The European election and the Far Right

Published: 5 Jun, 2024

Opinion Piece by Harry Browne

There has been a lot of alarming and confusing talk about Far Right forces in Europe over the last few months – not least EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen seemingly to simultaneously vow that she would and would not work with them after the June election returns a new European Parliament.  

The confusion arises partly because different people mean different things when they say ‘Far Right’. 

For most of us, the definition is not all that difficult: across Europe, we recognise the Far Right by its aggressive, generally nationalist-tinged hostility to many forms of immigration, often ready to spill over from the sphere of political debate into the streets. In Ireland as elsewhere, we usually also spot it by its adherence to traditional sexual and gender norms; this has focussed historically on combating the expansion of women’s reproductive rights, and right-wingers have also been busy of late fighting against protections and visibility for gay and trans people in legal and cultural domains.  

Fuzzier definitions of the contemporary Far Right focus on how such issues are mobilised to rally support against a perceived liberal globalist elite, sometimes buttressed – especially since the Covid pandemic – by conspiracy theories about that elite’s behaviour and motivations. (This focus on right-wingers’ disposition to conspiracy and misinformation tends to underestimate the large role played by motivated reasoning and poorly sourced knowledge across all sections of the political spectrum.) 

Racial, gender-oriented and cultural understandings of the Far Right are so predominant partly because on the European right, as on the left, attitudes toward the free market and the role of states in economies are varied and confused. Neither Thatcherite neoliberalism nor statist paternalism holds clear ideological hegemony even within most right-wing parties and groups in Europe, let alone across them. The Far Right growth among working-class white Europeans is not based on what we would have known previously as class politics. 

Still, notwithstanding the blurred edges, we know Europe’s Far Right when we see it, because it is anti-immigrant, homo- and transphobic, and usually hostile to Muslims and ‘the woke’. Armed with this understanding, fighting against the Far Right means standing up for those it would attack and oppress. 

However, the version of a dangerous Far Right deployed strategically by Ursula von der Leyen and other European leaders is quite different. As the stories linked in the first paragraph attest, those leaders draw the line instead on the basis of foreign and military policy.  

As the EU is integrated further into NATO strategy, the Far Right that is presented as a danger to Europe’s leadership class largely consists of that section of the European right that is sceptical of those developments, and open to more sympathetic engagement with Russia. 

Groups in the European Parliament are fluid and likely to re-orient after the June election; already some parties are sweet-talking across group boundaries, and others are falling out inside them. Broadly speaking, though, the Far Right that worries Ursula von der Leyen consists mostly of those parties currently linked in the ‘Identity and Democracy’ (ID) grouping: that currently includes the likes of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France and, until recently, the Alternative for Germany party. The largely similar Far Right parties in the ‘European Conservatives and Reformists’ group – mostly notably Spain’s Vox and Brothers of Italy – are, from EU leaders’ point of view, just fine 

For example: the wholly reactionary Italian prime minister Georgia Meloni, from that Brothers of Italy party, has already been front and centre in making European migration policy – leading a delegation to Cairo that signed an agreement with the Egyptian dictatorship. That agreement is part of a concerted and sustained European campaign to bribe non-EU governments to stop people, by any means necessary, before they can get to EU shores. 

And that’s the real danger of alarmism about some elements of the Far Right making gains in the coming European election: it tends to conceal the fact that right-wing policy and policymakers are already very much in power in the European Union, and they are killing migrants by the thousands – even if their leaders’ rhetoric isn’t always as scarily charged with hate as that of the ostensible Far Right. 

This reality is not quite as obscure as it was this time last year, when EU foreign policy was still veiling itself in the virtue of Ukrainian resistance to Russia’s illegal invasion. The seemingly relentless and destructive slaughterhouse of that war has lessened the EU’s glow; but the veil of justice and legality really fell to the floor when Israel unleashed hell on Gaza. 

Ursula von der Leyen’s institutionally dubious but politically presidential embrace of Israeli aggression – her visit, her words of support, her projection of an Israeli flag on EU buildings in Brussels as the bombs fell – was greeted with quiet shock even by some people in the EU leadership. But von der Leyen, who presents herself as the defender of European democracy is almost certain to return to her post as president of the EU Commission when the institutions re-gather after the election. 

The Government parties in Ireland have been notable for their efforts to move toward integration in European military structures and away from neutrality. However, in fairness to the Fine Gael politicians in Von der Leyen’s centre-right ‘European People’s Party’ group, the commission president’s solidarity with Israel has made uncomfortable viewing for them, given the Irish people’s general revulsion at the slaughter of Palestinians. Fianna Fáilers have been similar isolated on Palestine within the smaller centrist ‘Renew’ group.  

Such has been the power wielded by the pro-Israel leadership in Brussels, and in major countries such as Germany, that even the grouping that styles itself ‘The Left’ (including several Irish MEPs) has been slow in moving toward calls for a Gaza ceasefire. 

However, two Irish independents who sit with that Left group, Dublin’s Clare Daly and Ireland South’s Mick Wallace, are acknowledged by colleagues as the parliament’s leading opponents of the pro-war consensus. Daly, who famously labelled Von der Leyen ‘Frau Genocide’, has consistently gone viral on social media across the world with one-minute eviscerations of Israeli, American and European policies. Daly and Wallace are avatars of a global movement, especially of young people, opposing those policies. 

On the other side, and notwithstanding the many right-wing parties across Europe that are politically descended from the murderous antisemitic forces of the first half of the 20th century, the Far Right largely lines up with Von der Leyen in support of the Israeli war in Gaza. Why wouldn’t they? After all, what could be more ‘traditional’, given Europe’s bloody history, than colonialism and mass murder? 

Standing against war, standing beside the oppressed who are targets and victims of right-wing parties and policies, and identifying clearly the already-existing rightward drift of Europe’s institutions – it turns out doing all these things simultaneously is difficult for most politicians. The temptation instead is to locate Far Right forces as expressions of a ‘populism’, menacing zombies outside the realm of sensible legitimate politics, and to hammer shut the institutional doors and windows – governments, civil society, media – to defend against them.  

This strategy buys time for a moribund establishment to hold its grip on most of those major institutions and on polite public discourse in mainstream media. For those of us who are genuinely concerned about threats to our social and ecological futures posed by a militant and militaristic right, it is, however, obtuse on two counts. (1) Rhetorically, it tells millions of people who think they hear their concerns echoed in right-wing talking points that they are execrable outsiders, ‘deplorables’ – and therefore tends to reinforce rather than reverse their attraction to the forces that court them more warmly. (This is largely the basis of the effort of Niall Boylan to become the Irish Trump.) (2) Practically, it ignores the destructive right-wing developments, from crumbling public services to drowning immigrants, that have been advanced by the very institutions that sit smugly beside us as we busily erect the defences. 

One step toward an emancipatory and inclusive politics would involve abandoning the comforting fiction of the Far Right as outsiders, whom All Sensible People can unite to oppose. The fact is, when it comes to right-wing policies and the European Union, the call is coming from inside the house.