European Council on Foreign Relations

Understanding populist extremists

For those concerned about rising support for Europe’s Populist Extremist Parties (so called PEPs), the think tank Chatham House has bad news: their support is probably higher than in the opinion polls. New research suggests that many more voters are receptive to the message from the PEPs, from opposition to immigration, growing hostility towards established Muslim groups and a tangible dissatisfaction with established parties.

In Austria, Holland, Norway, Denmark and Italy, parties of this type have helped make up coalition governments, and their share of the votes has reached as high as 20% to 30%. The True Finns – one of the highest profile PEPs – came from nowhere to take 19% of the votes in the latest Finnish general election.

In a few decades, many PEPs have developed from extremist movements on the periphery of society to established political parties with well-groomed spokespersons and flowers as their party emblems. Since overt racist prejudice is no longer socially acceptable, successful PEPs have portrayed the threat of minorities as economic and cultural.

One of the main motivations for voting for PEPs is hostility towards immigration. Xenophobia has gone from brutal forms of racism via hostility towards immigration to wariness of already established immigrants, mainly those of Muslim origin.

The desire to defend a “national identity” is today a stronger motivation than the fear that one’s own economic situation might be under threat. Anxiety over the “cultural threat” is nine times more significant than concern over criminality, and five times more than concern over the economy.

The Chatham House report suggests that between 30% and 60% of voters consider there to be too many immigrants in the respondents’ home countries, and that over 50% in every EU country but one (Portugal) consider that Muslims make excessive demands on society. Between 45% and 60% per cent consider Islam to be an intolerant religion. Approximately 30% believe that many Muslims see terrorists as heroes. Between 50% and 70% in the six biggest EU states believe that Muslims are not integrating well in the community.

Of those who voted for the right-wing Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti) in 1994, 35% considered that Muslims posed a threat to national security. In 2007 the corresponding figure had risen to 81%. In Eastern and Central Europe, the same hostility is also directed towards the Roma and Jews.

Europeis in the early stages of a historic crisis. In recent years, the European sovereign crisis has become more serious and the gap between north and south has become increasingly noticeable.Within countries too, gaps are widening and are in some cases at their greatest since the 1920s.

There is an evident risk that the crisis of monetary union and the stability pact will also lead to a deeper political crisis in Europe. Germany, which was previously a driver of European integration, is now showing clear nationalist tendencies. Politicians risk contributing to European disintegration when they make efforts to stay on a good footing with an increasingly nationalist and potentially xenophobic domestic opinion. The EU was once a peace project. Will the failed monetary union and stability pact be permitted to overturn political cooperation and integration in Europe?

For Europe, the really big risk lies in the meeting between on the one hand the large numbers who share extremist opinions or are attracted by the dream of “defending” or “resurrecting” a mythical national identity and on the other hand the growing economic polarisation, unemployment and marginalisation which will come in the wake of the European crisis. Without being too alarmist, we should learn a lesson from what happened to democracy in Europe in the Thirties, also then in the wake of a deep economic crisis following the increase in income differentials to record levels in the 1920s.

We need greater preparedness to deal with a political situation of that kind. Naturally, a heavy responsibility lies with politicians whose task it is to identify common goals, to dare to debate the difficult issues and to show the great value of diversity. We members of the business community also have a big responsibility. We must better understand this development and how we can contribute to defending an open society and its values. How can business strengthen the bonds that create cohesion in a society increasingly characterised by diversity?

What is the role of business in a clear repudiation of discrimination and prejudice? How can business become better at employing and including immigrants? With its experience of operating in a global environment, how can business show the good examples of how to deal with individuals with multiple identities? A greater sense of responsibility is needed, where a broad debate on these issues is a beginning and a precondition.

At a time when we are facing formidable political and economic challenges in Europe, we need society to place greater importance on social cohesion. We must on the one hand take seriously the prevalent anxiety over immigration and integration, and on the other hand solidly defend diversity and the basic values of open society. Increased diversity in Europe is firstly an inevitable fact and secondly an economic necessity. Above all however, it is a basic prerequisite to enable building a truly humanist, dynamic and prosperous society.

The report “Right Response, Understanding and Countering Populist Extremism in Europe” from Chatham House describes the emergence of Populist extremist parties in Europe and is the result of a project initiated by the Daniel Sachs Foundation.



J P Smith 17th November 2011 at 04:11pm

I think there is actually little evidence of any consistent pattern of ‘rising support’, either electorally or in terms of politically influence for far-right parties across Europe (which is what you actually seem to be writing about here) Such parites have been a well established presence in some states for the best part of 20-30 years and their political fortunes have risen and fall quite sharply.

I can think of only two cases in Western Europe where far-right support has been in trhe 20-30% range (Austria - and Flanders, which you don’t actually mention): 10-15% is the normal range, so, in all honesty, some hyperbole there.

And beyond the five West European countries you mention I can’t think of many other cases of the far-right excerising governmental influence (even as a support party). So in about 2/3 of the Old EU the far-right is marginal in terms of influence and usually also in terms of votes.

Surely, the real story is the *weakness* of the radical right in Europe despite the high levels of prejudice and economic problems you mention, despite occasional good election result.

Sorry to be unfashionable - I know this doesn’t make a good headline - but could it be that actually overall Europe’s mainstream politicians have, by good luck or good judgement, actually done rather well in containing and neutralising extremism?

The analogy with the 1930s is, as you say, alarmist and inaccurate: then the problem was lack of, not strains of, Europe integration and it was ruling elites concerns for their own positions, not usually voters turning to the extremist right that generally did for democracy. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned here, but Fascism At the Gate rhetoric is say overblown and unhelpful.

Valentine Smith 17th November 2011 at 06:11pm

I was blissfully unaware of this site and as for this article, really it is so broadbrush and presumptive that it is racist bordering on illegal certainly in UK terms.

As a member of UKIP a party that does question uncontrolled immigration, I can truthfully say hand on heart that the party is not racist, infact we believe that open borders is a policy used by politicians for whom dictat comes before rights.

Our concerns come from not wishing to have a serf class of people used as a mobile unregulated poorly paid workforce. The decent path to take is to ensure that your own nations workforce is gainfully employed and not entice people from elsewhere in the world to fill vacancies in an unregulated black market, ignoring employment rights. And to justify this by implying that there is a hierachy of nationalisitic skills is just racist in itself. By taking this route you then allow greater ability to provide employment in parts of the world where it is needed, in a workers homeland with their family and helpingt their economy.

British people en-masse are not poor workers, it is the racist lazy actions of Labour and Tory politicians who will not invest in training, or lack the guts/imagination to make work a viable alternaive to benefits,that have caused this situation. And when you add to the fact that open borders are a by product of the EU they are keen to stay in, to blame the UK workforce for the problems caused is just totally dishonest.

And for the record there may be some none too savoury parties in Europe as elsewhere in the world, but whatever their feelings are I can assure you that I find it very offensive that anti immigration equals racist and to implicate that anti immigration equals anti Muslim is just nonsensical, ask the many Muslim members of UKIP.

kimi 17th November 2011 at 07:11pm

“Sorry to be unfashionable - I know this doesn’t make a good headline - but could it be that actually overall Europe’s mainstream politicians have, by good luck or good judgement, actually done rather well in containing and neutralising extremism?”

Please, there are research grants that must be defended. With talk like that who will make sure that theres perpetually flowing money into those pots??? (Also the european media is - aside from BILD, the SUN etc. - dominated by left to leftist elites so to them anything in the center is right/rightist.

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