The rise of populist and far-right politics in Europe over the last two decades has befuddled political analysts and theorists. 2021 will be a key year in the battle for Europe’s political soul as multiple elections are scheduled to occur. Unfortunately, there is reason to believe that the far-right’s position in Europe will grow and strengthen before it diminishes.
We have arrived at a watershed moment. While Joe Biden’s victory in the American election has given liberal and progressive individuals around the world hope for a change in course, the results of upcoming European elections will determine the future of populist politics. Portugal, the Netherlands, and Germany all have general elections scheduled in 2021, while France and Bulgaria are set to undergo parliamentary or regional elections. In all these countries, the far-right is polling at least third in the running, with projections that they will perform well.
The two most important of these elections are in Germany and the Netherlands. Germany is the continent’s largest economy and often seen as the de-facto leader of the European Union, with Angela Merkel serving as a figurehead of the Union during her long tenure as chancellor. If the country’s political system were to succumb to far-right politics, it would embolden other populist movements throughout Europe, signaling to them that they too could succeed in winning power through the electoral process. While the German government has taken measures to curb the danger posed by the Alternative for Germany (AfD), Germany’s far right political party, some of these policies may only strengthen the position of the far-right.
For example, Germany’s recent decision to place the AfD under surveillance will only push individuals on the centre right and right further towards the AfD. At the risk of over stereotyping, as we have seen in recent American politics, individuals susceptible to far-right ideals tend to suffer from a victim complex. They believe domestic policy targets them even if it does not, they think every immigrant is coming for their job specifically, and they believe whenever they are legitimately flagged or targeted that it is for illegitimate reasons. As Germany takes more steps to curb the danger posed by the AfD, individuals’ feelings of ostracization will only strengthen the position of the far-right.
The Netherlands is the sixth largest economy in Europe and serves as an important trading hub due to the country’s ports. The Party for Freedom, the country’s far-right political party, has recently earned support for criticizing the stringent lockdown protocols recently implemented by the incumbent government. Popular support against lockdown features and Covid-19 as a public health crisis is rising, with more radical individuals taking matters into their own hands. As recently as two days ago, a Covid-19 testing center was the target of a homemade explosive device, showing how far some individuals are willing to go. In effect, the pandemic served as an accelerant for far-right movements throughout Europe, but now that the vaccine is being distributed, it is possible that the spike in far-right activity will weaken. However, the pandemic exposed glaring flaws in the ability of states to deliver basic services. This, as well as other inevitable crises in the future, will serve as an easy source of ammunition for far-right movements.
Regardless of how well the far-right parties perform in the upcoming elections, I predict that populism and far-right ideals will become more prevalent in European politics before they diminish. While we like to imagine people as kind-hearted individuals who care about their fellow man and woman regardless of the colour of their skin, their country of origin, or their religious ideology, the reality is most people are not that altruistic. People will side with who and what they know, turning inwards when things deteriorate around them, and the last two decades have arguably been more tumultuous than any since the end of World War Two. The deadliest terror attack in history, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, unprecedented waves of refugees, and the worst global pandemic in a hundred years are just some of the events that have rocked the Western world since 2000. I believe there are more crises lurking somewhere in the near future, and as they continue to unfold, the far-right in Europe and elsewhere will continue to grow in strength and numbers. This year’s upcoming elections will serve as a test run as to how the people of Europe respond to these unseen dangers, and many people including myself will be watching the results unfold with a healthy dose of pessimism.