterwards it took 2.2 million votes at the 1984 European elections and over the next three decades became a major political force.
 
Three decades on from Le Pen's debut, Europe is braced for the next set of EU elections, which many are predicting will hand fresh gains to the far-right. This includes Marine Le Pen (Jean-Marie’s daughter) who recently finished first in a poll of how the French intend to vote at the elections in May. Alongside unemployment, austerity and rising inequality, today’s far-right is also likely to benefit from a collapse of public trust in established politics. Consider this: since the crisis the percentage of voters across Europe who trust the EU has fallen from almost 60% to barely 30%. And as I write this today, only one in four say they trust their national leaders. In short, it could be argued that Europe's far-right has never had it so good.
 
So what do the next 12 months hold for the far-right? Attention will understandably focus on the European elections which are an 'easy hit' for populist outsiders. As academics have shown, unlike national contests they tend to be characterised by low turnout, indifference among voters and stronger protest sentiment against national politicians, all of which fuels the far-right. While headlines will most likely focus on the new alliance between Le Pen and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, 2013 also saw the return of the Austrian Freedom Party, formerly led by (the now deceased) Jörg Haider. The party recovered from a downturn to win 20% of the national vote and 40 seats in parliament, a reversal of fortunes that was especially striking in Haider’s old stronghold of Carinthia, where its vote jumped from 7% to 17%.
 
But such gains should also be set alongside cases of failure. The far-right has prospered amidst crisis in countries like Austria, France and the Netherlands but has stalled or fallen back in places like Belgium, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal and Spain. The top of the German far-right is in disarray following the resignation of one of its leaders. Despite record youth unemployment, the far-right in Spain is insignificant outside of a few local areas, while the collapse of the British National Party amidst recession and austerity, and then the English Defence League, underscores the point that the far-right’s fortunes do not depend simply on the presence of a crisis. 
 
In fact, evidence-based predictions of what will happen over the next 12 months paint a very different picture from the conventional wisdom that tells us the far-right is running riot across the continent. Based on results at the most recent election, the academic Cas Mudde estimates that only 12 of 28 states in the EU will see far-right parties enter the European Parliament. It is estimated they will take around 34 seats –or between 4% and 6.5% of all seats. Even if we add on all the other non-far-right but still anti-EU populist parties –like the True Finns in Finland, the Alternative for Germany, the UK Independence Party and even Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement in Italy- we are still left with a highly diverse collection of parties that are unlikely to win more than 15-20% of all seats, and even less likely to build a cohesive force. A record result, notes Mudde, but hardly a serious hindrance.
 
In many respects, the more interesting predictions concern elections away from the EU. The next year will see important local elections in France, where Marine Le Pen hopes to win "hundreds, maybe a thousand" local seats. Her party's grassroots machine has an impressive track record, having won a local by-election in October that saw her candidate take 53% of the vote. Le Pen’s 'detox strategy' is increasing her party’s appeal within French society, and the local elections are the next step in building a major breakthrough. There are also local elections in the Netherlands, where 2013 saw Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom recover from a difficult start to emerge as the most popular. Nationally, Wilders and the PVV are currently predicted to win more national seats than any other party, and are also set for a strong 2014.
 
Three other contests should also be watched closely. First, around the same time as the European elections are local elections in Greece across over 300 municipalities as well as a highly symbolic Mayoral election in Athens that Golden Dawn plans to contest. In 2013, support for the neo-Nazi party peaked at an average of over 12% in the polls (although some put this higher). While support then slumped following the murder of an anti-fascist rapper, it later rebounded. In December 2013, Golden Dawn averaged 11% in the polls - 4 points higher than their result in the 2012 national election. Some Greeks have simply not been put off by public sympathies for Nazism, involvement with murder and the beating of migrants. Assuming this support holds steady, and Golden Dawn is not forcibly disbanded by the state, then in 2014 Europe faces the very real prospect of Golden Dawn representatives in the European Parliament, local councils and enjoying a strong result in Athens.
 
Second, a national election in Hungary scheduled for the spring is likely to see a decent result for the virulently anti-Roma and anti-Semitic Jobbik movement, which has links to the BNP. Jobbik entered the Hungarian parliament for the first time in 2010 after receiving over 800,000 votes, or over 16% of the national vote. While support then dropped, Jobbik has continued to average around 13% among decided voters (although a large number of Hungarians remain undecided). There is little reason why this movement that is closely linked to paramilitary groups will not entrench its position as a significant force in Hungarian politics, and retain or increase its three seats in the European Parliament. Then, in September, a national election in Sweden will see the Sweden Democrats -a party rooted in neo-Nazism - attempt to build on its result in 2010 when it attracted 5.7% of the vote and entered parliament for the first time with 20 seats. The most recent polls put them on around 10% and predict 30 seats.
 
Overall, then, Europe’s far-right will remain very much in the news throughout 2014. But it is also important to recognise that while some of the more established movements look set to enjoy the next year, others are likely to remain firmly on the fringe – and despite the crisis. If the last few years have taught us anything about this toxic force in European politics, it is that while economic hardship may help certain parties at certain points, it is by no means the full story as to why some on the far-right are on their way to the mainstream while others have been left on the margins. 
 
Matthew Goodwin is Associate Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, and Associate Fellow at Chatham House. He tweets @GoodwinMJ
French Front National leader Marine Le Pen speaks during a party meeting in Paris on November 17, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle