With only two months to go before the European Parliament elections at the end of May, it appears that the recent success of Europe’s far-right contingent is without question. While many media outlets in the West have been spending valuable airtime stoking fear of far-right fringe groups with little to no political clout, they have largely kept silent regarding the implications of real far-right power in many European countries.
Across Europe, the old standard centrist political parties have been pushed aside by the combined populist and nationalist zeitgeist which has spread like wildfire. The flames are stoked by leaders who speak the language of revolution: nationalism fighting globalism, patriots versus traitors, the people against the Establishment (we won’t dive too deep here into the hypocrisy of a political party supported by billionaires which ‘spurns the Establishment’). It’s the same rhetoric utilized by President Donald Trump in the USA, whose rise has bolstered the confidence of far-right parties throughout Europe.
Perhaps even more disturbing is the systemic misinformation and lack of basic fact-checking which pervades the mainstream media’s coverage of these events. As just one example: In November 2018, Time featured an article on Sebastian Kurz, the young Chancellor of Austria. The article states that “He formed a coalition government in 2017 with the populist and reactionary Freedom Party, bringing a movement that was founded by neo-Nazis back into a position of power.” This is factually incorrect.
The far-right Freedom Party of Austria was established by Anton Reinthaller, followed shortly by his successor Friedrich Peter. Both were members of the Nazi party and its armed ideological wing, the SS. Friedrich Peter retained control of the party into the early 1980s. As basic historical research could have revealed to the writer, the party was founded by Nazis, not neo-Nazis. The blasé interchanging of these terms and lack of understanding behind them is an issue commonly found in modern commentary covering both historical and current events. For clarification as we move forward:
Nazi = someone who was an original member or supporter of the NSDAP during the Third Reich
Neo-Nazi = someone who supports the ideology of the original NSDAP but is not the above
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s take a look at the major political players on the far-right that are running the governments of Europe in 2019. This list is by no means exhaustive and does not feature the myriad of far-right ‘fringe’ groups now common throughout Europe and the USA.
Germany — Alternative für Deutschland (AfD)
Their ideology: Founded in 2013, the party has quickly gained popularity in a country that is slowly but steadily regaining its sense of national pride while facing constant clashes over immigration. The AdF platform “urges Germany to close its borders to asylum applicants, end sanctions on Russia and to leave the EU if Berlin fails to retrieve national sovereignty from Brussels, as well as to amend the country’s constitution to allow people born to non-German parents to have their German citizenship revoked if they commit serious crimes.” The platform is based on reclaiming Germany’s sovereignty and national pride, especially in light of Germany’s longtime culture of shame for its Nazi past. AfD also supports the privatization of social programs and state owned enterprises and wishes to reinstate a military draft.
Their leaders: The party is chaired by Jörg Meuthen; Co-Vice Chairman Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel who now serves as the party group leader in the Bundestag. Since 2017, AfD is the largest opposition party in the Bundestag.
How powerful are they? Rising quickly, AfD secured representation in 14 of the 16 German state parliaments by October 2017, and became the third-largest party in Germany after the 2017 federal election, claiming 94 seats in the Bundestag.
Italy — Lega Party (The League)
Their ideology: Founded in 1991, the party is sometimes referred to as il Carroccio, the name for a medieval ox-drawn altar used for pre-battle services in medieval Italian wars. Most prominently, Lega wants more power for Italy’s individual regions and has strong nationalist beliefs. It has called for the legalization and taxation of prostitution, free state-funded daycare, rejection of a bill that would grant Italian citizenship to those born and schooled in Italy with foreign parents, and tight controls on immigration.
Their leaders: “Il Capitano” Matteo Salvini leads the party. He is actively building bridges with other far-right parties across Europe, including overtures to Eastern European politicians that align with his anti-immigration stance. Now that he’s teamed up with Steve Bannon, Salvini is eager to manifest a pan-European movement that would reshape the bloc from the inside out.
How powerful are they? Italy is now under far-right rule, with Lega an equal partner in a coalition government with the far-right Five Star Movement.
Austria — Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ)
Their ideology: Founded in Vienna in 1955, the first two leaders of the party were both members of the SS in Nazi Germany and the party remained under their direct control until the early 1980s. Today’s party platform is attempting to distance itself from these roots, but many argue that it hasn’t strayed far. The party line includes a “defense of tradition” in Austria, anti-Islam policies, strict restrictions on immigration, and close alignment with Russia as well as other far-right parties such as Germany’s AfD and France’s National Rally.
Their leaders: Heinz-Christian Strache, who is also Austria’s Deputy Chancellor as leader of the coalition government. 18 of the party’s MPs are active members of staunch right wing fraternities, including five of its six chairmen. They include not just its leader, Strache, but also the FPÖ negotiator, Harald Stefan, whose Olympia fraternity has called for Poland and Austria to be included in German reunification. It also includes Minister of Transport Norbert Hofer, whose fraternity Marko-Germania is supported by the better known historic fraternity Markomannia Wien, of which several prominent Nazi leaders were lifetime members, including SS Colonel Otto Skorzeny. These dueling fraternities were created to instill patriotism, bravery and honor into university students before they entered military and professional life.
How powerful are they? Austria is now under far-right rule, with the FPÖ’s Heinz-Christian Strache and ÖVP’s (Austrian People’s Party) Sebastian Kurz leading the government. Kurz is the youngest Chancellor in Austria’s history at 32.
Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) and Austria’s Deputy Chancellor (Photo: Getty Images)
France — Rassemblement National (National Rally)
Their ideology: In 1941, the “Rassemblement National Populaire,” or Popular National Rally, became a major collaborationist party in support of the Vichy government, a regime that was allied with Nazi Germany. Some believe that the recent re-naming of the party reflects a parallel ideology. National Rally was founded in 1972 by Jean-Marie Le Pen. The current party platform is Eurosceptic, and features protectionist economic policies that would clamp down on government benefits for immigrants, including health care, as well as drastically reduce the number of immigrants allowed into France. The party is especially interested in repatriating power from the EU to France in order to boost France’s international power and prestige.
Their leaders: Marine Le Pen is the primary leader. Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, led the party before her. He served as a member of the European Parliament, and many of his views have been decried as xenophobic and anti-Semitic.
How powerful are they? The party has eight seats in the French parliament and 14 in the European Parliament.
Poland — Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS / Law and Justice)
Their ideology: The party was founded in 2001 by the Kaczyński twins, Lech and Jarosław. PiS’s 2015 electoral success was based in large part on promising clean and honest government and portraying itself as representing the interests and values of ordinary Poles rather than self-serving political and business elites.
Their leaders: Andrzej Sebastian Duda is the current president of Poland and was a member of the PiS party. The party itself is currently lead by Jarosław Kaczyński.
How powerful are they? With 237 seats in the Sejm and 66 in the Senate, it is currently the largest party in the Polish parliament and the party of the President.
Hungary — Fidesz
Their ideology: Fidesz is a national-conservative and right-wing populist political party. Their position on the political spectrum has changed over time, moving further to the far-right in the past few years. It seems to be increasingly driven by a combination of nationalism, authoritarianism and populism — hallmarks of radical right ideology. The party imposes strong anti-immigration policies and has fortified border walls around Hungary. Many observers claim that the party has destroyed democracy in the country. As an example, after the largest independent newspaper, Népszabadság, uncovered scandals involving Fidesz, it was suspended and sold to a pro-Orbán firm.
Their leaders: Viktor Orbán is President of the party and Prime Minister of Hungary. Orbán has claimed that he is fighting a conspiracy to destroy Hungary led by the Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Berlin, Germany, on May 8, 2014.
How powerful are they? Fidesz is the leading political party of Hungary and the leader of their party is the Prime Minister.
Greece — The Golden Dawn
Their ideology: The party is regularly described as neo-Nazi and neo-Fascist by outside sources. Although it uses the Nazi salute, commonplace in the Italian Fascist and German Nazi movements, it claims to draw its inspiration primarily from the 4th of August Regime established by Ioannis Metaxas, the Greek nationalist leader. Golden Dawn openly advocates national socialism and anti-Semitism. The party has focused its platform on opposing immigration and the spread of Islam, as well as fighting against same-sex partnerships. Due to the austerity measures of the last decade, Golden Dawn has worked to fill gaps in public services. The party provides a range of social services — particularly to poverty-stricken working class families — including soup kitchens, medical advice, “Greek-only” blood banks, and donations of food and clothing. The exclusive availability of these services to Greek citizens has sparked backlash protests.
A supporter of Greece’s extreme right Golden Dawn party raises a torch during a rally in Athens, on February 3, 2018. (AP Photo / Yorgos Karahalis)
Their leaders: Founded by Nikolaos Michaloliakos in 1985 and registered as a political party in 1993. During the 2014 European elections, many of Golden Dawn’s candidates were middle-class professionals, including university professors, lawyers, surgeons, businesspeople, and a former NATO commander.
How powerful are they? Golden Dawn is currently the third largest political group in Greece and holds 18 seats in the Greek parliament.
In years past, the nationalist and far-right powers of Europe typically wanted nothing to do with the EU; now it seems that they’re aiming to dismantle it entirely. Great Britain, a major economy within Europe, is slated to leave the bloc in March as a result of the Brexit referendum of 2016. The European Parliament elections in May of this year are fast approaching, with many analysts forecasting a solid win for right to far-right candidates.
There is also the formation of an Italian-Austrian-Hungarian-Polish axis of populist and anti-globalisation governments in the heart of the continent to consider. Ultra conservative and anti-Islam sentiments are tearing apart the once centrist German political establishment. To the west, the UK under Brexit and the USA under Trump have become new nationalist torchbearers. To the east, far-right parties are forming strategic alliances with Russia. And from the south, millions of migrants continue to flood Europe seeking a safe haven, fanning the flames of nationalist movements looking to protect their own cultures and borders.
One thing is certain: 2019 is poised to put these cultural and political tensions, which have been simmering for decades, on a tumultous global stage at full boil.