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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.