Europe’s far right is joining forces with libertarian climate deniers

Far-right European parties are embracing climate crisis denial – a move borrowed from the libertarian playbook.

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Last week, Barbara Kolm, one of Europe’s most high-profile libertarians, was formally accused of illegally funneling money to some of Europe’s most high-profile right-wing populist parties. If true, the alliance is the latest episode in a history of collaboration between champions of free markets and opponents of non-white immigration.

Kolm is royalty in the organised neoliberal movement: president of Vienna’s Friedrich Hayek Institute, director of the Austrian Economics Center, member of the Mont Pelerin Society and adviser on Honduras’s ill-fated experiment in private cities, alongside tax opponent Grover Norquist and Ronald Reagan’s son. Like another famous libertarian, US education secretary Betsy DeVos, her wealth comes from direct marketing—a field her husband pioneered in Austria.

The Austrian Social Democratic Party’s legal team has brought a complaint against Kolm for allegedly making illegal donations to the cross-European Alliance of Conservatives and Reformers in Europe (ACRE). It also alleges misuse of the large donations that ACRE made to Kolm’s “Free Market Roadshow” in 2017 and 2018, a junket that targets formerly Communist countries in East and Central Europe that Kolm perceives as open to the messages of libertarian Austrian Economics.

The Hayek Institute and ACRE don’t appear natural bedfellows. Their politics are superficially distant, and there are no Austrian political parties among the ACRE group. Its core members include Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party and the Brothers of Italy party. Yet what might appear a political mismatch is in fact a convenient alignment of values.

Austria’s Hayek Institute has long associated with the far right. Kolm has hosted the German firebrand author Thilo Sarrazin more than once, whose book Germany Abolishes Itself argues against Muslim immigration and makes spurious claims of racial differences in IQ. Just last month, Kolm hosted the German sociologist and Mont Pelerin Society member Erich Weede, who has proposed screening migrants by IQ, and agrees with Sarrazin that European states should sharply curtail migration from Africa and Asia.

Sarrazin’s book has sold over 1.5 million copies and is widely thought to have catalysed the upsurge in far-right sentiment that parties like the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which now sits in the Bundestag as Germany’s official opposition party, have capitalised upon. When his publisher Random House judged Sarrazin’s most recent book, Enemy Takeover: How Islam Blocks Progress and Threatens Society too incendiary, he published with the libertarian-friendly Finanzbuch Verlag, which specialises in investor advice manuals, introductions to Austrian Economics, and guides on how to survive the coming economic collapse by buying gold and cryptocurrency. 

ACRE itself is a fulcrum for the fusion of anti-immigrant European chauvinism and anti-regulation Euroscepticism. It was formed in 2009 as a counterpart to the European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR) political grouping, which is currently polling under 10 per cent in forthcoming European elections. But ACRE’s future hangs in the balance. When and if Brexit takes place, it may lose one of its founding members – the British Conservative party. 

The history of the European party captures much of the right-libertarian nexus. Alongside the Tories, one of its founding parties was the Czech Civic Democratic Party (ODS), the champion of a sudden or “shock” transition to capitalism after the end of communism. ODS co-founder Vaclav Klaus, who served as president of the Czech Republic from 2003 to 2013 and held previous posts as finance minister and prime minister, was a darling of Europe’s neoliberal movement during the 1990s.

Klaus’s trajectory is a parable for the evolution of libertarian thought. The politician, who claims Hayek as his personal sage and is a frequent speaker at the meetings of the Mont Pèlerin Society, spent the 1990s passionately defending privatisation and opposing trade unions. Like other libertarian think tanks including the Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute in the US, and the Global Warming Policy Foundation in the UK, he later switched his target to environmental policies, particularly those of the European Union. 

By the early 2000s, Klaus had become a full-blown climate crisis denier. His 2008 book, Blue Planet in Green Shackles questioned anthropogenic warming and argued that the best course of action in the face of climate change was to do “nothing”. According to Klaus, environmentalism has displaced socialism as “the largest threat to freedom, democracy, the market economy, and prosperity.”

“To use the words of Friedrich Hayek,” he said in a message to the US Congress, citing his deceased patron, environmentalists “try to stop free, spontaneous human action and replace it by their very own, very doubtful human design.”

Kolm agreed with Klaus that the new road to serfdom was green. In the press release for his “special Hayek lecture” at her institute in 2007, she said that recommendations from the International Panel on Climate Change would “bury free markets and free societies and lead to a green global socialism.”

In more recent years, Klaus has discovered a positive counterforce to the environmentalists, and has joined forces with the right-wing movements of France, Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands in calling for an end to the European Union, a return to the nation-state, and the closing of borders to migrants. Kolm too, has suggested that the European Union will cease to exist by 2023. During a 2017 talk at the Heartland Institute, Kolm reportedly said that any optimism she felt about the survival of the European Union was “extremely dim, given the mass number of Muslims migrants who will over time change the demographics of Europe to one that will represent a Muslim culture.”

The public message of the libertarian flagship Mont Pelerin Society is that it opposes the upsurge of the far right. Most notably, it hosted a conference in 2017 on “the populist threat to the free society.” Yet some of its most high profile members share an opposition to green policies, Brussels bureaucrats and Muslim migrants with the far right, creating fertile terrain for growing convergence. Just as ACRE cosies up to the Hayek Institute, the AfD has outwardly embraced climate denial – a move borrowed from the libertarian playbook.

While Eurosceptics often criticise the EU as a neoliberal bogeyman, libertarian thinkers and far-right populists are agreeing on a different Eurosceptic agenda: one founded on their shared opposition to asylum policy, environmental regulation, state taxation and the “European addiction to welfarism.” Neoliberal economics, climate crisis denial and xenophobia are the freedoms emblazoned on their flag.

Quinn Slobodian is an associate professor of history at Wellesley College, and the author of Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism. He tweets @zeithistoriker

Quinn Slobodian is an associate professor of history at Wellesley College, and the author of Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism