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Voters in Europe have veered to the far right.
In Italy, Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy political party is described in CNN’s report as “the most far-right government since the fascist era of Benito Mussolini.”
That description, invoking Mussolini, raises the frightening specter of World War II, although it’s important to consider where the comparison starts and stops.
Meloni, troubling though her rhetoric might be, is a 45-year-old mother from Rome preparing to lead a coalition government, not a dictator in a military uniform overseeing a fascist regime.
She is set to claim victory after targeting immigration, the favorite issue of nativist and populist politicians the world over. Where former US President Donald Trump rose to power promising to build a wall between the US and Mexico, Meloni repeatedly suggested a “naval blockade” to stop the flow of people into Europe from the Mediterranean.
In Sweden, a party described as having “neo-Nazi roots” has tapped into anti-immigrant sentiment and won more than 20% of the vote in elections earlier this month, enough to give it some influence over the new government being formed there.
In Italy’s parliamentary system, Brothers of Italy, which got a little more than a quarter of the vote, will take control of the government as part of a right-wing coalition with other parties.
How concerning is this?
While anti-immigrant policies that could be forthcoming from Meloni in Italy are troubling, the parliamentary system, which fosters multiple parties and coalition governments, provides guardrails.
I talked to Trygve Olson, the president of Viking Strategies, an international political risk firm. He’s worked as a consultant in multiple countries and argued that Meloni could evolve in office.
“The mere fact that they have gained power doesn’t necessarily mean that their democratic systems are broken,” Olson told me in a phone conversation. “It’s troubling. And it says that there’s a whole lot of European voters who are feeling desperate in terms of some of their concerns not being addressed by the traditional parties.”
But the traditional parties are still there to provide checks against the far-right politicians, who now have an opportunity to try to build consensus.
European officials have suggested they could cut funding for Italy if Meloni’s policies violate the rule of law.
“If things go in a difficult direction – and I’ve spoken about Hungary and Poland – we have the tools,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said recently.
She was asked about Italy, but also included Hungary and Poland, where more entrenched far-right leaders have won and kept power.
Long time coming
Rafaela Dancygier is a professor of politics and public and international affairs at Princeton University, and she has studied both the radical right and the issue of immigration in Europe.
She told me in a phone conversation that while Americans might view the success of far-right parties as an abrupt shift, it is not, and that far-right positions have been normalized in Italy in recent years.
“I know that there’s sort of a temptation to paint this as a radical shift,” she said. “And it’s definitely radical, but I just don’t think it’s a shift. This is the continuation of a trend.”
Dancygier also noted that while the right motivated voters, turnout was down compared with previous elections, which created an opening for Meloni’s coalition.
“It’s also a failure of the left,” she said.
Ties to American conservatives
The EU parliament recently declared Hungary to no longer be a “full democracy.” Hungary is led by Viktor Orban, the darling of American conservatives. He spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Texas this summer.
CNN’s Michael Warren reported at the time that Orban sounded a lot like Trump during the speech.
“The right-wing European leader hit guaranteed applause lines – including telling the Texas crowd that ‘Hungary is the Lone Star State of Europe’ – and criticizing liberals, the news media and the Democratic Party,” Warren wrote, also noting that Trump hosted Orban at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club.
Poland’s president is Andrzej Duda, who narrowly won reelection in 2020 with a focus on anti-LGBTQ sentiment. Duda is another favorite of Trump’s.
Growth in France, but no victory
There is a lot of evidence that far-right politicians have been gaining in Europe in recent years.
The far-right candidate in France, Marine Le Pen, lost her race against President Emmanuel Macron earlier this year, but she got more than 41% of the vote in a runoff, far more than she got in 2017, which suggests that her anti-immigration message is growing in France.
That year – 2017 – was the same one when the anti-immigrant party Alternative for Germany, AfD, first gained seats in Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag. AfD has since been put under official surveillance by the country on “suspicion of trying to undermine Germany’s democratic constitution,” according to a Reuters report.
AfD lost some seats in Germany’s parliament last year, but it maintains a foothold.
“It feels as though a rejection of the manifestly failing pan-European orthodoxy is taking hold among our citizens,” Gunnar Beck, a Member of the European Parliament representing AfD, told CNN’s Luke McGee for his story, “The conditions are perfect for a populist resurgence in Europe.”
This sounds familiar
McGee writes that Meloni’s policy platform will feel familiar to anyone who has paid attention to far-right rhetoric.
“She’s openly questioned LGBTQ+ and abortion rights, aims to curb immigration, and appears obsessed with the idea that traditional values and ways of life are under attack because of everything from globalization to same sex marriage,” according to McGee.
The positions of far-right politicians are similar throughout Europe, Dancygier said:
- “They’re against liberal democracy and prefer democracy of a more populist or authoritarian type.”
- “They very much often emphasize Christianity and the importance of Christian nationalism, as well as the role of the family.”
- “They openly campaign against what they call the LGBTQ lobby.”
The Trump wing of the American right has a lot to like in Meloni’s victory. She’s received vocal support from Steve Bannon, the former Trump White House adviser who was indicted in New York earlier this month for his role in a scheme to privately fund a wall on the southern US border.
When I asked how the rise of far-right parties in Europe differs from the power of far-right politicians in the US, Dancygier argued that the American system really only allows for two parties. Many state party platforms in the US would be very similar to a far-right party in Europe.