Europe’s Centre Must do More Than Hold; it Must Push Back

It is widely recognised that the challenge of nationalism and illiberalism has been mounting in Europe for some years now. Political and social extremism are both on the rise. The curled lip and barbed rhetoric of the modern right is not just a front for illiberal policies, but an emboldening factor for far right violent groups and a boon to proponents of Islamist extremism.

Voters are still failing to demonstrate faith in the leadership that has steered them to peace, security and prosperity since the Second World War, but has plunged them into a series of crises over the last decade. They are turning to populist extremes, to Eurosceptic and ahistorical prevaricators, to demagogues and to xenophobia. Some are turning to violence. We may be starting to understand this phenomenon, but we are a long way from counteracting it.

Far right extremism has always existed under the surface in Europe. But the current generation of extreme right leaders – admittedly more moderate than the BNP and the senior Le Pen – is the first in decades to experience real political power.

The 2007 financial crisis and subsequent sovereign debt crisis dealt body blows to the status quo, but the real boost to the far right came when the migrant crisis hit Europe in 2015. As the meek shall inherit the earth, so the likes of Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party and Marine Le Pen’s National Front inherited the political groundwork of their forebears to mount previously unthinkable challenges to the centre ground.

Further east, a populist wave returned majority governments for Poland’s nationalist Law and Justice Party and Viktor Orban’s Fidesz in Hungary, and boosted the profile of Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland.  All are anti-EU, hostile to migration and critical of a perceived globalist elite. All rely on heavy winks and knowing nods to Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

The dam burst in late 2017 when Matteo Salvini took the deputy premiership of Italy in 2018 (now looking very much in the ascendency in the country). The reactionary right is completing the transition from old and decrepit to young and dynamic – even as Salvini made sweeping moves to close mosques last year and limit migration to the maximum degree.

At the political level, the big mistake some are making is ceding ground. Pandering to the right has given us Brexit. Adopting the language of extremists is the reason we talk about migration, rather than refugees; it has done nothing to protect us from terrorist attacks. In fact, by emboldening far right groups, it has put more of us at risk. The failure of the EPP Group to eject the increasingly dictatorial Viktor Orban from its ranks means we have seen the largest political group in the EU tacitly endorse his populist actions and rhetoric.

The far right will wear sheep’s clothing only for as long as necessary. Where they have gained leadership roles, they have – at best – continued to espouse the grievance-laden populism that got them into power but which is dividing and agitating Europe, such as in Italy and Austria. At worst, as in Poland and Hungary, they have implemented varying degrees of authoritarianism, limiting the power of the press, judiciary and academia. The grievance narratives and the mistruths should be challenged in the strongest terms.

At street level, violence, intimidation and the language of hate are all trending upwards. Within the borders of EU heavyweights France and Germany, nationalist groups such as Les Identitaires and Alternative für Deutschland (AFD) have grown in influence. This is without mentioning the deus ex machina political moment that was the Brexit referendum in the UK.

From another direction, Islamist extremism is still with us and still very dangerous. The gun attack in Strasbourg in December was a reminder of that. Right wing groups will feed off events like that, but both they and Islamist recruiters rely on finding space in the dark recesses of society in which to spread their messages of intolerance. Content-sharing and messaging apps are key tools for both.

Of course, stumbling economies and faltering integration are contributory factors that make the jobs of demagogues and rabble-rousers easier. However, these problems did not set the ball of extremism rolling, they only steepened the incline, and fixing those problems will not alone bring it to a halt. We need to take stronger counter-action than we have been, and ironically it is the likes of Merkel, Macron and the European Commission – the supposedly aloof elite being blamed for the downfall of the centre ground – who are beginning to take the necessary steps to counter extremism without resorting to extremism.

Germany’s NetzDG law is a start, forcing the big platforms to take down illegal content within an hour. The Commission put similar legislation on the table in the summer of 2018 and France, too, is considering similar moves. More – much more – is needed, if Europe is to hold together.

The obvious fly in the ointment here is that the European Commission will be gone this time next year, and Chancellor Merkel is on an exit path. If the political environment does not drastically improve for Macron, he could well be gone, too. At this stage, there aren’t many more faces Europe’s liberally-minded can turn too.

We must draw a line around what we have, hold it, and push back as strongly as we can against the rhetoric, the methods and the false narratives of extremists on all sides, using all the tools at our disposal.

Lucinda Creighton is senior advisor to the Counter Extremism Project and a former Irish minister for EU affairs.