I once shared a car to the airport with a French MEP, a member of the Front National (FN). He spoke that very correct French which, across the Channel, serves in place of accent as a social signifier. He casually mentioned that the Holocaust couldn’t have happened, at least not on the scale claimed: the volume of the ovens, he creepily explained, was insufficient.
The European Parliament has always had its fair share of extremists, eccentrics and outright, drooling loons. With the FN then polling at 6 per cent, there seemed no need to treat any of its MEPs seriously, so I took to avoiding that one. Now his party is set to win the next European election. But it’s not just madmen on the rise. In country after country, genuine protest movements of left, right and centre are surging.
And the most hysterical language is coming, not from the insurgent parties, but from the Eurocrats. The EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, fears that the whole European structure will be blown away by the ‘winds of populism’. (Populism is a favourite Eurocrat word, meaning ‘when politicians do what their constituents want’ — or, as we call it in English, ‘democracy’.) The president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, seeks to make our flesh creep with his vision of ‘political extremes and populism tearing apart the social fabric’. Jean-Claude Juncker, the ultimate Brussels insider, who recently stepped down after 18 years as prime minister of Luxembourg, is so alarmed that he foresees another Great War: ‘I am chilled by the realisation of how similar the crisis of 2013 is to that of 100 years ago.’
What is prompting this panic? Has an archduke been shot? Are mobilisation orders secretly being sent out from the palaces and chanceries of Europe? Hardly. What all these lurid warnings are about is the fact that public support for the EU is collapsing. According to the Commission’s own polling agency, 60 per cent of European citizens ‘tend not to trust the EU’ — up from 32 per cent five years ago.
Naturally enough, some of these citizens will vote accordingly in May’s elections to the European Parliament. What we might call anti-systemic or ‘pirate’ parties are polling at record levels. Some of these parties are indeed distasteful, but others are almost boringly respectable: Alternative for Germany (AfD), for example, is essentially a Eurosceptic offshoot from the liberal FDP, and its upper ranks are disproportionately filled by economists and academics. It alone espouses what, in most countries, would be regarded as a mainstream view, namely that there is no point in asking taxpayers to keep funding euro bailouts that are doing more harm than good.
Being anti-establishment doesn’t necessarily make you sinister. The Pirate Party began life as a single-issue campaign in Sweden against the rules on intellectual property. The geeky corsairs won two MEPs at the last elections, and have established branches across Europe and America. They have slightly broadened their agenda to cover privacy and transparency issues, but are still mainly a party for intense young men in T-shirts. Such is the weakness of the traditional parties, though, that the Pirates have managed to get national representation in Iceland and the Czech Republic as well as winning some regional elections in Germany.
For similar reasons, the Five Star Movement, an unlikely coalition of ecologists, Eurosceptics and, for want of a better term, Carswellians (supporters of open primaries, referendums, internet polls and the like) remains the third force in Italian politics, polling in the high teens. British newspapers like to refer to their founder, Beppe Grillo, as a stand-up comic, but he was better known in Italy as an anti-establishment blogger, a kind of Guido Fawkes. His party resembles what we would get if Guido’s readers combined to form a political movement: some are high-minded libertarians, others are angry anti-politics types, a few are unhinged conspiracy theorists.
What links all these ‘pirate parties’? What links Marine le Pen, Geert Wilders, Beppe Grillo, Nigel Farage, Alexis Tspiras, the firebrand leader of the far-left Syriza movement in Greece, and Berndt Lucke, the clever and mild-mannered professor of macro-economics who leads AfD? Beyond the fact that they expect to do well in May’s elections, only one thing: they all dislike the euro. As far as Eurocrats are concerned, this makes them more or less interchangeable. Barroso frames this year’s election as a choice between ‘pro-European forces’ and ‘extremist forces’.
It’s amazing how common this narcissism is: I disagree with person A, and I also disagree with person B, therefore A and B are identical. The idea is reinforced by countless bien-pensant journalists, who apply the blanket term ‘far right’ to anyone they disapprove of. Here, to pluck an example more or less at random, is an article from last month’s Washington Post: ‘With the FN at 24 per cent, the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV) at 15 per cent, and the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) at 10 per cent, the total of far-right seats [in the European Parliament] would go up to 50.’
What do these three parties have in common? The FN has positioned itself to the left even of François Hollande on economics, favouring protectionism, nationalisation, high taxes and increased welfare spending. Wilders’s PVV, which is overwhelmingly focused on Islamisation, seeks common cause with LGBT organisations, feminists and left-wing secularists. Ukip, unlike most continental Eurosceptics, is unequivocally libertarian, pro-capitalist and pro-City, and has ruled out collaborating with either the FN or the PVV.
In the solipsistic world-view of the Euro-integrationist, none of this much matters: any Eurosceptic is, ipso facto, extreme. Perhaps the silliest example of the phenomenon is the way the label ‘far right’ is now extended to the party likely to make the largest advances in Finland, Timo Soini’s Finns Party, which emerged from the Rural Party, and has always been squarely in the middle of the political spectrum. Because the farmers who constituted its base were hostile to joining the EU in the 1990s, it was freer than the other parties to oppose the euro. When the rest of the Finnish establishment lined up behind the bailouts, Soini naturally emphasised the bit of his programme that most chimed with public opinion: hostility to the single currency. Immediately, his party surged in the polls. And, immediately, commentators cretinously started calling it ‘far right’.
The trouble with labelling everyone you dislike a fascist is that, when you’re confronted with the real article, you have no adequate vocabulary. Greece’s Golden Dawn is an authentic Nazi party if ever there was one: anti-democratic, anti-Semitic and nostalgic for the Metaxas dictatorship, when political parties and trade unions were banned. Like all properly fascist parties, Golden Dawn loathes the free market and yearns for an authoritarian, corporatist state. Having bumbled along with less than 2 per cent support since the 1980s, it was turned by the euro crisis into Greece’s third party.
To lump together fascist parties (Golden Dawn in Greece, Ataka in Bulgaria, Jobbik in Hungary, the BNP) with bellicose but essentially constitutional anti-immigration movements (FN in France, PVV in the Netherlands, Freedom Party in Austria) is clumsy. To add in eurosceptic parties of the democratic right (AfD in Germany, Mouvement pour la France, Danish People’s Party, Ukip) is deliberately tendentious.
When someone groups all these parties together under the label ‘extreme right’, he is telling you more about himself than about them. Parties like Golden Dawn are not right-wing in any recognisable sense. They favour workers’ councils, higher spending, state-controlled industries; they march on May Day under red flags. They could just as easily sit at either end of the European Parliament’s hemicycle (our closest equivalent, in its combination of mystical nationalism and loathing for capitalism, is Sinn Féin). Calling such parties right-wing isn’t intended to make anyone think less of them; it’s intended to damage mainstream conservatives by implying that the difference between them and the Nazis is one of degree.
But the Barrosos and Junckers and Rompuys don’t stop there. Their definition of extremism also covers those leftists who have seen through the EU. The euro crisis has led to a revival of communist parties in the austerity-stricken states: Ireland’s Socialist party, Spain’s Izquierda Unida, Greece’s Syriza. Radical socialists argued all along that the euro was a scam that would benefit bankers and bureaucrats at the expense of ordinary people. And — it’s not often one gets to say this — they were spot on. Every successive cut has vindicated their interpretation of the EU as an organised racket in which a privileged caste lives off the sweat of the workers.
In a sense, it’s no surprise that all these parties, from the Pirates to Syriza, from the Five Stars to the PVV, should resent the euro. Who, coming new to the argument, would think it a success? The chief reason that the old parties defend monetary union is that it was their idea. Incredible as it now seems, a decade ago they were assuring their electorates that the single currency would boost GDP by 1 per cent a year in perpetuity.
If anyone in this debate can be fairly lumped together, it’s not the disparate insurgent parties, but the paleo-federalists of the EPP (European People’s Party), the Liberals and the Socialists. Listening, month after month, to the EPP leader, a German-speaking Alsace farmer called Joseph Daul, and his Socialist counterpart, an amiable Austrian called Hannes Swoboda, I genuinely struggle to see any great ideological divide between them. Both want a United States of Europe. Both want a social market, eco-regulations, tax harmonisation and a common European foreign policy. The only issues on which they disagree with passion are the moral ones: abortion, same-sex marriage and so on.
My guess is that May’s elections will see big losses for the EPP and the Liberals. The Socialists may pick up a few seats, benefiting from anti-incumbency votes against centre-right governments at national level. But the big gains will be made by euro-critical parties. Paradoxically, the result will be to drive the EPP and the Socialists even closer together, propping each other up like two exhausted boxers at the end of ten rounds.
We can be certain that they will cling to their demands for ‘more Europe’, whatever the economic reality and whatever the wishes of their constituents. For five years, their policies have caused unemployment, deflation and emigration across southern Europe, while the IOUs pile up in northern Europe. Nothing makes them question their faith. No amount of suffering, no amount of debt moves them to admit that the single currency might have been a mistake. They are, literally, beyond argument. Which raises the question — who are the real extremists here?