On January 28th, the International Affairs Forum spoke with Cas Mudde, author of the book 'Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe', about the recent formation of a pan-European far-right party.
International Affairs Forum: Last week four European far-right parties agreed to form a pan-European party. Is there a coherent ideology and goal among different far-right parties in Europe or is their appeal based on more localized issues?
Cas Mudde: I think there are various goals that they do share, most notably the idea that Europe should consist of sovereign monocultural 'nation-states', which they believe the process of European integration is threatening. They also share an opposition to the establishment in general - both their national establishment and also the European political establishment, which of course also overlaps. And they strongly oppose liberalization, socially and culturally. For example, many of the parties take issue with secularization, which they feel is supported by the European elite. Some are particularly nativist, while others feel Christianity should be more important to protect against what they see as the threat of Islam. And then of course there is the opposition to multiculturalism in general, and immigration and the perceived Islamization in particular. And it is that issue - that of Islamization - that western European parties feel very strongly. In the East that will be less the case simply because immigration is not such a big issue - in most countries Islam is not a big issue. What is striking is that this alliance includes one party from the East, the Bulgarian Ataka. But that is actually not that strange because this is by and large a consequence of an initiative that was taken called Cities against Islamization. Bulgaria is by and large the only eastern European country that has a sizeable Muslim population, the Turkish Bulgarians. For most other European countries, the far-right will probably be against Islam, but it is just not an issue there.
IA-Forum: You mention there is a difference between far-right parties in eastern and western Europe. Is there a big difference aside from the one you just mentioned?
Mudde: There are not any big differences in terms of ideology - they share the same ideology, otherwise they would of course not be the same parties. But there is a particular issue of their core nativism. The nativism in western Europe is directed foremost against immigrants, whereas in Eastern Europe it is directed against indigenous minorities. Largely the Roma, or the Jews or the Russian speakers in the Baltic. So they have the same ideology, and consider all aliens, so to speak, as a threat. But the subject of their fear and rejection is different. In the West it is 'external', in the East it is more internal. Another element that differentiates them a bit is more rhetorical - Eastern European parties tend to be blunter, partly because of the lack of sensitivity to xenophobia in the East compared with much of the West. Also, eastern parties tend to be more anti-Semitic. Not all eastern Europe far-right parties are anti-Semitic, but most are deeply anti-Semitic.
Mudde: Largely because of the different historical interpretations of the Holocaust. In the West the Holocaust has been the defining moment in recent history for most countries, and the Holocaust has been almost exclusively interpreted as the mass killing of Jews and a consequence of anti-Semitism. In most East European countries, the Holocaust has been interpreted by the communists, where the killing of Jews was one aspect, but the communists very much stressed that communists were also killed. Also, many people learned that the Holocaust was bad because the communists said so. But given that they have now decided that everything that the communists said was a lie, it also has had the perverse effect of making people think that maybe then the Holocaust wasn't such a big deal.
IA-Forum: Is there are a growing problem with the far-right in Europe, or does the media tend to inflate individual cases?
Mudde: I think it very much gets inflated by the media, and this has been the case for the last 20 years. The thing is that every time a few parties that are considered to be part of the radical right gain electoral successes within a period of a couple of months, people start to worry there is a new wave of right wing radicalism. But there are some problems with this. First, several of these parties are not radical right, such as the List Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands. But the main problem is that people miss all those countries where the radical right does not exist or is marginal. In the end, the radical right is a major player only in about 5 or 6 countries in Europe - which are Switzerland, where they are in government, Slovakia, where they are in government, Italy, where they are close to regaining government, Belgium, where we have a very big opposition party and Denmark, where they support a government. You then have a couple of countries where they are in parliament, but not really a very big force. So it actually leaves you with a vast majority of countries where the radical right is either not even in parliament, or is a very small force in parliament. That is not to say that they are irrelevant, but they are not such a force as the media makes them out to be, and there is not such a widespread European phenomenon.
IA-Forum: Do they still have an impact on government policy even if only indirectly?
Mudde: Yes, but it is very hard to measure. I think direct influence can be measured. But for that you need government participation, and that has been very rare. What we have learned from the few cases when the radical right was in government nationally is that immigration policies and law and order policies were strengthened. But that has actually been the case in virtually all European countries in the last 10 or 15 years. So even though they were implementing new laws, they were not the only ones in Europe to be doing that, and not necessarily any stricter. Now it can also be that some of these other countries have a big radical right party, and so they have an indirect effect - other parties will implement some of their policies out of fear of the radical right. But first of all, that is very hard to prove, because normally they do not say that is why they are doing it. On the other hand, in the EU, it was particularly Spanish Prime Minister [Jose Maria] Aznar and Tony Blair in the United Kingdom who pushed for a stricter European-wide immigration policy. Blair actually said that he didn't want a successful far-right party like the French Front National in Britain. But the fact is that at that time the British National Party did not threaten Labour or the British party system. So it rather seems to have been an excuse to push through policies that he knew were not that popular among part of his party's members. So you say 'I'm not xenophobic, but if we don't do this, the fascists will come.' Which is an argument that is acceptable to the left. I do think these parties have an indirect effect though. If you look at countries like France or Belgium or even the Netherlands, the echo threat of radical right parties has either moved other parties to the right or actually to the left. In cities like Antwerp for example, there have been many pro-multicultural initiatives that are a direct result of the strength of the radical right party. So it can go either way.
IA-Forum: Do you think far-right parties will play an increasing role in Europe or will they tend to remain at the margins in most countries?
Mudde: I think probably overall the radical right will remain what it is now - relevant in a couple of countries, an annoyance for the establishment in some other countries and invisible in most others. I think that many of the themes and issues that were considered to be radical right issues before, like immigration, like corruption, like law and order, will become even more mainstream in most countries. This doesn't mean that the mainstream becomes radical right, but it does mean that the mainstream gets closer to them, which in certain cases will then end up undermining the radical right's electoral potential because people will feel that mainstream parties can deal with this. But in other countries it will improve their standing, because some people will feel that the only reason this is happening is because of the strength of the radical right. In the end, much depends on the radical right parties themselves, whether they can present and maintain themselves as a credible and radical alternative.
Cas Mudde is a professor of political science at Antwerp University and author of 'Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe' (Cambridge University Press, 2007.)