Why the rise of the far right in Europe isn't so straightforward

Portugal has just become the latest European country in which the far right has made political inroads, but these gains don't necessarily translate into a linear shift in national direction.

The leader of Chega's right-wing party, Andre Ventura (2L), holds a press conference with other party members following his meeting with the Portuguese president at Belem Palace in Lisbon on March 18, 2024.
The leader of Chega's right-wing party, Andre Ventura (2L), holds a press conference with other party members following his meeting with the Portuguese president at Belem Palace in Lisbon on March 18, 2024.

Why the rise of the far right in Europe isn't so straightforward

Portugal has just become the latest European country in which the far right has made political inroads, with the Chega party coming in third in March’s parliamentary elections.

But it is not unique in this regard. In some European countries, the far right has achieved considerable political gains, while in others, it has posed a notable threat to other political parties contesting elections without shifting the status quo.

At this current juncture, it would be misleading to characterise Europe as being at risk of being overtaken by the far right.

The rise of the far right in a number of European countries is worthy of attention because it is the product of two separate dynamics that are playing out in countries like Austria, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden and the UK.

'Migrant crisis'

The first dynamic is immigration. In 2015, with Islamic State (IS) terrorist activities as well as the Syrian conflict dominating the headlines all over Europe, right-wing groups stoked fear in the European public domain that migrants were invading the continent.

The so-called “migrant crisis” contributed to the vote in the United Kingdom in 2016 to exit the European Union and paved the way for far-right political parties in France and elsewhere to use fear of migration to rally popular support.

Far-right demonstrators in Hungary on July 7 declare their support for the French government's measures to suppress the demonstrations that followed the killing of a young man by police shooting.

Almost a decade later, migration continues to be instrumentalised by both the right and the far right as a political tool.

In the United Kingdom, a legal to-and-fro has been going on between the government, the courts, the House of Commons and the House of Lords regarding whether the government can implement a plan to deport illegal migrants to Rwanda, where they would be held in detention centres until their cases have been reviewed.

Read more: Blaming immigrants: Western populists reach for their playbook

Successive Home Secretaries in the UK from the ruling Conservative Party have adopted the Rwanda plan to symbolise their commitment to curbing illegal migration.

As the United Kingdom anticipates a general election in the second half of this year, migration is one of the main issues attracting right-leaning voters. In this regard, some of the rhetoric used by the right is similar to that used by the far right.

The so-called "migrant crisis" allowed far-right parties in Europe to use fear of migration to rally popular support.

Economic challenges

The other dynamic is economic challenges, which both right-wing and far-right parties have used to attract supporters.

The pandemic and the war in Ukraine have had significant economic implications across Europe. They have driven up food and fuel prices and increased inflation and interest rates for borrowers. Many people have lost their jobs, while others have struggled to make ends meet due to the rising cost of living.

Populist politicians have used people's concerns about living standards to stir emotions and attract support. One issue on which the populist far right has appealed to voters in this regard is climate policies.

Green policies have been cast as unnecessary and expensive at a time when the state is faced with financial constraints.

Shifts to the far right

Some of the issues that contributed to a rise in the popularity of the far right have now started to dissipate, such as the increase in food and fuel prices and raging inflation.

However, some European countries have already seen a concrete shift to the far right in their last elections.

Read more: The rise of Europe's far right: Origins and dangers

Italy has gained the most attention following the success of the far-right Brothers of Italy party. Party leader Giorgia  Meloni became prime minister after rallying voters through Euroscepticism and anti-migration rhetoric.

Italy's Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, shows on her smartphone a picture, sent by European Union border agency Frontex, of the boat that sank off Cutro last February 26, killing at least 72 migrants.

Finland also came to be ruled by a coalition government representing the far-right Finns Party. Shortly after last year's election, the government faced turmoil due to the surfacing of racist comments made by ministers from the Finns Party, leading opposition parties to call for a vote of no confidence in the government.

But the ruling coalition has so far survived, having taken advantage of popular concerns about migration and a public deficit that grew under the previous centre-left government of the Social Democrats.

Sweden's far-right party, the Sweden Democrats, is not represented in the ruling centre-right government but has been influential in setting the government's immigration policy through a "supply and confidence" deal that the current coalition government relies on for political survival.

The Sweden Democrats have set their sights on the next election to swap their current kingmaker-outside-the-government role for formal political representation. 

In Austria, the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) is making headway in the polls, threatening to unseat the current government led by the conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) and the Greens in the forthcoming election in the Autumn.

A similar dynamic exists in France, with polls suggesting that if a presidential election were held today, Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader of the National Rally, would win.

In Italy, Giorgia Meloni became prime minister after rallying voters through anti-migration rhetoric.

No fait accompli

But even if far-right parties make gains, this does not mean that there is a linear shift in national direction.

In Germany, the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD) is rising in popularity. However, it is unlikely that the party will be influential in the next election in 2025; people in Germany are already staging public protests against it as a preemptive measure to try to prevent it from gaining votes.  

Read more: Never again is now: How Germany's antisemitic past has shaped its present

Last year, Greece became the only European country to have three far-right parties represented in parliament. However, these parties are not organised or strong enough to significantly shift the country's political direction.

In November, the far-right Freedom Party (PVV) won the largest number of seats in the national elections in the Netherlands.

However, the party does not have enough seats to form a government and has failed to form a coalition with other parties due to the extreme views of PVV leader Geert Wilders, who is notorious for his anti-Islam stance.

French National Rally party leader Marine Le Pen during an election rally in Marseille on March 3.

There are also significant differences between far-right parties in Europe. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán—who has been prime minister since 2010 in what is widely regarded as a rigged political process—is taking a pro-Russian stance that far-right parties from other European countries reject.

Giorgia Meloni has had a longstanding relationship with Orbán but has herself been vocal in expressing support for Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the Sweden Democrats threatened to quit a right-wing group in the European Parliament, the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, if Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from Orbán's Fidesz party joined it.

Finally, far-right politicians can soften their stance to widen their appeal. Meloni has softened her Euroscepticism and her take on migration, while Le Pen has reframed her xenophobic rhetoric as focusing on concretely improving French people's lives.

Meanwhile, mainstream right-wing parties can dig in their heels on issues like immigration in a bid to attract far-right voters, as the Conservative Party in the UK has done.

This meet-in-the-middle dynamic contributes to a de facto shift to the right across Europe, characterised by conservative economic policies.

The net effect of migration is increasing constraints. Regarding euroscepticism, the overall picture remains far from a Brexit domino effect. The wider outlook is one where pan-European interests still hold strong, with the centre-right still way ahead of the far-right.

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