A Right-Wing Turn to Nowhere

The banal cruelty of Europe’s “protest vote for the status quo.”

Alberto Toscano

A protester holds a placard reading "Popular Front" during a Paris demonstration on June 10, 2024.
Protests broke out in Paris on June 10, 2024, after the victory of the French far-right party National Rally in the European Parliamentary elections. (Photo by Jerome Gilles/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

While largely toothless as a democratic body—shorn of true legislative capacities and having never developed a genuine transnational dynamic—the European Parliament is nonetheless an important bellwether to track the continent’s political winds. As the results of the parliament’s June 6-9 elections confirm, those winds are blowing in a bleakly reactionary direction. While some center-left parties performed well (in Sweden and Italy, for instance), the overall picture is of the consolidation of a xenophobic, nationalist hard Right, vying to become the junior partner of the European People’s Party (EPP), the conservative, neoliberal coalition that has dominated the parliament since 1999

Alberto Toscano Illustration by Virginie Garnier

Across much of the continent, the verdict was severe. Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party crushed Emmanuel Macron’s makeshift coalition, leading the French president to call for snap parliamentary elections. The far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) came in a strong first, while Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) — which recently proved too extreme even for Le Pen’s far-right Eurosceptic bloc, after AfD’s leading European Parliament candidate, Maximilian Krah, declared that not all members of the Nazi SS were criminals — came in second behind the center Right, relegating the governing social-democrats to a dismal third place. In Belgium, the high scores of the Flemish nationalist Right triggered the resignation of the country’s liberal prime minister, while Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia — whose roots go back to the neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano — retained its standing as Italy’s leading party. In a way, Meloni also won personally, since her party’s latest victory has cast her as capable of bridging the gap between current European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen’s Atlanticist and free-market EPP and a disparate galaxy of far-right forces, including Spain’s Vox, Holland’s Freedom Party and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s party, Fidesz. 

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If Le Pen’s party can repeat its performance in France’s legislative elections, upcoming in late June and early July, three of the European Union’s six founding states (also including Italy and the Netherlands) will have governments captained by the far Right, while parliamentary opposition in Germany and Belgium will be led by xenophobic nationalists.

Almost none of this is a recent phenomenon; the groundwork for the far Right’s success has been under construction for years. Matteo Salvini’s ardently racist Lega party won 34% of Italy’s vote in the last European Parliament elections in 2019; Meloni rose to power after serving as youth minister in Silvio Berlusconi’s governments from 2008 to 2011; and figures like Geert Wilders have besmirched the European public sphere with their Islamophobia for more than two decades. 

There is a queasy sense that almost all of the cordon sanitaires that once quarantined the far Right from respectable conservatism have been dismantled.

But there is a queasy sense that almost all of the cordon sanitaires that once quarantined the far Right from respectable conservatism have been dismantled (with the exception of open Nazi apologia, perhaps). The days when the European center Right viewed France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen or Austria’s Jörg Haider as toxic are long gone.

There are two principal causes for this. First, the fact that for many decades now European national governments and federal European institutions have legitimized — through emergency measures, moral panics and murderous border policies that have led to thousands of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean — the far Right’s defining claim that migration threatens the material and cultural survival of white European civilization. The far Right’s obsessive talk of borders and births, and its promotion of the myth of the Great Replacement, were enabled by the EU’s political center. Governments across the continent advanced anti-migrant policies on the grounds that stricter regulations would sap the foundations of extremism. But it turns out voters often prefer the original brand, choosing bellicose nativism over technocratic repression when it comes to the migration crisis.”

Members of French far-right party National Rally celebrate the vote results on the final day of the European Parliament election on June 9, 2024. (Photo by JULIEN DE ROSA/AFP via Getty Images)

The second engine of Europe’s turn towards authoritarianism is the EU’s promotion of fiscal austerity policies that have particularly impacted Southern Europe and Ireland, but which have led to welfare state retrenchment across the board. Beyond eroding livelihoods and exacerbating inequality, austerity also led to the rise of multiple movements to reclaim national sovereignty, almost all of which (after the punishment and capitulation of Syriza’s left-wing government in Greece) are now monopolized by reactionaries. While all of Europe’s far-right parties have played on this supposedly populist register, none have challenged the hegemony of markets and the rating agencies that dictate cuts to social programs. Indeed, whether we think of Meloni’s advocacy for a flat tax or AfD chairwoman Alice Weidel’s membership in the Friedrich Hayek Society, it’s clear that unequivocal pro-capitalism, peppered with feeble sallies against finance and for small business, is the bread and butter of European reaction. 

In its relentless manipulation of moral panics about ​“wokeness,” environmentalism and gender, the European far Right is in lockstep with its Republican cousins across the Atlantic, who reciprocate with fulsome praise for Old World ​“illiberalism.”

The real social malaise that plagues so much of Europe — overburdened and privatized healthcare, labor precarity, anemic social security, accelerating climate-related emergencies — is projected onto the far Right’s favorite scapegoats: primarily migrants, but also gender ideology” and its alleged assault on the family as Europe’s moral and material core. 

In her speech at that jamboree of European reaction that was Vox’s Viva 24 conference in Madrid this May, Meloni illustrated this mindset perfectly in her denouncement of globalism and nihilism,” in which she paired inconsequential talk against the disruptive effects of financial capitalism with concrete calls to abolish surrogacy, which she characterized as rich gay men stealing the wombs of poor women. Class resentment is just more fuel for culture war, while inequality is either ignored or celebrated. In its relentless manipulation of moral panics about wokeness,” environmentalism and gender, the European far Right is very much in lockstep with its Republican cousins across the Atlantic, who reciprocate with fulsome praise for Old World illiberalism.”

Meloni — who beside Marine Le Pen is the most skillful politician of the European far Right — has perfected the rhetorical marriage of national (and ethno-national) rebirth and pragmatic cooperation with the EU’s neoliberal, Atlanticist political order. That’s distinguished her from far-right peers like Le Pen, Salvini and Orbán, and it’s brought her closer to the mainstream center Right of von der Leyen. As Italian political scientist Carlo Galli has observed, the far Right which Meloni seeks to lead as a dominant force across Europe is not resolving but prolonging the crisis tendencies that have beset Europe’s economy and society. Behind its vapid talk of defending national traditions and native” families is an acceptance of an atomized society, which only coheres around shared hatreds: of the illegal” migrant, the trans parent, the shadowy financier, the meddling Eurocrat.

While continuing the dynamics of privatization and depoliticization that eroded Europe’s trade unions and organized parties of the Left, the far Right also promises a return of decisive political will and sovereignty. Not in any form that would actually affect structural power and wealth, but in a purely negative, literally reactive sense: denying asylum, revoking social rights for the gender-nonconforming, rejecting all climate legislation that would interfere with the only freedom that counts — that of native” property owners. The European far Right newly emboldened by these elections has succeeded by squaring the circle: a protest vote for the status quo. Its vocation is defending ordinary” Italian, French or German citizens — by which they mean white, heterosexual home-and-car owners, small businessmen and entrepreneurs — against the anxieties generated by historical change. 

The far Right panders to these anxieties with rants about freedom-destroying climate fanatics.” But the real threat of fossil fascism” — a reactionary politics based on climate denialism — rests on the cramped foundations of contemporary European authoritarianism, which, for all of its rhetoric of community and tradition, is ultimately individualistic. The nation may require saving, but, as for Margaret Thatcher, there is still no such thing as society, only individuals and families. Today’s far Right tells (white) Italians, Germans, French, etc., that they are great just as they are. For a visual testimony of this message, see the campaign ad of the national-conservative Swedish Democrats, which packages the racist call for more European border walls within a laddish mash-up of a beer and car commercial. Their Europe,” the ad says, referring to their Social Democratic rivals, is a grim montage of censorship,” Africa and the Middle East,” gang wars” and rapes,” while our Europe” — that of the nat-con leader Jimmie Åkesson, sporting an Italy football jersey — is tourism, partying, blondes in bikinis, mountains and white expanses.”

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni speaks during the "Viva 24" conference, hosted by Spain's far-right Vox party in Madrid this May. (Photo By Carlos Lujan/Europa Press via Getty Images)

Unlike yesterday’s fascisms, which arose in reaction to and partial imitation of revolutionary visions of emancipation, this far Right has no future vision beyond besieged retrenchment, a raised drawbridge and the paper-thin (ahistorical) romance of ethno-national glory. To reverse an old formula, modern European Rightism is a senile disorder: an increasingly effective electoral recipe to channel discontent without confronting any of the causes behind the betrayal of the promises of social Europe” and the interlocking principles of antifascism and social welfare that lent the continent its postwar dynamism.

Whether, as Orbán and Le Pen have both suggested, the European far Right will fuse its Atlanticist and Eurosceptic blocs to challenge the center Left as the second force in the European Parliament remains to be seen. NATO and the EU’s increasing war footing when it comes to the Russia-Ukraine conflict might still scramble the political map. National Rally’s victory in France might be partly due to Macron’s talk of sending French troops onto the battlefield, with similar dynamics in Germany and other countries. (In Hungary, Orbán campaigned for his fellow Fidesz candidates with the quixotic battle-cry, Occupy Brussels! No migration. No gender. No war!”) But while the European far Right may be split — between Meloni’s NATOism and the Orbán-Le Pen-AfD-FPÖ axis that opposes involvement in Ukraine, one thing is clear: that despite the far Right’s internal quarrels, it finds unity around its vocal support for Israel’s war on Palestine and Zionist suprematism (even while these parties remain plagued by antisemitism). For proof, one need only look at how these electoral results were welcomed in Israel.

Unlike yesterday’s fascisms, this far Right has no future vision beyond besieged retrenchment, a raised drawbridge and the paper-thin romance of ethno-national glory.

Moreover, the far Right’s gains this month — coupled with the continued dominance of a mainstream center Right that is complicit in the Gaza genocide even while warmongering in Ukraine — are further sign of European political morbidity, offering nothing but iron fidelity to destructive economics, inaction on the climate emergency and relentless scapegoating of the vulnerable. 

Any effort to reverse this drift towards a Europe of reactionary nationalisms must build on the energy of the anti-war and climate movements that garnered some of the rare good news from this election: the successes of the Green Left in Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland and Italy — where they elected as MEPs an anti-fascist teacher who’d been imprisoned in Hungary after being accused of fighting neo-Nazis and a Calabrian mayor whose bold policy of welcoming refugees led to a systematic campaign of legal persecution. 

It’s by no means clear that another Europe is possible. But if it is, it will have to start from a politics that doesn’t merely mitigate or follow reaction, but rather builds social alternatives from the ground up; a politics for which the answer to our crises is not the racist romance of security but the hard work of solidarity.

ALBERTO TOSCANO teaches at the School of Communication, Simon Fraser University. He recently published Late Fascism: Race, Capitalism and the Politics of Crisis (Verso) and Terms of Disorder: Keywords for an Interregnum (Seagull).

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