CNA Explains: What’s behind the rise in popularity of Europe’s far-right political

SINGAPORE: For decades, extremism at either end of the political spectrum has been comparatively rare in Europe, with parties which are left or right of centre in varying degrees tending to dominate.

That has changed in recent years, with parties seen as far right shifting from the fringes to the mainstream.

For instance, far-right gains in last month’s European Parliament elections have added uncertainty to Europe’s future political direction, raising questions about how the European Union’s (EU) major powers can drive policy in the bloc.

While the centre, liberal and Socialist parties retained a majority in the 720-seat European Parliament, the shift to the right reflected how discontent with globalisation and immigration has fuelled a conservative, populist backlash across many of the EU’s 27 countries.

At the individual nations level, far-right or populist parties currently lead Italy and Slovakia and are part of ruling coalitions in other countries such as Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands.

In last week’s UK general election, while the left-leaning Labour Party won a landslide victory, plenty of attention was also on the Reform Party, led by Nigel Farage, which secured 14 per cent of the vote.

In France, it looked like Marine Le Pen’s nationalist, eurosceptic National Rally (RN) could score a victory in parliamentary elections before a leftist alliance worked together to seize back the political initiative.

CNA takes a look at why parts of Europe are swinging right and the implications of this trend.

Why is Europe turning right?

A broad theme for the rising popularity of far-right parties in Europe is a “growing sense of alienation” from mainstream political parties, said Mr Luca Farrow, a senior analyst at S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

The mainstream parties are seen to have failed in addressing economic issues and immigration, added Mr Kalicharan Veera Singam, a senior analyst at RSIS.

The far-right parties’ rise to prominence can also be owed to increasing “disillusionment” with mainstream parties, he said.

Economic growth in much of Europe has been stagnant since the 2008 global recession, further powering discontent with the status quo.

The European Parliament vote dealt a domestic blow to the leaders of both France and Germany, with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats scoring their worst result ever, suffering at the hands of the mainstream conservatives and hard-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

The results of the vote prompted French President Emmanuel Macron, in a risky gamble to try to re-establish his authority, to call a snap national election which saw a far-right party winning the first round before the results took a surprise left turn in the second round.

The far-right story in France is not over, said Associate Professor Reuben Wong, deputy head of the political science department at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

They’ve been steadily making gains and the number of seats they won this election would be their biggest share, he said.

The far right has not done as well as many feared in the French parliamentary elections, though its threat should not be underestimated, said Mr Farrow.

“It’s also important to note that the growth in support for far-right parties is not uniform across Europe and support for the far right can fall as well as rise,” Mr Farrow added. “The volatility of people’s recent voting decisions has been remarked upon.

With right-wing parties gaining ground on the continent, one hard-right party in the UK also claimed it started a “revolt against the establishment” after it made gains during the Jun 4 election

“When a figure such as Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom provides simplistic solutions and scapegoats in the form of immigrants, it seems to address people’s fears and it seems as if he is ‘saying the unsayable’,” said Mr Farrow.

“This is more impactful with voters who feel heard, notwithstanding that what is being said might often include a misdiagnosis of national problems and solutions which encourage scapegoating of minority ‘other’ groups,” he added.

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