Europe's Far Right Populists Didn't Get Their Tsunami. But They're Still as Dangerous as Ever

Despite their over-hyped predictions, populist nationalists still got a wave. That should disturb anyone opposed to the danger the intolerant far right poses to Europe

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Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini and head of the French far-right National Rally party Marine Le Pen at a rally of leaders of the EU parliament's Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group in Milan. May 18, 2019
Italy's Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini and head of the French far-right National Rally Marine Le Pen rallying leaders of the EU's Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group. Milan, May 18, 2019Credit: AFP

The good news first: rightwing populists didn't gain as many seats in Brussels as feared. The EU will - for now - not become a non-democratic, illiberal entity. And yet: all the cheering by democratic parties as the EU Parliament election results filtered through overnight is premature. The danger for Europe is not over. Even worse: the threat hanging over the continent might be bigger and more critical than ever.

Looking east, we see that a majority voted for the ruling PiS in Poland and Fidész in Hungary, both profoundly anti-democratic parties. There doesn't seem to be any chance for any political change in the short or even medium-term: the Visegrad States will remain a stronghold of rightwing populists.

The most significant change occurred in western Europe: Marine Le Pen and her "National Rally" held French President Macron's party "En Marche" to a draw, with 23 seats each; Le Pen, an anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant nationalist who markets her party as "post-anti-Semitic," won the popular vote by less than a percentage point, or 205,000 votes. 

>> EU Election: Major Center-right and Center-left Parties Suffer Losses Amid Record High Turnout

Matteo Salvini, head of the "Lega," a strident anti-immigrant populist who's cosy with the Kremlin, anti-Semites and neo-fascists, is the new hero of Italy.

The UK Brexit Party of pro-Trump, pro-Putin Nigel Farage, which has only existed for six weeks, and presents itself as a mainstream but fervently anti-EU nationalist alternative to Farage's former far-right, Islamophobic UKIP party, won 30 percent of the popular vote.

These countries have been undergoing political turnover for quite some time. Macron is paying the price for his elitist policy, which at least at the beginning of his presidency favored the upper classes. That prioritization led to the often violent weekly demonstrations of the Yellow Vests, began as an umbrella movement for all kinds of protesters against the "establishment" but which gradually got taken over by hardline nationalists and pro-Putin sympathizers.

Rome, by contrast, has a relatively established rightwing-populist coalition, in which Salvini is formally interior minister, but de facto the real strong man of the government.

The results yesterday surely hint in which direction the next national elections could go. Italy might see almost for sure Salvini as the next prime minister, while Marine Le Pen as the next French president is less unthinkable than ever. The Brexit Party's success could force either general elections or a second referendum. And then what?

There's a strong political tide in Europe that will continue to benefit populist nationalists. That was evidenced by the weak showing ofthe center parties, Conservatives and Social Democrats, and the victories of the Greens, mainly in Germany, in the results from most European countries.

Established parties don’t have answers for the major issues and conflicts in their societies, which are more and more fragmented. This is a classic foundation for the rise and rise of populist parties and identity politics. They won't stop.

That popular divorce from the conventional established ground of national politics was clearly framed in Germany. The far right populist AfD won a surprisingly, thankfully low 10%. But at the same time, Merkel's conservative CDU/CSU and Germany's Social Democrats both not only lost big time in general, but failed more completely to win among voters aged 18 – 24. The Greens tidily mopped up the votes from parties incapable of reaching out to a digital generation and incapable of understanding the immediate fears of young voters on environmental issues.

But this should be of limited comfort: the AfD actually established itself as the strongest party in parts of eastern Germany, the former GDR. And populists are absolute masters of professional social media campaigning while established parties all over Europe are still digital morons.

This presages a politically unstable future for Germany. If at the same time France and Italy fall more and more into the hands of their right-wing-nationalist forces, Europe, in spite of yesterday's better-than-predicted election results, might change course faster than expected.

Europe's future is still at stake, even after an election result which offers partly substantial, partly illusory glimmers of hope. But for Europe's Jewish communities, nothing has changed. Anti-Semitism is on the rise and, with national variations, Jews have to be more and more cautious about exposing their identities as Jews in public.

Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage waits reacts to the results for the European Parliamentary election in Southampton, Britain, May 27, 2019Credit: \ HANNAH MCKAY/ REUTERS

The main question facing democratic parties is whether they understand the message of their electorate. To preserve democracy, they need to liberate themselves from the agenda and consequential grip of populist nationalists. Instead of fighting them according to a far right agenda, instead of being sucked into the subjects that suit the far right, democrats need to set their own agenda and profile.

They need to get back to basics, banal as they seem: to explain the advantages of democracy to those who are not convinced anymore, to explain the political and economic benefits of the EU, to massively professionalize their social media game. They have to fight the basic ignorance and misinformation that the far right exploits so well.

Europe needs visions, needs to redefine itself as a really united political power with no option other than overcoming national interests. A standard foreign policy, common defense strategy and more social solidarity among its member states is not only the best answer to all the reactionary populist concepts from the right, but rather a necessity for survival when the old world order is slowly but surely collapsing.

Only in such a Europe will everyone, including Jews and other minorities, be able to live and thrive. The big question is whether the established parties are capable of the vision and daring that's required – and if they're not, how quickly other forces, unfriendly and anti-democratic, will devour their political space more entirely.

Richard C. Schneider is editor-at-large, ARD German TV. His latest book is "Alltag im Ausnahmezustand. Mein Blick auf Israel" ("Daily Life in Times of Emergency: My View on Israel"), 2018. Twitter: @rc_schneider

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