May 28, 2014

Success of the far-right parties in 2014 EU elections: Is the fear justified?

At the WISC conference held in Ljubljana in 2008, I presented a paper called A Stranger Put His Head There: the Discourse of Fear and the Resurgence of Ethnocentrism in Western Politics that discussed the steady growth in support to far-right parties in Europe. I got the idea for the paper watching various European elections in 2007 and 2008 where I noticed that mainstream party candidates engaged in a bidding war to “out-secure” each other for the electorate, to an extent where far-right parties were complaining of plagiarism.

The paper was not well received, and I was told I had no basis for such arguments (despite the use of the “sacred” statistics) nor was the work “relevant” to our period.

On a personal level, I found the political trends I and those that supported my paper saw to be very disturbing, and I was genuinely concerned with a return of influential far-right parties in Western politics. Was the ugly side of European politics rearing its head? Was the chasm between the ideals of the EU – the Maastricht EU that is – and the real socio-political values that directed political opinion that wide? Were we sleepwalking again? Were we essentially breeding fear with our focus on security?

Flash forward to May 26, 2014. EU leaders and media are shocked and distraught at the overwhelmingly strong results of the far-right parties in elections held on May 25, while Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage bask in the light of their success. The tendencies we saw a few years ago had now became fact, a situation to be acknowledged and managed properly.

Yet, Sunday’s results do not worry me. In fact, I think the success of parties like the FN, the UKIP or the AfD in Germany are essential to the healthy growth of the EU. So rather than being worried about the state of European politics, I take the EU election results in stride, and here’s why:

1) Political demography

I am not talking about the 43% participation rate here, although it does play a role. The political demography I am referring to is the one familiar to anyone who studied the workings of political parties, or better yet took actively part in an electoral campaign: those who ALWAYS VOTE are seniors, and far-right conservatives. This is something all parties count on and it’s used by all party strategists in a campaign. As they represent between 15-20% of any given electorate parties, getting their vote in an era of political apathy is often the difference between winning and losing a campaign. In short, they’re the ones who voted on Sunday and the far-right parties in Europe represented the perfect channel for them to express their grievances, all the more with a 43% participation rate. It is reactionary, and expresses the fears of a disgruntled low to middle-class, for whom the EU has been associated with loss of privileges and pride. In fact, if you look at the countries with a much younger demography and voter turnout, the result was…

2) The countries hit by young unemployment and austerity measures all voted left

Read that again: The countries hit by young unemployment and austerity measures all voted left. Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece all voted left, some with resounding success (Italy, Greece, 15-M movement in Spain). So countries where the far-right had circumstances in which it usually thrives (high unemployment, migration issues) people actually voted against such parties and opted for parties that didn’t base its campaign on nationalist grounds. Cynics could say “they need the EU money” and will not vote against it, but fact is this was the perfect opportunity to express their anger against the EU’s involvement and austerity measures yet, the electorate of these states chose otherwise. These people somehow believed in the merits of the EU and that must also be recognized. This could actually be the real story here, not the FN’s or UKIP’s success.

3) It’s all part of the process

The EU as we know it now has its roots in the Maastricht treaty of 1992. That’s 22 years ago and that means it’s not even a full generation old. Within this short period, the Union doubled in size, incorporating various cultures, structures and procedures while spending the last six years managing the first mega financial crisis this century had to offer. The birth of the EU also coincides with the emergence and consolidation of globalization, a development that is for millions difficult to manage and adapt to.

Globalization allows us to fly cheaply to Bali and get import products at a lower price, but it also made borders transparent, facilitated various migration flows and confronted us with the reality that the job market is no longer local but international. This means we are confronted with the “unusual” on a daily basis and when we feel threatened or insecure, we revert to a more conservative position, to glory days and values, or at the very least, find such a discourse appealing.

Fact is, most of the under 35s who are EU citizens have greatly profited from being able to study, work and live in different EU countries and do not see the EU as 28 distinct countries, but rather as a whole with different colours. As this generation gets older and reaches a position of influence, the appeal of the far-right discourse will not be as strong as it currently is, making this vote nothing more than what it truly is, a conservative reaction to change.

This being said, the results of the election on May 25 are not without lessons. There are countries where many under 35 voted for the far-right, so there is a genuine appeal that must be addressed. The EU does need changes and politicians must find a way to address some of the concerns underlying the far-right’s success. But this is not an “earthquake” and it shouldn’t be the concern it is made out to be. It is merely the result of steadily growing insatisfaction with the situation in Europe, and it should be handled as such.

There is also another concern however, much more real and threatening than a vote for Jobbik or UKIP: extremist parties foster, by the very nature of their discourse, radicalization. While we in the security and counter-terrorism industry keep focusing on the threat of religious radicalization, we better begin turning our gaze to the return of ideological terrorism and the increase in hate crimes, because this may very well be the real danger to our security associated to the resurgence of far-right and extremist parties.