Far-Right Populism is not as Strong as we Think

By Felix Nicol

Giorgia Meloni speaking to the lower house of parliament in Rome, Italy (2022) Photo: Remo Casilli, Reuters. Source

With the recent rise of populist movements throughout Europe, talks of the dangers of far-right parties have once again become prominent. The rise of far-right parties in Italy and Sweden has made Orbán much less isolated in his far right agenda. This growth is closely tied to a shifting ideology of the Far-Right, which has distanced itself from its racist roots to focus on “right to difference” as a means to justify anti-immigrant sentiments. While this is certainly cause for concern, the actual implications of rising far-right populist movements seems largely overstated. In fact, backtracking and inconsistencies in policy as well as recent failures of populism suggest that the far-right has not quite found its footing.

Though the decision of the EU to suspend funds towards Hungary has proved insufficient, it is hard to argue that Brussel’s financial benefits are hard to resist for populists. Though Italy’s Giorgia Meloni has attempted to pin Germany as anti-European due to their stance on the energy crisis, it has become clear that the benefit of EU funding is simply too important. It incited her to backtrack on antagonism of Germany, instead asking for small policy changes to help keep the prices of energy and gas in check. Though this does not represent a complete shift away from Meloni’s good relationship with Orbán, it shows that the far-right is not as tightly-knit as might be assumed. 

Clashes in the rhetoric of populist parties are not limited to the energy crisis, however. In spite of Orbán’s positive position towards Russia, as well as support of Putin from possible coalition partners, Meloni has kept a pro-Ukraine stance. Once again, this suggests that the stances of far-right populists may not necessarily align as neatly as one might assume. That is to say, despite the assumption that other far-right parties may fully turn towards Orbán for support, the position of Meloni’s Brothers of Italy in the EU has made this difficult.

Liz Truss’ hasty resignation further complicates the situation. Her ineffective tax cuts intended for economic growth, which bear a striking resemblance to Giorgia Meloni’s economic proposals, will certainly create doubts regarding populist policies. The result is almost certainly a reduced willingness of center-right parties to lean on populist rhetoric as a means of garnering support. This suggests that as was the case with Meloni, instead of a shift towards far-right populism, center-leaning parties may look elsewhere for public support.

It is also important to remember that the success of these parties does not indicate widespread support for far-right populism across Europe. Countries like Germany, who have elected “the most boring guy in the world” show us that the success of the far-right has not followed everywhere. Further, the success of populist parties may instead represent the fragmentation of the opposition. This was the case in Sweden, where left-wing Social Democrats won the popular vote, but did not form a coalition. That is to say, while there have certainly been a few far-right parties elected in the EU, it does not represent a larger cultural shift across the region. Even with the rise of populist parties, Hungary lacked sufficient support to block its loss of Cohesion Funds in the European Council. Also of note is the history of the EU, which suggests that crises have actually been beneficial in strengthening the EU.
Though far-right ideology is certainly not harmless, it remains important to stay level-headed in understanding the threat that populist support poses to Europe. While Hungary under Orbán shows no major signs of slowdown regarding the success of its populist illiberal democracy, it is important to recognize that this trend is not true for all far-right populist parties. Meloni’s Brothers of Italy actually provides a strong argument to the contrary, as we’ve seen clear examples of ideological compromise with the EU on both the energy crisis and the war in Ukraine. The further failure of the Tory party in Britain as a result of a populist shift may further halt transitions towards the far-right. These factors, along with the reality that populism has not garnered a majority of support in the EU suggests that populism will not successfully undermine the democratic values of the region, even if the EU is unable to effectively prevent it.

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