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Battle for Progress: Protecting European Liberalism in the New Era of Far-Right Politics

As World War II and the fall of communism cast a thunderous echo in historical memory, European governments are increasingly confronted with the rise of far-right political parties. In Germany, Hungary, and Italy (among others), absolute democratic reforms have removed countries from such legacies, yet some constituents appear to find dissatisfaction in their frameworks safeguarding liberalism. As well, paradoxically, countries in which liberalism has longer thrived, e.g., Western Europe’s United Kingdom, France, and Nordic nations, have become faced with far-right populist politicians gaining parliamentary influence.

Across Europe in the recent decade, far-right parties position themselves favorably in national and, particularly, regional elections, increasing from 1 percent of the vote in EU member states in the 1980s to almost 10 percent in the 2010s. In Spain, the proportion of votes garnered by the right-populist Vox party witnessed a significant increase from 2015 to 2019, moving from 10 to 15 percent. Alternative for German (AfD), platforming on anti-immigration and ethnonationalism, took 2017 by force, winning 12.6 percent of votes and receiving 94 seats in the Bundestag. In 2021, AfD dropped 13 seats but found favorability in the eastern German states of Saxony and Thuringia with 24.6 percent and 24 percent, respectively. The Sweden Democrats (SD), in their 2022 election, raised one percentage point to 17.0 percent, making them the third largest party in the Riksdag.

In Hungary and Poland, right-to-far-right parties hold almost (or do hold) a supermajority. As France’s political climate gridlocks over pension reforms, Laure Lavalette, from Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party, offers the far-right National Rally (RN), a party opposed to EU membership and other beneficial alliance with the West, as “the true alternative” to President Emmanuel Macron’s liberal-center Renaissance (RE). Austria’s Freedom Party, founded by ‘former’ Nazis, has been a dominant political force for decades.

It is easy to point to parliamentary and local election trends and see a modern renaissance of parties practicing a mixture of authoritarianism and neoliberalism. However, the problem appears not in how far-removed countries are from fascist legacies but in how modernization and media globalization has affected perceptions of ‘imminent dangers’ to social and political life. Scholars link economic grievances to far-right success. This, connected with cultural grievances on the incompatibility of immigrant religious norms and practices, create an ethnonationalism view of an ingroup and outgroup, no doubt influenced by the mass availability of alternative media narratives.

The challenge politicians and organizations must solve lies in protecting democracy and institutions from far-right threats while maintaining an element of freedom of association. The ‘cordon sanitaire’ school of thought argues that cooperation only legitimizes inherently anti-democratic ideologies and, not to neglect, the discernable historical lessons of allowing authoritarian ideologues to flourish in Europe’s political landscape.

The only solution is safeguarding representative democracy and voting equality against plausible threats. Nevertheless, as long as the far-right respects the rules of the democratic game, then their exclusion is illiberal itself. However, left and right parties that share an appreciation of the ‘democratic bargain,’ i.e., the mutual respect between political winners and losers and rules and institutions, must stand in line against parties that are an imminent danger to liberal principles. Firm coalition building aimed at minimizing the effects of the far-right is necessary between parties representative of fair democracy.

Those committed to the European liberal mission, from news media, journalists, and institutional actors, must cooperate to actively denounce illiberal narratives perpetuated by the far-right. As Hannah Arendt attests in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part.”