The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly — EU Elections Reveal Growing Polarization in Europe

(By: conjuncture magazine)

In France the radical right-wing party “Front National” (FN) under Marine Le Pen won in the European elections in “la Grande Nation” with a program under the title “French people first” and the demand to reinsert the death penalty. In Germany a new right-wing party “Alternative for Germany” (AfD) was capable of uniting the conservative right upper-middle class with some radical right-wing people who can be described as “Internet trolls”. They made their jump into the European parliament with a mix of demands such as homophobic family-politics, leaving the Euro, and closing the borders for the majority of migrants. In Great Britain the UK Independence Party won the elections with positions against Europa, green energy, migrants, and political correctness. And in Denmark the Danish Peoples Party (Dansk Folkeparti – DF) doubled its seats in the European parliament with demand to close the borders and homophobic positions on family policies.

These parties are united in their opposition to the EU, their heteronormative family-policies, and their hate against migrants. The general baseline of their argument is that the ominous “they” are brainwashing all of us. “They” terrorize society with political correctness, multiculturalism, and green energy.

But the new right in Europe covers their radical positions under a thin layer of conservatism to get the votes from people who might be deterred by open references to white supremacy and the Third Reich. Especially the AfD and the FN spent a good amount of time with explanations, how they are not radically right-wing and anti-semitic. Marie le Pen describes this strategy as dédiabolisation” (de-demonisation) which makes very clear, that it is less about a political position but more about the representation of the party. The AfD doesn’t have to fight against its history as the party was founded in February 2013, but their current members – including their Chairman – seem to have problems not to rip the mentioned thin layer. In various interviews their hate gainst migrants and homosexuality became more than clear.

Even if their strategy is almost too easy to identify, their success is hard to deny. There is never just one reason for the success of radical right-wing policies, the standard explanation being that an economic crisis scares people into hateful politics is way too short of a thought. With a look at Europe’s biggest countries, it is not the crisis itself that promotes these politics of exclusion, but the reactions we can see or hear from the so called established parties. Their strategy is to blame migration thus channeling social and economic fears towards a digestable scapegoat. Instead of naming the problems in the economic system we are living in, this strategy opens the door to a broader spectrum of voters.

The Christian conservative party in Germany (CDU/CSU) – currently the strongest party in the government – announced the possibility of a political coalition with the new AfD after their success in the European election. Additionally, the CDU/CSU election campaigns for local, national, and European elections were highly influenced by the ideas from the right corner – such as blaming Southern European lazyness for the euro crisis. In France, a similar strategy took place since 2011. The conservative UMP under Nicolas Sarcozy moved in little steps constantly to the right, trying the get the votes back from the FN. In Great Britain there is not yet an official announcement, but parts of the Tories already demand a coalition with the UKIP. The party is currently very small in the national politics, but with about 3% in the Lower House elections in 2010 and about 6% in the regional elections in 2013, they seem to have a potential, some Tories don’t want to miss. The result is not, that people who traditionally vote for the radical right now suddenly change to the conservative, but that the positions, that were morally damned while coming from radical nationalists are now pushed into a space of “general acceptance”.

Is Europe Lost to the Fascists again?

Not everything is lost – there are countries that made a turnaround in the elections. And the list shows that the countries suffering the most from the economic crisis due to a politics of austerity, do not automatically choose radical right-wing politics. There is the success of “Podemos” in Spain, a left-wing party developed out of the protest-camps in Madrid. Similarly in Greece, SYRIZA, now one of the leftest parties in the European parliament, also won the elections. The protests against a false political programs based on fiscal discipline has united the states in southern Europe in the last four years. Spain, Greece, and Portugal (where the moderate left socialist party won) were forced into an austerity program that basically killed their already suffering economy. These countries were dominanted by countries where the votes went to anti-European right-wing parties such as Germany and France. In Europe’s south, people lost their jobs, their houses, their schools, their retirement pensions – hence the complete economic basis of their lives. But instead of blaming foreigners, homosexuals, or the ominous “They”, they voted for parties that are focused on a change of the economic system.

Podemos in Spain was a direct initiative of the protest-movements that were active since 2011, mainly in Madrid. In the beginning of this year, a group of activist and left intellectuals developed the party as a project for political participation for all citizens. Important tools for them are social media platforms. The fact, that they did not try to develop a relation with the existing left-socialist party-alliance was criticized, but explained by Podemos with its self-description. They describe themselves less as a party but more as a strategy to reach political influence as a movement. This position seem to reflect the unanswered question, if the movement will win influence or loose its mobility with a step into the parliament.

To Join or Not to Join? That is the Question

This question is already answered for SYRIZA, the winner of Greece’s EU-elections. Even if the coalition under this name is relatively young, the party was founded in 2012 and its members are mainly experienced politicians, around since the mid-nineties active in the Synaspismos. Therefore, SRIZA is more an attempt to (re-)unite various leftist groups and parties to confront the austerity-politik from the so called Troika (EU-Commission, European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund) on the one hand, and the growing radical right on the other. Even if they criticize the economic policies that dominate the EU, their position is not anti-European. The hope for a strong European left is clearly included in their political program. The fact that their chairman, Alexis Tsipras, is heading the candidates’ list of the European left is a clear symbol for a pro-European position.

Independently from their history, their politics are highly influenced by the non-institutionalized protest-movements on the streets. It seems that these movements developed a profound knowledge about the actual economic and political conditions that led to the crisis in the first place. Based on this knowledge, the mass movements did not seem to be open to populist, racist explanations as an excuse for failing politicians. The named countries did have right-wing parties or movements. In Portugal there began a media campaign against Sinti and Roma after the illegal deportations out of France. The golden dawn party in Greece was loud and violent about their white supremacy positions. In Spain, the right-wing populists seem to be absorbed by the Partido Popular but were not able to push the whole party in a racist, homophobic corner. In general one can say, that the open confrontation with the economic problems, driven by the question, “what is actually destroying my economic conditions?” prevented these countries from making radical right-wing politics their dominant agenda.

There seems to be a radicalization happening in the European Union, and even if the fears in Spain to lose the power of public pressure by joining the political system is understandable, walking back into national surroundings, closing the borders, and leaving the political stage to the right wing, cannot be a solution either.

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