Germans have been taking to the streets demonstrating against the far-right Alternative for Germany (Afd). The protests follow news reports that some AfD members took part in a conspiratorial meeting to prepare for the mass expulsion of foreigners. I share the sentiment and the outrage against the vile neo-Nazi organisers of that meeting. But I doubt that these demonstrations will have much of an effect. Remember the march of one million in London against Brexit? The Brexit marches are a warning that political battles are won at the ballot box.
The reasons for the rise of the far right in Europe are the same everywhere: mass migration, deindustrialisation, opposition to green and net zero policies, resistance to metropolitan social and environmental values. In Germany, the AfD is now polling at 21 per cent. The party recently launched by Sahra Wagenknecht, a well-known politician of the far left, is supported by 7 per cent. Combined, the radical fringe makes up a third of total voters.
At the European elections in June, the far right is expected to make big gains. It will not “win” the elections in the classic sense. But, according to analysis by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), the European Parliament’s two main far-right groups combined – the Identity and Democracy faction, together with the Conservatives and Reformists alliance – will be approximately as big as the main centre-left bloc, comprising the Socialists and Democrats, plus the Greens. This power shift will have a huge impact on EU politics. The era of left-wing dominance in the EU is ending.
One of those far-right camps, the European Conservatives and Reformists, was joined by David Cameron’s Tories. Its most prominent representative now is Giorgia Meloni, the Italian prime minister, and it includes Poland’s Law and Justice party. The other grouping, Identity and Democracy, encompasses the AfD, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands and Matteo Salvini’s Lega in Italy.
The European Parliament does not have formal coalitions that form governments. It has shifting voting coalitions instead. Thus a change in the parliament’s political profile might not affect who is going to be the next Commission president: the betting is on a second term for Ursula von der Leyen (Giorgia Meloni supports her and her centre-right European People’s Party).
But the shift to the right will have a huge effect on the EU’s political agenda. First, it will kill its Green Deal, the prestige project of the Commission. The most controversial part of this programme has been the Nature Restoration Law. It passed in July 2023 with a narrow majority. The law forces countries to set aside 20 per cent of their land and sea areas for natural restoration by 2030. It is one of the reasons for the farmers’ protests taking place across Europe. They see it as a landscaping project forced upon them by people who live in cities. As with Brexit, the political conflict in the EU is increasingly playing out according to dividing lines between metropolitan areas and the provinces. Under the far-right coalition that the ECFR has projected, the Nature Restoration Law would not have passed. There would be a structural anti-Green majority in the European Parliament.
The centre tends to respond to the right with outrage. It would be smarter for centrist politicians to focus on the policies that have given rise to the far right. Here is my short to-do list…
First, end austerity. Austerity is a political doomsday machine during times of weak economic growth. Germany’s debt brake is the worst and least flexible of all the pro-cyclical fiscal rules in the EU. In theory, they should allow for counter-cyclical policies. In practice, it never works out like that. Governments always end up with austerity because this is the path of least resistance.
Second, deal with deindustrialisation. The governments of France and Germany are pretending it is not happening. They are trying to reverse it with huge subsidies for industrial firms that have no hope of ever being profitable again. Reindustrialisation is a promise the centre cannot keep and which will damage its credibility further. What governments should do instead is to present a strategy for a post-industrial order. Everybody talks about threats; very few talk about opportunities.
Third, get realistic about Ukraine. As the US is dropping its financial and military support for Kyiv, the financial burden falls on the EU. In times of re-emerging fiscal constraints, Ukraine is a gift from heaven for the far right. The EU should work on an exit strategy other than total victory.
And finally, get serious about migration. Solve the problem. My own preference would be for a much more active policy of engagement with Africa and the Middle East. The EU can never protect its porous maritime borders and mountainous passageways through force alone.
What is happening right now is that the serial policy errors of the past decade – in energy policy, in industrial policies, in defence policies, and in the eurozone – are coming together. I see the strength of the far right in Europe as a metric of policy failures in the centre. Brexit was not the result of bad people lying to stupid people; instead it came about because the relationship between the UK and the EU had become unsustainable. If you are really interested in defeating the far right, maybe start by demonstrating against austerity. And solve the problem.
[See also: Can Europe defend itself in a hostile world?]
This article appears in the 31 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Rotten State