What happens when the right-wing populists in the European Union become even stronger? Alexander Häusler, a social scientist at the University of Düsseldorf who studies extremism, talks about the reasons for the drift to the right, its consequences and possible counter-strategies against it.
Mr Häusler, across Europe right-wing populists are on the rise. In Germany the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland /AfD) became the third strongest political force in the country in the summer of 2015. What are the reasons for the success of right-wing parties?
The euro crisis is one reason. In addition, the number of refugees coming to Europe has steadily risen since the summer of 2015 and European countries have shown themselves incapable of finding a reasonable pan-European solution to the problem. But behind the success of right-wing parties is also a serious crisis of political representation, which enables right-wing populist forces to give ethnic-nationalistic answers to the crisis of the European model.
What distinguishes these right-wing populists from neo-Nazis?
We have in Europe right-wing extremist parties, which present themselves as right-wing populists, as well as right-wing populist parties, which don’t come from the extreme right. The most dangerous party in Western Europe is the Front National in France, which has had a clear right-wing populist orientation since, at the latest, the change of leadership from the father Jean-Marie Le Pen to his daughter Marine Le Pen. On the other hand, we have the Swiss People’s Party, the strongest right-wing populist party in all Europe, which was originally a farmers’ movement. The same broad spectrum can be seen in the European Parliament.
Both right-wing and left-wing forces profit from the crisis of the European model
Some officials of the AfD represent extreme right-wing, nationalist positons. Are the differences fluid?
Yes, up to a point. The AfD is a party political umbrella for diverse milieus to the right of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the party of Chancellor Angela Merkel. At the time of its founding in 2013, the AfD was dominated by the economic-liberal milieu around the party founder Bernd Lucke. But it’s not only since the change in party leadership in 2015 that disappointed, national conservative former supporters of the CDU and CSU, and an ethnic-nationalistic, extreme right-wing milieu, has also been part of the AfD. The spectrum ranges from conservatives who don’t consider themselves to be right-wingers to hard-core neo-Nazis. Since May 2016 the AfD has been represented in eight state legislatures and must now prove that it is capable of working in the realm of real politics. This will show whether it is a viable party or whether the same fate awaits it as other right-wing groups that have disappeared.
In some European countries there are strong left-wing populist parties: Syriza in Greece, for example, the party of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, and the Podemos party in Spain, which emerged from a political movement in 2014. How has this happened?
The motives are very different. Right-wing populism feeds on the idea of an exclusive, ethnically specific people and is directed against immigrants and foreigners. Left-wing populists, on the contrary, want to represent the entire people, and their focus is on social justice. The crisis of political representation has led to new forces on the left as well as the right gaining strength. As long as corresponding political arrangements in the European Union remain lacking, little will change here.
Confrontation instead of demonization
The success of right-wing populists is at the expense of the established parties. Are we witnessing the implosion of the European party system?
This system was already eroded in some countries several years ago. What has been evident for some time in France, Austria and the Netherlands can also happen in Germany: the shrinking and decline of the major parties, as in Italy. I’m not sure that the major parties in Germany have realized what may be ahead of us in 2016. Right-wing populists live on presenting themselves as persecuted by a left-liberal political elite that allegedly suppresses the opinion of the people, whose advocate the populists claim to be. This effect is strengthened when the established parties refuse to talk to the them. It would make more sense in Germany to seek confrontation with the AfD and to show what the consequences of national egotism and racism would be for the country and for Europe.
In Austria the FPÖ is already the strongest force in 2016. In France Marine Le Pen hopes to become president in 2017. Will right-wing politicians assume power in Europe?
They’ve already done so in part. The model of all right-wing populists is Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. If other countries follow this lead, it will be the end of a common Europe.