It may seem bizarre that two far-right, nationalist politicians — Marine Le Pen of France and Geert Wilders of the Netherlands — have reached across borders to form a Pan-European group dedicated to weakening the European Union. Their aim is a transnational political alliance that would compete in the May elections for the European Parliament; once in power, they would cooperate to try to rein in the power of Brussels.
Are these politicians, who share an opposition to immigration and a skepticism about the free flow of labor and capital across the Continent, simply hypocritical opportunists, as many Europeans of the left believe? Perhaps.
But in fact, since the early 20th century, Europe’s far-right nationalists have often united in search of an “other” to oppose, exclude, resist, restrict or oppress — historically, minorities like Jews, homosexuals, the disabled, Roma, Marxists and, more recently, Arabs, Africans and Asians. What emerged after World War I was a philosophy that could be called Euro-fascist. The most extreme proponents, of course, were the Nazis: Notwithstanding their doctrine of racial supremacy, even they formed alliances with Mussolini’s Italy and the militarists of Japan and found keen fascist collaborators in nations they invaded.
This vision did not die with the end of World War II. Transnational links among right-wing parties, based on common fears of minorities and immigrants, endured. The right-wingers, while speaking different languages, borrowed ideals, strategies, slogans and theorists from one another. The National Front in France, founded in 1972 by Ms. Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, imitated the symbol and political tactics of the original neo-Fascist party, the Italian Social Movement, which was formed in 1946 by admirers of Mussolini and, in 1979, coordinated with like-minded French and Spanish parties to compete (with little success) in the first popular elections for the European Parliament.
So when observers marvel about the “new” nationalist parties of Europe, they are capturing only part of the truth. These right-wingers mistrust or even detest the Continent’s core institutions — the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the European Parliament — but they are perfectly happy to join up with extremists in other countries to weaken those institutions.
Which raises a question: What makes the European Union so appealing as a target?
The answer may (and should) shock complacent left-leaning and center-right Europeans alike. “Europe,” as an idea and a community, has weakened. The European Union’s byzantine governance makes it seem unaccountable. Its leaders — notably José Manuel Barroso of Portugal, the president of the European Commission, the union’s executive body; Herman van Rompuy of Belgium, the president of the European Council, which comprises the 28 heads of government; and Catherine Ashton, the union’s top diplomat — are little known outside of elite circles.
Soaring youth unemployment, stringent fiscal policies, German-led monetary clout and the presence of Muslim immigrants have created a perfect target for the likes of Mr. Wilders and Ms. Le Pen, who blame outside forces like the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Union for their nations’ woes. Conveniently, they overlook structural problems like the costs of social welfare and pension programs, declining birthrates, aging populations, stagnant labor productivity and intensifying competition from the economies of Asia and Latin America.
Surveys show that the anti-European Union forces may win more than 90 of the 751 seats to be contested in the May elections for the European Parliament. That might be enough to form an official parliamentary group — and to make them eligible, like the transnational alliances of socialists and center-right Christian democrats, for European Union financing and full political recognition. Even as a tiny, noisy voice within the European Parliament, this alliance could create a lot of trouble. Just think of the successes that Tea Party Republicans have had in impeding decision making in the United States.
The perception that bureaucrats in Brussels, bankers in Frankfurt and European lawmakers in Strasbourg, France, are haughty and indifferent has made it possible for demagogues to pose as populists who are alone in understanding “the people.”
For example, in November, Lorenzo Fontana, an Italian member of the European Parliament from the right-wing Northern League, boasted — ahead of a gathering with leaders of the National Front and similarly oriented Swedish, Austrian and Flemish parties — that they spoke in the name of a “shared ideal of Europe, a Europe of people.” The League’s newspaper, La Padania, on Nov. 14, put it this way: “It will be up to the voters, but this time the troops, willing but disorganized, have the opportunity to unite in a single ‘army’ behind an able leader.”
How would these right-wingers reshape Europe? They say they would give power back to nations by dismantling the technocratic decision-making power amassed in Brussels and returning powers back to individual member states. They would pause, if not quite reverse, six decades of growing integration.
Tragically, in the face of this assault, calls for European solidarity are few. This is a sign of how far Europe has come from the dream that helped lift it from the ashes of war. It is a sign of the fading of the vision — common markets, democratic institutions and societal integration — promoted by the postwar founders of European integration: thinkers and statesmen like Konrad Adenauer, Winston Churchill, Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman and Altiero Spinelli.
The European Union must reclaim its reputation as a champion of the people. Its leaders should abandon their embrace of technocratic solutions, their support for the banking sector and their stoic austerity. Unless they deliver more jobs, and more of a sense that citizens are in charge, the far right will only keep growing.
Andrea Mammone is a lecturer in modern European history at Royal Holloway, the University of London.