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2 December 2022

Europe’s far-right parties are learning from one another

With the hard right in power in Italy and Sweden, sister parties across the EU are hoping they will be next.

By Ido Vock

BERLIN – When the Sweden Democrats (SD) agreed to support the mainstream Moderate Party in September, it was the first time that a Swedish government depended on support from the far right. Days after that government was formed, an election in Italy brought Giorgia Meloni to power as the country’s first hard-right leader since Mussolini, with support from more centre-right parties. The new Swedish and Italian governments are the latest examples of the mainstream right in Europe breaking taboos by cooperating with the radical right – the so-called cordon sanitaire – following examples set in the past by Austria, Estonia and Finland.

On the issue that matters most to the hard right – immigration – the newly empowered far right is already having an impact on government policy. The SD is pushing Sweden to oppose EU migration policy, including reportedly seeking to block Romania and Bulgaria from joining the borderless Schengen area. Meanwhile Meloni’s government has had a spat with France by refusing to let the Ocean Viking, a migrant rescue boat, dock in its ports.

Far-right leaders in other European countries have celebrated their Italian and Swedish sister parties coming to power. Santiago Abascal, the leader of Spain’s far right Vox, tweeted photos of himself with Meloni following her election. “Everywhere in Europe, people aspire to take their destiny back into their own hands,” said Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader who came second in this year’s French presidential election, after the Swedish result. But does the success of the far right in Sweden and Italy make it more likely that sister parties in other countries will win their own elections?

There are two aspects to the question. The first is whether voters take notice of political developments in other countries, such as the electoral victories of far-right parties, when deciding on how to cast their own votes. In practice, ordinary people tend to pay scant attention to politics outside their own countries, edge cases aside, according to the political scientists I spoke to. “I think politics is much more national, or domestic if you want, than much of the international reporting suggests,” said Cas Mudde, a professor at the University of Georgia. Still, he added, “there is little doubt that the normalisation of the far right in more and more Western countries has some effect on countries that still use a cordon sanitaire.”

And if the newly empowered far right is a notable success in countries such as Italy or Sweden in implementing favoured far-right policies, particularly on migration, which may cut through with voters in other countries. “There is work showing that the success of far-right parties in one region increases the probability that the far right will also be successful in adjacent regions,” Vicente Valentim, a research fellow at the University of Oxford, told me.

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The second side to the question is probably the more consequential. Voters might not pay much attention to politics in other countries – but elites, including politicians, do. Right-wing parties already speak to and learn from each other. A good example of parties sharing lessons from elsewhere is the fallout from Brexit. If many European far-right parties once championed leaving the EU, the mounting costs of the UK’s vote to leave the bloc in 2016 have all but silenced advocates of further withdrawals. Today, parties on the far right usually advocate reforming rather than quitting the EU, a proposition that no longer appeals to voters in the same way.

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The Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has also long inspired far-right parties across the EU, who view his iron hold on power and anti-migrant politics as a model for their own. Meloni “was very close to Orbán, who she explicitly said several times was her model of a European leader”, said Teresa Coratella, programme manager at the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Rome office. She added, however, that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused Meloni to distance herself from the Kremlin-friendly Orbán.

For political elites, the question of the eroding norms against radical-right parties working with parties traditionally viewed as moderate is key. While in the past, parties of the mainstream right adhered to the cordon sanitaire, leaders are increasingly willing to disregard that norm if parliamentary arithmetic demands it in order to gain power, as in Sweden.

If the centre right in one country sees that its counterparts in others can form coalitions with the far right and suffer few or no consequences politically or internationally, it will be more willing to entertain the prospect of doing so itself. That means that the experience of parties such as the Swedish Moderates is probably the most instructive of all. If, in 1999, the centre-right Austrian People’s Party made itself a European pariah by forming a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party, the Moderates have suffered virtually no penalty for governing with support from the Sweden Democrats.

This eroding norm is likely to affect the politics on the broad right across the EU. Spain may be the next test case. In April, the centre-right People’s Party (PP) formed a coalition with Vox in the northern region of Castilla and León, bringing the hard right into a regional government for the first time ever. (The agreement was greenlit by the national PP leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo.) With the norm against cooperation with the far right broken, that arrangement may be a precedent for national politics after elections scheduled for December next year, when the PP may require Vox votes to form a government.

Still, if in some countries the cordon sanitaire is weakening or breaking completely, it continues to hold in others. In Germany, for example, cooperation between the mainstream right and the far right is still taboo on a formal level. In France, too, the two candidates for the leadership of the once-dominant Republican party have both rejected the prospect of an alliance with Le Pen’s National Rally (not least because given the balance of power on the right, the centre right would likely be the junior partner in such an arrangement).

As the taboo against cooperation between the mainstream and radical right breaks down in a growing number of countries, parliamentary arithmetic will dictate whether such parties remain out of power. As Mudde put it to me: “If preferred coalitions are dependent upon far-right cooperation, mainstream parties will choose them.” 

[See also: Is Volodymyr Zelensky losing the support of the West in Ukraine?]