Getting extremists to present a united front is always a difficult exercise. The tendency of the political extremes to ever-greater factionalism and fragmentation is proverbial; especially so on the right, where nationalism breeds antagonism and even the nominal glue of class solidarity is lacking.
But in Europe, where last month’s French regional elections were just the latest sign of trouble for the far right, there’s been a step towards unity. Sixteen far-right parties last week signed a joint declaration setting out their attitude towards the European Union, calling for “respect for Europe’s Judeo-Christian heritage,” rejecting “mass immigration” and railing against the wicked Eurocrats who want to “transform civilisation” with the “destruction or cancellation of European traditions.”
The declaration is particularly exercised by the threat of European institutions being used to discipline rogue states – that is, ones controlled by far-right parties. It demands that consensus decision-making be maintained, and warns against “a dangerous tendency to impose an ideological monopoly” – that is, to insist that member governments abide by democratic values.
For all that, it is not a particularly extreme document. Although it says that the EU is in need of “profound reform”, it does not directly attack the union itself, the Atlantic alliance or parliamentary politics. Much of what it says about subsidiarity, national sovereignty and shared values would be uncontroversial in the mainstream centre-right.
The most interesting thing about it is the range of signatories. Since the 2019 elections, the European parliament has contained two party groups to the right of the mainstream: European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and Identity and Democracy (ID), previously called Europe of Nations and Freedom. ECR is the more moderate group, but the difference is now relatively slight; it has drifted to the right since the Brexit-induced departure of the British Conservative Party.
The signatories to last week’s declaration cover the majority of both groups. From ID there’s France’s National Rally, Italy’s League, Austria’s Freedom Party and Belgium’s Flemish Interest, among others; ECR parties include Poland’s Law & Justice, Spain’s Vox, Brothers of Italy and Greek Solution. There’s also FIDESz, Hungary’s governing party, which was evicted from the mainstream centre-right group earlier this year and is yet to join another: this is clearly a step towards its open identification with the far right.
These parties represent a substantial ideological range. None could be described as openly fascist, but Vox, Brothers of Italy and Flemish Interest are perilously close. Others, like Law & Justice, still see themselves as part of the mainstream; National Rally and perhaps the League are trying to move that way. There are national conflicts as well: French and Flemish nationalists are natural enemies; Law & Justice is anti-Russian while many of the other parties are on Vladimir Putin’s payroll.
Nonetheless, there are a few notable omissions. Some ECR members are still too moderate to have signed up: Belgium’s main Flemish separatist party, N-VA, Czechia’s centre-right Civic Democrats, Slovakia’s Freedom & Solidarity. The Sweden Democrats (also in ECR) are also missing from the list, although no-one had previously accused them of being moderate.
From the ID group, the obvious name missing is Alternative for Germany (AfD), one of the continent’s biggest far-right parties. Perhaps its racism was thought a little too overt to touch, or perhaps it was too much of a French initiative for German nationalists to be comfortable with. Or maybe its signature is still on the way; the Politico report quotes one of ECR’s leaders saying that more parties might join.
The Slovenian Democratic Party is also not on the list. It remains in the mainstream centre-right group, despite the very Trumpy antics of its leader, prime minister Janez Janša – made topical this week by the fact that it is Slovenia’s turn to chair the Council of the EU for the next six months.
It could be thought that this impulse to unity is a sign of weakness; Covid-19 has generally not been good to the far right. But if some sort of lasting unity can be achieved, it could make it a formidable power. Even if a few of the more moderate groups fell away, a combination between ECR, ID and FIDESz would threaten the centre-left for the position of second-largest group (behind the centre-right) in the European parliament. It would be impossible to ignore.
Perhaps the more important question is whether greater influence would bring greater moderation. I’ve remarked before on the way that far-left parties in Europe have largely been domesticated, becoming participants in the ordinary political process. Some far-right parties seem to be going the same way, but it’s a more difficult road for them, partly for historical reasons – Communism wasn’t demonised after its fall in quite the way that fascism was.
A bigger, united far-right group would be a scary thing in some ways. But it might also be a sign that historically anti-system, anti-European and anti-democratic parties have become willing to settle within the tent and play by the rules.