Here’s a question to test your knowledge of European politics. Consider the two groups of European democracies set out below (all the members of the EU, plus the obvious candidate countries): what’s the feature that distinguishes between them?
|Group A||Group B|
|Belgium (Flanders)||Belgium (Wallonia)|
|United Kingdom (England)||Portugal|
|United Kingdom (Scotland)|
If you’re more graphically inclined, you can see them on the following map: group A is blue, group B is orange.
A couple of things are obvious: the countries in group A are generally bigger, so although there are more countries in group B, roughly twice as many people live in group A. Also the group A countries tend to be wealthier and have more well-established democratic government, although since all three of those things tend to co-vary, causation would be hard to sort out.
Also the group B countries tend to be more on the periphery of the continent, but again there are lots of exceptions both ways.
Group A is the countries with a significant far right party – meaning one that recorded at least 7% of the vote in the most recent election, or in recent opinion polls if the election was some time ago. (The threshold is arbitrary, but moving it up or down a couple of points wouldn’t change the picture much.) The countries in group B have no such animal.
There’s room for some argument about what counts as far right, but most of the cases are pretty obvious: France’s National Front, Hungary’s Jobbik, Austria’s Freedom Party, the Sweden Democrats, the Flemish Interest. Among the more doubtful cases, I’ve counted Italy’s Northern League and Britain’s UKIP, but not Norway’s Progress Party or Poland’s Law & Justice.
Again, the precise point where you draw the line doesn’t matter much; you’ve still got an interesting problem about why such parties are flourishing in some countries but not others.
A presence is generally more newsworthy than an absence. We’re used to stories about the march of the far right and the supposedly unstoppable momentum enjoyed by the likes of Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders. Just as no-one reports scientific studies that fail to show some expected correlation, no-one bothers to comment on the fact that last year’s Spanish election, for example, despite an atmosphere of crisis and disillusionment, failed to throw up any political force on the extreme right.
Or consider “new Europe” further east: it’s a major story (and rightly so) when Jobbik gets 20% of the vote and becomes the third largest party in the Hungarian parliament. But who even notices that in neighboring Romania, the Greater Romania Party has only a tenth of that level of support? And if no-one notices, no-one is prompted to ask where such differences come from.
I’m sure lots of explanations could be offered; my own view is that chance is much more important than people usually admit. But for now it would be nice just to see the question recognised.