A right turn for Europe: the slumbering threat of right-wing extremism and the enabling force of politics
Recent years have shown an interesting development in European politics. In several nations, far right parties became part of the national government, or a prominent opposition party. In 2017 alone, far right parties gained huge electoral successes in the Netherlands, France, and Germany. This rightward shift was not contained to the political arena. One of the most notorious recent cases was the German reaction to the refugee crisis of 2015, where the annual numbers of right-wing extremist incidents reached record-high levels. The amount of violent right-wing incidents for example increased with 42% compared to 2014, and the number of arson attacks against refugee shelters was fifteen times higher than the year before.
A number of variables can enable such a rise of right-wing violence. To start with, a coherent narrative, including a perceived enemy, needs to be formulated. There also needs to be a political momentum, one that seems to be increasingly present in Western Europe. In the last years, extreme right political parties have obtained more prominent positions, and were increasingly able to set the tone in the national debates. By positioning themselves on the extreme right of the political spectrum, these parties were able to stir the whole debate more rightward, forcing their more moderate colleagues to sometimes alter their positions as well in order to ‘keep in touch’ with the electorate.
Another prominent example of right-wing ideology influencing the national debate was the British Brexit-campaign in 2016, and it shows several similarities to the German case of 2015. This debate too was at times characterised by extreme right actors, and reached its lowest point when MP Jo Cox was murdered by a lone actor who was said to be inspired by the extremist organisation Britain First. In both cases there were extreme-right political actors (most notably Alternative für Deutschland and the UK Independence Party) who were putting xenophobic, racist, and isolationistic topics on the national agenda. They received much attention with their, sometimes controversial, statements, and were at times able to dominate the national debate. Several right-wing extremist organizations saw this as an opportunity to take to the stage as well. Often ignored by the mainstream media and politics, these groups now had the feeling that they could participate in the debate as a recognized actor, and took this chance to actively spread their message.
By presenting themselves as representatives of ‘the people’, the same people who had become victim of ‘the estranged elite’ and ‘mainstream media’, these groups created an attractive collective action frame in which many could identify themselves. No longer were right-wing extremists depicted as skinheads and neo-Nazis, but as merely ‘concerned citizens’ who were taking care ones national identity and heritage. The combination of this more appealing image of right-wing action and a narrative of social injustices and victimization ensured that these formerly shunned groups were now able to reach and mobilize huge amounts of sympathisers.
Although far right political parties and right-wing extremist organizations might not necessarily constitute a physical danger themselves, it is the ideological power that needs to be watched with care. In both cases, there were multiple examples where individuals or small groups had been inspired by right-wing extremist rhetoric, and turned to violence instead of words. The organizations themselves mostly stayed away from violence, but gave approving or even encouraging reactions when these ‘concerned citizens were standing up for themselves’.
For now, the refugee crisis seems to have passed its momentum, and the Brexit-referendum is behind us. However, these sentiments of xenophobia, racism, and nationalism can resurface whenever a next opportunity presents itself. Although it may not always be visible, it is important to be aware of the potential danger that the far right poses. Also in calmer times there should therefore be invested in research on this new, appealing form of right-wing extremism, and in the relation between far right political parties and their extremist societal counterparts. Despite the big potential impact of surging right-wing extremism, attention from academics and governmental organisations still provide lots of room for improvement. If more research is done, the authorities and society as a whole may be more prepared when a case like Germany in 2015 presents itself once again.