The Political Shift to the Right and Far-Right in Europe

19 September 2011
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The recent attacks in Norway’s capital Oslo were carried out by a far-right extremist, which has put Europe’s ‘far-right’ in the spotlight. Since the 1980’s, a rise in the far-right has been observed throughout the European political landscape, causing Europe to face a political shift to the right and far-right since the 2000’s.

Indeed, with the exception of Spain and Greece governed by democratic socialist parties, all European Union (EU) member states are currently being governed by coalitions including centre-right parties or right-leaning parties. (1) Every new election has been a further step towards the right as well as towards the far-right, which made significant electoral gains during the spring 2011 season.

The far-right is not easy to define, as it fosters a plurality of patterns and constitutes a carryall of claims. Far-right parties have trouble cohabitating on the European stage due to their different origins and political beliefs, in addition to the difficulty of multiple nationalisms in creating international solidarity. However, they have common features linked to parallel thematic development in the political argumentation, such as the frequent recourse to populist instrumentalization (thus pretending to satisfy the immediate will of the people by using populist beliefs). Moreover, Europe is nowadays enfeebled by re-nationalization or the renewal of nationalism. Thus, it is quite easy for the far-right to exploit nationalism. But in attestation to its’ latest meaning, nationalism is created from a movement of identity construction, and conducive to nation states’ emergence, it thus became an identity retreat movement, implying the country to closing itself in. Furthermore, they are eager to stroke the xenophobia trend, as Islamophobia has been on the rise since the 2001 terror attacks on the United States of America and similar incidents immediately following in Europe, giving way to anti-immigration, anti-Semitism or Roma hatred discourses. The far right’s populist, nationalist and xenophobic attributes (this list of which is not exhaustive) easily appeal to the voters, mainly belonging to the working class and to the bottom of the social hierarchy. Recently, the importance of these attributes increased the shaping of voting behaviors throughout Europe.

Last spring (2009) during the European parliamentary elections, the far-right factions from Slovakia, Latvia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, France and Italy won electoral seats. Even the British far-right (the British National Party) made an electoral breakthrough and was represented for the first time on both the European and national level. In Germany, particularly after the country’s reunification, the far-rights’ parties played a limited role. Since the 2010 publication of Thilo Sarrazin’s book ‘Germany does away with itself’, Germany and its far-right parties attracted the media’s and the European Union’s attention by dredging up remembrance of the Second World War drift. Even in northern Europe, usually more tolerant countries, the far-right has made a noticeable breakthrough. The Danish People’s Party (a far-right party in Denmark) is represented by 25 out of 179 deputies in their Parliament and supporting another governing minority. This far-right party defends ‘traditional values,’ Euro-skepticism and stands on an anti-immigration platform. Denmark’s next elections in November should be closely monitored. In April 2011, the far-right party True Finns emerged in Finland by adopting an anti-immigrant stance and harboring hostility towards the European Union and their fiscal bail-outs directed towards the EU’s southern countries. (2) With 5 seats in the national Parliament, they are a member of the opposition. Most European countries currently don’t seem to be immune to the far-right’s antics, assuring one aspect: that this increasingly xenophobia, populism and nationalism are spreading throughout the region.


Sweden, which is traditionally immune to political xenophobia, has faced the turmoil of their own internal far-right parties in September 2010, when the far-right and anti-immigrant Swedish Democrats (SD) party obtained 20 out of 349 seats in the country’s assembly. (3) It was the first time the far-right has been represented in the Parliament and they will defend opposition’s status. The SD became famous for its television advertisement which accused Muslim burqa-clad women of benefiting from the welfare office at the expense of elderly (and often native) Swedes. This anti-immigrant (and often anti-Islam) party was founded in the 1980’s by a member of Neo-Nazis group, which is now led by the young and charismatic Jimmie Akesson. The party’s message started taking off when its leader began speaking about the role of Islam in Swedish society. (4) The party’s campaign message was anti-European Union and developed the simplistic message of the risk that hosting too many foreigners challenges national identity. The SD’s victory left the country in shock. However, this watershed hides the fact that it was the first time that a (Social Democrat) Prime Minister could not renew his mandate. (5) The new right-leaning coalition could not form an overall majority after SD’s success. Recently, (centre-right leader) Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeld and his government have been facing a political crisis. His current majority is suffering, unstable as a result of strong showings from both wings of the opposition.

The Netherlands

The Netherlands also experienced far-right political shock when the Freedom Party won 24 out of 150 seats in the June 9th 2010 election. (6) The Freedom Party, led by anti-immigrant and anti-Islam extremist Geert Wilders, then became the country’s third largest political party. Their support goes to the governing minority, as they put emphasis on key issues such as Islam, anti-establishment, law, and order. For a long time, the country has been considered to be a model of multicultural integration and political tolerance. In 2004, the country was shaken by the murder of Theo van Gogh who was a virulent critic of Islam. Since then, the spirit of multicultural acceptance has eroded throughout the country and the political scene. Thus, in exchange of its support, the Freedom party pushes the coalition to crackdown the immigration. For instance, the far-right party intends to make the Parliament to vote a law on the burqa ban. (7)


In October 2010, during the Vienna provincial and municipal elections in Austria, the far-right party Freedom Party (FPÖ) was the 2nd party to collect the most votes, at approximately 27.04%, and won 28 seats in the regional parliament. (8) During last 2008 legislative elections, it reached 17% of the votes and become 3rd party after the social democrat’s party and the right-leaning conservative party both forming a coalition. The party, now led by HC Strache, is in a populist, anti-Turkish and anti-Muslim stream and is not at its first breakthrough. In the 1999 general election, the party won 26.9% of the vote and became the 2nd largest party after the Socialist Democrats party. Therefore, the party entered the coalition and the government, but without its’ charismatic leader Jörg Haider. Almost immediately, 14 member states of the European Union (EU) threatened Vienna to enforce sanctions if the party was indeed entering the coalition. Thus, after the new coalition, the EU members degraded their relations with Austria, isolating the country as a result. However, the repressive sanction device that the EU used is rather complicated for implementation. Indeed, its requirement that evidence or a high probability of real actions that violate European values is quite difficult to fulfill in practice. (9)


On June 12, 2010, the separatist New Flemish Alliance (NVA) won a decisive majority with 30% of the votes. Belgium’s linguistic and cultural divisions between the Walloons and the Flemish fall alongside the economic disparities between the regions. Therefore, it gave the far-right a unique aspect based on the division of the country. It is the first time that a separatist party is now sitting at the negotiation table. Nevertheless, Belgium has traditionally had a dysfunctional political scene because the country must have mandatory representation of both Walloons and the Flemish in the government. However, in Belgium, the most accepted far-right party is the Flemish Interest (VB). In October 2000, they became the biggest political force in the Flemish city Antwerpen, winning 20 out of 50 seats in the city council. It is an anti-immigrant and openly anti-Semitic party that advocates for Flemish autonomy. During the last 2010 elections, they garnered 12.5% of the vote. (10) Belgium is one of the countries that have an important Muslim minority. However, since July 23, 2011, Belgium joined France on the burqa ban and women who cover their faces in public places might encounter a fine to imprisonment penalty up to seven days. (11)


In the April 2010 national parliamentary elections, the Hungarian far-right party (Jobbik Party) gathered an unprecedented 17% of the vote, which then permitted the party representation with 46 deputies. This party generally appears to be anti-Semitic and suggests hatred of the Roma people. Their breakthrough is due to a weak and corrupted government primarily dominated by the Hungarian Socialist Party, which during their reign between 2002 and 2009, was involved in several corruption scandals (linked to widespread unemployment and shrinking economy). (12) They were able to build their popularity on what the party calls ‘gypsy crime’ and ‘Jewish capital.’ The party’s focus on the ‘other,’ crime rate and on cleansing to save the country is a typical example of populism. They try to answer the immediate will of the people to improve the economy and employment rate. The situation in Hungary underlines specific far-right patterns. Indeed, Hungary does not experience the same rate of Muslim immigration compared to other European countries, and therefore the Hungarian far-right seems to create a scapegoat situation with the Jews and the Roma people, which represent 6 or 7% of the population.


In France, the most important far-right party is the National Front, an anti-immigrant, anti-European, and pro-national sovereignty party. In 2002, when the party made it to the second rounds of the presidential election, their success shocked the country. In recent polls, the party is again said to be in a similar situation for the 2012 presidential election. However, they are not part of the National Assembly. Due to the elections methods, they have trouble being represented at the national level. The new leader of the party, Marine Le Pen (daughter of the more well-known previous party leader Jean-Marie) embodies a new generation of far-right leaders: young, more active and at ease with the media. She is trying to free the party from its negative old fascist legacy and xenophobic image. Yet, since 2007, French president Nicolas Sarkozy succeeded in shrinking Le Pen’s electorate. His immigration and security policy pleased some of Le Pen’s voters. By using far-right’s attribute, France’s politics have shifted from the right and far-right. His recent debate on the definition of being French and the place of Islam in French society increased his illiberal policy. Under his presidency, France became one of the first countries to ban the burqa (which means for French the covering from head-to-toe and leaving a narrow slit open for the eyes) in public places.


All over Europe’s states and in all the EU member states, the far-right parties have not only risen on the political stage, and also on the national fronts within the European parliament. Thus this steady upward stream concerns all kind of countries. The far-right patterns in the EU member states are various. Common points exist in the attributes of the far-right in Europe, such as eurosceptism. However, their means of expressions are different according to countries’ positions particularly on the anti-immigration issue.

Since the 9/11 attacks in the United States of America and the following ones in London or Madrid, the anti-Muslim rhetoric has raised in countries where large rates of Muslims live, such as France or the Netherlands. Due to the EU being founded on the sharing of Judeo-Christian values, the far-right parties continuously emphasize the incompatibility between these religious values and Islam, spreading Islamophobia. The growing integration issues of Muslim people have emerged in most of the European countries, explaining why, the burqa ban or veil has been approved in some European countries, reflecting the misunderstanding on Muslim traditions.

Moreover, each country has its own stance on the anti-immigration policy regarding its own respective minority groups, such as Roma people in Hungary for instance. Nevertheless, the danger is that the line between anti-immigration (or anti-Muslims) and racism is thin. However, new far right leaders, often younger in age, try to get rid of this xenophobic image which is being frowned upon worldwide. But the use of the minority as a scapegoat has always been a way to unify people behind a common “enemy.”

The Eurosceptism hanging over Europe is due to a general rejection of the EU. Issues of identity within increasingly multi-cultural EU member states have become predominant. Indeed, the EU’s slogan: “unity in the diversity” has trouble with in implementation, particularly in a union which includes 27 nations, all countries encompassing different backgrounds and cultures. Therefore, the development of a supra-national Europe which goes with the rise of globalization in every domain has accentuated migration flows and the emergence of multicultural societies. The EU’s member states are facing two types of mobility: physical mobility concerning immigrants moving to the EU countries, and economic mobility which concern EU immigrants gaining wealth in these member states. The upper and middle classes only see the positive sides of the EU integration, contrary to the lower class, which possesses a different reading grid and thus don’t understand neither what is changing nor happening. They want a return to this closed society which they were familiar with before. Far-rights parties exploit cultural and economic anxiety of average citizens. (13)

The recent rise of the far-right has shaped and shifted the political debate in their direction. The centre right has toughened their stance on immigration and few centre-right (or left) have little praise left for the EU. Several mainstream right-oriented parties in Europe have started to appreciate the electoral advantages of adopting increasingly popular xenophobic themes that were previously monopolized by the ultra right. Voters can affirm their anti-immigration preference by choosing parties with better chances of electoral success. This strategy was employed by Sarkozy’s camp in his bid to attract far-right voters.

The shift to the right takes place as Europe endures a devastating economic crisis particularly with all the fiscal bailouts. There is a widespread lack of confidence in the social democratic parties throughout Europe and their ability to lead the continent out of a crisis that easily could have been blamed on the neo-liberals or the right wing. However, the voters preferred to trust Europe’s conservative parties, which currently do not face any political counterweight. The European citizens have the feeling that the right and the left agree on the political stage, and that they share same ideological stream. This reflects the political representation crisis and democratic deficit currently existing in Europe. In this way, far-right parties seem to represent the only opposition capable to sustain their claims.

Finally, this led to the debate on what kind of strategies that a country should adopt to deal with far-right parties. Should a country involve them in the democratic process or simply not allow the extremists to dictate the debate agenda? Recent elections highlight the ability of the far-right to profit from its exclusion from the political scene. Most of all, it underlines that the European countries are taking an inevitable twist to the right. The European crisis is not only linked with the European economy but also with the European identity concerns. Thus, it seems quite probable in the following years to expect the far–right parties to gain more importance on the political stage.



(1) The changing political map of Europe, Jon Henley, 28 July 2011, the Guardian:

(2) The far right in northern Europe, 17 March 2011 Article economist Far-right in Northern Europe, the Economist:

(3) Swedish far-right wins first seats in parliament, 20 September 2010, BBC News Europe:

(4) Far-right party poised to take first seats in the Sweden’s parliament, 18 September 2010, Paul O’Mahony and Nick Meo, the Telegraph:

(5) Liberal no more: the far right gains in Sweden’s election, Berhang Kianzad/ Malmo, 20 September 2010, Time World:,8599,2020349,00.html

(6) Ghosts of a tortured past Europe’s right turn, Richard Wolin, Dissent, Volume 58, Number 1, Winter 2011, pp. 58-65 (Article), published by University of Pennsylvania Press, Project Muse.

(7) ‘Burqa ban’ key to Dutch coalition, 1 October 2010, Al Jazeera English:

(8) Far-right gains in Austria elections, 11 October 2010,

(9) Exorcising Europe’s demons: a far-right resurgence? , Marcus, Jonathan, The Washington quarterly, Volume 23, Number 4, Autumn 2000, published by the MIT Press, Project Muse.

(10) Ghosts of a tortured past Europe’s right turn, Richard Wolin, Dissent, Volume 58, Number 1, Winter 2011, pp. 58-65 (Article), published by University of Pennsylvania Press, Project Muse.

(11) Belgian lawmakers pass burka ban, 30 April 2010, BBC News Europe :

(12) Ghosts of a tortured past Europe’s right turn, Richard Wolin, Dissent, Volume 58, Number 1, Winter 2011, pp. 58-65 (Article), published by University of Pennsylvania Press, Project Muse.

(13) La montée des extremes droites en Europe, P. PERRINEAU, Etudes, 2002/12 Tome 397, p. 605-613,

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