European Affairs

Europe's Extreme Right Is Pervasive But Not Invincible     Print Email
Baudouin Bollaert

The entry into the Austrian government of the extreme right Freedom Party, led by Jörg Haider, provoked an outcry in Europe, but also much misunderstanding. A clear conflict exists, in fact, between the sovereignty of the European Union's 15 member states and the influence that the EU can or should have on their domestic affairs.

The Haider affair has demonstrated that the EU indeed constitutes a "community of values." It was in that light that 14 of its members decided to impose sanctions against Austria, even though the measures were largely symbolic.


The 14 governments, however, were obliged to act bilaterally. The EU as an institution took no steps, because it is also a "community of law" where the right of veto exits. It is unlikely that Austria would vote against itself.

At the same time, Europeans have discovered, or rediscovered, that the extreme right can prosper not only in countries struggling with unemployment and social instability, but also in peaceful and prosperous countries. "National populism," of course, exists everywhere: in the United States with Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan or Jesse Ventura; in Australia with Pauline Hanson; in Argentina with the Peronists... and in Europe, as well.

Writing in the Viennese newspaper Die Presse, Claus Leggewie, the German political scientist, says that the rise of the extreme right in Europe is linked to unemployment, just as it was during the collapse of the Weimar Republic in pre-Hitlerian Germany - even though extreme right parties scored only modest successes in last year's European Parliamentary elections. In Austria, however, he notes, the comfortable living standards of Mr. Haider's supporters suggest that his success is not all due to economic difficulties.

It is the same thing in Switzerland. The Democratic Union of the Center (UDC), led by billionaire Christoph Blocher, which is very close to the Freedom Party, won more than 22 percent of the vote in elections last October. Mr. Haider's party had attracted 27 percent of Austrian voters a few weeks earlier, and subsequent polls put his support much higher.

It may or may not be a coincidence that this surge of the right has occurred in two neutral countries. For Mr. Leggewie, it is not surprising because, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, these countries lost their "point of reference." "Their stability has collapsed," he says. "They no longer understand the world." In other words, their neutrality, once so useful, no longer serves any purpose, and the void alarms them.

Geography also plays an important role. In inventing the term "Alpine populism," the Geneva paper Le Temps has correctly identified a phenomenon which reaches from the northeast of Italy to Bavaria. It is no accident that Edmund Stoiber, the powerful leader of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) party, encouraged his friend Wolfgang Schüssel, the leader of the conservative Austrian People's Party, to ally himself with Mr. Haider in the new governing coalition.

In Italy, Umberto Bossi's Northern League will soon be celebrating its tenth birthday. While the National Alliance, born from the neo-fascist MSI, has broken with the extreme right, the Northern League is cultivating fairly close relations with Mr. Haider's Freedom Party, the Scottish National Party, and the Belgian Vlaams Blok (Flemish Bloc), a right-wing party favoring Flemish independence. The Northern League is strongest in Lombardy, the Veneto and Friulia, where it dreams of creating a new, independent state called "Padania."

Umberto Bossi told the French newspaper Le Figaro that "Austrians have had enough of historic compromise between conservatives and social democrats. The two parties have governed the country for 30 years with all the corruption one would expect. Haider wants to control immigration. At least he is taking the bull by the horns."

The Bavarian CSU has been well-established for a long time. One cannot attach the "extreme right" label to it. It has dominated Germany's largest region (with 12 million inhabitants) since World War II. Positioned to the right of the CDU, its Christian Democrat "big sister," it is the respectable face of "Alpine populism." Like Franz-Josef Strauss before him, Edmund Stoiber does not hide his ambition to become Germany's Federal Chancellor one day.

On the economic front, with such powerful corporations as Siemens and BMW, Bavaria is strong and open to the world. The CSU is not protectionist. Unlike the Freedom Party and the Swiss UDC, it is not anti-European. If Switzerland joins the European Union, says a UDC supporter, "Our wine will be in competition with French wine, taxes will rise, and we will be invaded by immigrants."

Further from the Alps, the European extreme right takes on a wider variety of faces. There is the same fear of immigration, the need for security and regional or national identity, but the electorate is more working class, older and more protectionist. Racist incidents are more frequent.

In France, the National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen - who has frequently made objectionable remarks about concentration camps - espouses ideas close to those of the Vlaams Blok, with which he has formed a group in the European Parliament. The National Front, split into two camps, is in decline, while the Vlaams Blok is on the rise.

In Germany, the Union of the German People (DVU), the National Democratic Party (NPD) and the Republicans (Republikaner) are battling for the support of those nostalgic for the Third Reich. But these are token parties without any real electoral base. Like the Conservatives in Britain, the CDU-CSU has shown it can assimilate most of the extreme right forces in Germany.

Finally, in Denmark, since 1995 the Danish Popular Party (PPD) of Pia Kjaersgaard has been attracting retirees, anti-Europeans and all kinds of disillusioned voters. Although it won only 7.5 percent of the vote in elections in 1998, the PPD might today score as high as 18 percent, according to the latest polls.

Like the parties of Jörg Haider in Austria and Christoph Blocher in Switzerland, the PPD is thus on the rise. But it has no known ties with its foreign equivalents, and up to now it has not been shaken by scandal, unlike the Front National or the Vlaams Blok. That is what gives it its strength.

Corruption and financial scandals are, in fact, and always have been the most fertile ground for the growth of populist parties in Europe. The general outcry against the rise to power of the Freedom Party in Austria is also explained by the fear of certain European governments of being caught up in scandals.

It is not by accident that the three countries leading the charge to condemn the new Austrian government - Belgium, France and Germany - are locked in their own financial scandals and are worried about the extreme right in their own domestic politics.

The warning given to the Schlüssel-Haider team also applies to the 12 countries now negotiating to join the EU, with Hungary and the Czech Republic among those first in line. But let us not forget future candidates for membership or association such as Croatia, Albania, Serbia, Turkey and Russia, where the extreme right is very present.

The message is clear: in a "community of values" there is no place for xenophobic parties. The French extreme right has weakened itself by infighting. In Sweden, the national-populist New Democracy party disappeared from the political scene after having had 25 members of Parliament in 1991. Six percent of the Swedish population is made up of foreigners, compared to four percent in Denmark. In other words, there is nothing inevitable about the rise of the extreme right.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number I, Issue number II in the Spring of 2000.

 
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