Every political battle is a battle over the definition of society. Laying the foundations of a post-war Europe was based on democracy, tolerance, unity, cooperation, and the rule of law. Post-war consensus about the values of our societies seemed to be monolithic. But in the past dozen years forgotten far-right sentiments appeared again all over Europe. Extreme right-wing identitarianism rose as a new reactionary voice in many European countries. One of the crucial challenges in the European future will be the battle over the definition of contemporary society. But have the rising far-right sentiments have the potential to disrupt post-war democratic consensus and unity, or is this issue overrated?
Far-right sentiments – history and trends
Far-right is not a new phenomenon in Europe. Even after the Second World War, waves of far-right phenomena were present in European public discourse. According to German political scientist, Klaus von Beyme waves of this kind of sentiments appeared on several occasions on our continent after 1945. Von Beyme wrote about three waves of far-right advancement in postwar Europe. His analysis also noticed that every wave was more intense and more accepted in the general populace than one before. The new rise of far-right sentiments in Europe can also be proof of a newest wave in Europe.
On the other side, according to Dutch political scientist, Cas Mudde, no country is immune to far-right sentiments. In his book “The Far Right Today” he gave arguments that all countries have a fertile ground for at least some form of extreme right-wing stances. This phenomenon can be seen through, for example, nativist stances against the foreign-born population, a strong affiliation for brutal punishments for crime, or perception that all political elites are corrupt. These political positions in some part of the population can be a good starting point for development of far-right sentiments.
According to the same scientist, political circumstances and major global events since the year 2000 helped in the strengthening of far-right sentiments globally and in Europe. Mudde identified some of the events as the major causes. He wrote that the 11th September attacks and the reaction they sparked, the great recession of 2008 and the so-called ‘migrant crisis’ of 2015 had an indirect impact.
Another form of far-right sentiment that is growing in many European countries is anti-Semitism. According to the survey by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 90% of European Jews say anti-Semitism is getting worse in their countries. A similar number say they experience it online while a staggering 73% say it is evident in public spaces. On the other side, anti-Semitism is not only a far-right phenomenon. During the same period, anti-Semitic sentiment rose on the far-left too.
How big is the threat?
Far-right sentiments represent a sharp contrast to the values promoted by the European Union and its predecessors. Spreading of this world view could potentially redefine the foundations of our societies. Also, they could be lethal for European unity that brought more than 70 years of peace and prosperity to our continent. In many cases the far-right sentiment is fueled by misinformation, ‘alternative media’, conspiracy theories and fabrications. Sometimes these sentiments are fueled thanks to low profile disinformation activities carried out by foreign actors.
Russian groups carried out a widespread disinformation campaign aimed at influencing the European Parliament election, according to an analysis by the European Commission and the European Union’s diplomatic service. “The evidence collected revealed a continued and sustained disinformation activity by Russian sources aiming to suppress turnout and influence voter preferences,” the analysts said. “These covered a broad range of topics, ranging from challenging the Union’s democratic legitimacy to exploiting divisive public debates on issues such as of migration and sovereignty.” These attempts to influence the European social audience and create divisive feelings in our societies not only do represent an effective tool for other countries to pursue their strategic agenda but, also constitute a growing hybrid threat to European stability and prosperity.
One of the major threats triggered by far-right sentiments is the extreme-right violence and terrorism. According to the analysis of International Centre for Counter-Terrorism from The Hague trend of deadly far-right violence has been slightly diminishing. In 2014, there were no far-right fatal attacks in Europe, and in 2015 there was only one, but it raised to ten deadly attacks in 2016. The trend continued in 2017 and 2018, with including fewer attacks than the average for the whole period. This form of deadly violence peaked in the first half of the 1990s and it’s declining since then but would be a mistake to ignore the possibility of this form of violence to happen again.
However, recent data from the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, France Ministry of Interior and the Global Terrorism Index, show that the threat coming from for far-right terrorism is indeed increasing. Europe and especially North America are witnessing a dangerous rise in far-right terrorism, the 2019 Global Terrorism Index has found. “In 2018, far-right terrorist attacks accounted for 17.2% of terrorist incidents in the West. By contrast, attacks by Islamist groups accounted for 6.8% of attacks, and attacks not attributed to any group accounted for 62.8% of incidents in the West,” the report has found. The total number of extreme-right incidents has risen 320% in the past five years, with 71 countries having suffered at least one terrorism-related death in 38 attacks recorded in 2018, compared to only nine in 2013. The majority of right-wing terrorists are not aligned to any particular group, operating as so-called “lone wolf” attackers. However, experts have pointed out that the phrase is misleading, as the terrorists tend to belong to support networks and their radicalization process usually requires a base organisation.
A time to fight against far-right sentiments
Considering these elements, European center-right forces need now more than ever to be united in fighting far-right extremism all over Europe. Further spreading of extremist sentiments could have the potential to destroy the soul of postwar Europe that brought unprecedented progress of united Europe. Former American president Ronald Reagan said in one speech “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on them to do the same.” This quote might serve as a good compass for these potentially dangerous times.
But together with inspirational quotes, Practical measures are also very much needed. For instance, a good starting point would be for center-right to avoid entering into socio-cultural debates with the far-right. In fact, according to Cas Mudde’s analysis, far-right thrives when issues easily related to their core ideology dominate the public discourse. On the contrary, whenever socio-economic issues like pensions and unemployment dominate public debate instead of extremely divisive cultural issues, far-right sentiments are struggling in gaining traction.
European Union must insist on some form of regulations for social media in the field of countering disinformation and radicalisation. Some social networks, such as Facebook, demonstrated their fragility to far-right propaganda, fake news, conspiracy theories, and anti-Semitism. On the other side, European Union must also develop a comprehensive strategy for countering foreign influence during election periods.
However, tackling the far-right violence phenomena needs to be prioritized. According to counter-terrorism expert Tore Bjorgo, the responses need to take into account that the most severe terrorist threats from the extreme right do not come from traditional organizations, face-to-face networks, or skinhead gangs but increasingly from individuals operating alone, finding their ideological justifications, tactical inspiration and social support in extremist communities online. To prevent future deadly attacks, like one world witnessed in New Zealand, Germany and the United States last year, it is crucial to understand and monitor these online subcultures.
In conclusion, the EU and the governments of the member states are taken between two fires. The risk of overestimate the threat of coming from the far-right in contemporary society or, on the contrary underestimate it. An overestimation of the possible impacts of this threat could project some extremist ideologies from obscurity to the center of attention, with disastrous consequences for the social cohesion of EU countries. On the other hand, underestimating it and ignore these voices of protest and violent dissent in our contemporary society, might create a force of disruption of unimaginable force.