The Rise of the Far-Right in Europe: A Grim Future for the European Union

Written by: Ken Wang

On Sunday, September 25th, far-right nationalist politician and president of Fratelli d’ Italia (Brothers of Italy), Giorgia Meloni secured a major election victory with 45% of the vote. With this victory, another Eurosceptic far-right politician has stepped into European politics. 

Meloni’s party has its roots in post-World War II neofascism, which stemmed from the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), or the Italian Social Movement, an extremely conservative group with fascist roots that stresses traditional values, law, and order and is hostile towards revolutions and revolutionary movements. This has raised concerns abroad but not so much at home. Although the Italian constitution forbids the reconstitution of the Nazi Party, far-right groups continue to use Nazi symbols for propaganda. 

However, Italy is not the only country that has witnessed a surge in far-right politics. In fact, part of Meloni’s victory can be attributed to the rise of other far-right groups in Europe. In Germany, the surge of Alternativ für Deutschland (Afd; Alternative for Germany), which also has neo-fascist roots, has brought revived ideas of extreme nationalism and conservatism into German and European politics. In France, despite losing the election, Marine Le Pen still gained a lot of popularity by running on a similar platform as former U.S. President Trump: anti-establishment, anti-immigration, and anti-Islam. 

In Le Pen’s own words, she said, “the policies I represent are represented by Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin”. Neither Trump nor Putin has respected democracy, human rights, or the rule of law, which are key principles upheld by members of the European Union. Although Le Pen’s words do not represent all far-right Eurosceptics, she does illustrate a shared narrative among far-right European politicians: anti-EU, anti-immigration, and extremely nationalist political stances, and the adoption of populist narratives. 

The rise of the far-right in Italy has undoubtedly supplied the Eurosceptics with more ammunition to attack the establishment of the European Union, which poses a potential threat to the values dearly held by pro-EU politicians. The key question is: why and how does the rise of the far-right pose a danger to the European Union? 

Many far-right European politicians are Eurosceptics. Eurosceptic politicians often advocate for disengagement from the European Union and more national sovereignty. They all argue that European integration erodes national sovereignty, especially on the issue of border control. Within the European Union, the establishment of the Area of Security, Freedom, and Justice (ASFJ) and Schengen Area (1985) has given the European Union a collective external border. The ASFJ functions both as a shield (receiving refugees and open to immigration) and a sword (tight member state border control) of EU member states. With the Syrian Refugee Crisis in 2014, the refugee influx from Northern Africa, and the current Ukraine Refugee Crisis, an increasing number of countries, such as Italy, Hungary, and Austria, have become more strict with immigration and have tightened their own borders. 

This tightening of member states’ border control compromises a key EU principle: the four freedoms, which include the freedom of movement of goods, services, labor (people), and capital. Tightening one’s own border control interrupts the freedom of movement of labor, which could compromise the integrity of the European Union’s long-established single market. If Eurosceptics succeed in compromising the integrity of the single market by controlling migration, they will disrupt a norm that has been established for decades and fracture the institutions of the EU. 

However, Eurosceptics do not offer counterarguments regarding the benefits member states receive from the EU’s single market, for which member states surrender their right to regulate free trade to the EU. Considering this flaw in their arguments, why are people still convinced by Eurosceptics’ narratives? 

Most Eurosceptics, like Meloni and Le Pen, adopt populist strategies to sway voters, and populism is a danger to democracy, a value upheld deeply and dearly by the EU. Populists such as Meloni and Le Pen, are often anti-pluralist (hostile towards international and regional organizations and institutions) and anti-liberal, which makes the EU a convenient target. Populists often claim they know the “general will” of “the people”, and accuse  EU politicians of being “corrupt”. However, populists never give a clear sense of what the “true will” is or who exactly “the people” are. 

For example, in 2016, the United Kingdom Independent Party (UKIP) gained popularity as a proxy for anti-establishment Euroscepticism and populism. With 52% voting “leave”, the United Kingdom left the European Union. After Brexit, the United Kingdom faces economic decline and difficulties, since it no longer enjoys the benefits of the EU’s single market. Is it the “general will” of the British people to live in declining economic conditions? UKIP’s arguments were more effective in areas that were often older, whiter, less-educated, and employed in blue-collar jobs. Are these people the “true people”? 

When populists claim they know the “true people”, they often suppress the minorities or immigrants in the community. Both Meloni and Le Pen ran on anti-immigration attitudes and characterized the “true people” based on either race or ethnicity. Such political oppression and exclusion of minorities and immigrants are directly in conflict with the EU’s principle of respect for democracy, which advocates for the equality and individual freedom of each EU citizen. 

If populists like Meloni and Le Pen succeed in undermining key principles, norms, and values the EU has been upholding for decades, the European Union will lose legitimacy, become a failed institution in maintaining liberal orders, and eventually collapse. To avoid the collapse of the EU, EU leaders must make policies to protect democratic values, like de-platforming social media users who spread misinformation, decreasing the current democratic deficit (the inability of constituents to hold elected officials accountable), and making its representatives more accessible to constituents, who can hold elected EU officials more accountable.

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