Friends In Low Places

The strange alliance of Europe’s far-right

A few weeks ago, Europe’s far-right leaders gathered in the German city of Koblenz. Taking turns to speak in front of an invited audience of supporters, Frauke Petry of the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD), Marine Le Pen of France’s Front National, Geert Wilders of the Dutch Freedom Party (PVV) and Matteo Salvini of Italy’s Northern League jointly pledged to curb immigration and “Make Our Countries Great Again”. Marine Le Pen encouraged downtrodden French and German voters to “free ourselves from the chains of the European Union”, while Geert Wilders declared in fluent German that “Europe needs a strong Germany… that stands for its culture, identify and civilisation”. As enthusiastic crowds chanted Nazi-era insults about the “lügenpresse” (“lying press”), Wilders and others did their best to bask in Donald Trump’s reflected glory. “Yesterday a new America”, the blonde bombshell said. “Today, a new Europe”.

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Viewed from afar, the whole spectacle was more absurd than menacing. Wilders, in particular, seemed to be doing his best to win a role in a film adaptation of a Kafka novel: making a visa-free trip across international borders to speak in another language about the urgent need to close Europe’s borders. However, the participants obviously saw things differently. Conference organisers argued that the event wasn’t just about creating PR opportunities, but about setting out a “joint vision for a Europe of freedom”. “Each of us”, Le Pen told journalists, “is strongly attached to sovereignty and freedom in general [and united] in a rejection of the European Union’s laissez-faire policies”. To many journalists covering the conference, the implication was clear: far-right parties are not isolated phenomena, but part of a global, world-changing trend; Wilders, Le Pen, Trump and Farage members of a rebel alliance seeking to destroy the current world order. As one American headline put it, “Europe Is Horrified of Trump, But He’d Fit Right In”.

In reality, though, Europe’s far-right is rather less united than it seems. Despite a mutual dislike of Islam and of the EU, parties like Le Pen’s FN and Wilders’ PVV share almost as many differences as they do similarities. Le Pen has, for example, pledged to end gay marriages, while Wilders has attended pro-gay rights rallies. Le Pen’s party continues to flirt with anti-semitism, while Wilders is a staunch supporter of Israel. And while Wilders has praised free trade in his previous election manifestos, Le Pen says that Trump’s policies are already proving that “protectionism works”. As I pointed out in a recent interview, it’s hard to imagine many of Wilders’ far-right friends agreeing with him that the main problem with immigration from Muslim countries is that it threatens “the decay of our cherished values [such as] the equality of men and women, freedom of opinion and speech [and] tolerance of homosexuality”.

Wilders’ position in the rebel alliance is also odd because of the national context in which he operates, and the places where he draws his support from. In the four centuries after it won independence from Spain, the Netherlands rose to become one of the world’s wealthiest countries largely through its openness to the wider world; making up for its small size and lack of national resources by serving as the trading crossroads of northern Europe. Even today, in the era of e-commerce and 3D printers, one of the biggest engines driving the Dutch economy is still the port of Rotterdam, which handles more trade each year than Southampton, Bruges, Felixstowe and Genoa combined. In that context, it’s surprising to see that support for Wilders seems strongest in the very places (like Rotterdam) where people have gained most from an open, internationalist free-trading system, and have the most to lose if Trumpian walls and trade barriers go up. That people would vote against their own economic interest is no longer surprising, but it’s strange.

Finally, it’s also important to note that (as I’ve written in the past) the true level of support for the far-right remains very hard to measure. In the Netherlands, Wilders is currently enjoying his day in the sun, but polls show that support for his ideas appears to be sliding. While his party is still likely to make a strong showing in the elections, it’s hard to envisage an outcome whereby other parties agree to support a Wilders-led coalition government. Referring to Moroccans as “scum” may have pleased many of his followers on Twitter, but it’s unlikely to win over floating voters who are worried about rocking the boat. This week’s much-publicised trip by Wilders to the Rotterdam port satellite of Spijkenisse was notable mainly for the fact that the journalists and bodyguards following Wilders far outnumbered his supporters.

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The results of the Brexit referendum and Trump election mean we’re now primed to expect the unexpected, but it’s also worth remembering the times when support for far-right has fizzled out in the past. When I worked in UK politics, for example, politicians and advisers suffered from a widespread terror that the extremist British National Party was on the verge of upending the balance of power. In the end, the party sank without a trace. More recently, in 2015, UKIP dominated the British political news in the same way that Wilders now dominates the Dutch press. In the end, they won only one seat in parliament, which was held by a defector from the Conservatives who barely bothered to hide his dislike of Nigel Farage.

In many countries, the same anti-establishment trends which have cheered the far-right are now also boosting support for left-wingers. In France, for example, the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron is attracting support from millions of voters looking for a “none of the above” option, and might actually win the Presidency. In the Netherlands, the polls are as turbulent as ever, but the most likely outcome is still that the boringly competent current Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, returns to power supported by a motley crew of leftish leaders. It’s certainly possible that Europe could be torn apart this year by a President Le Pen and Prime Minister Wilders. But it’s also possible that a French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Martin Schulz and Dutch Prime Minister Rutte could end up working together to quickly refurbish a damaged and dented Europe. In that case, 2017 could indeed be – as Marine Le Pen predicts – “the year when the people of continental Europe wake up”.

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