Thursday, May 23, 2024

Europe’s hard-right parties differ in important ways -Dlight News

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Welcome back. Three hard-right political parties — Alternative for Germany, France’s Rassemblement National and the Brothers of Italy — are all hoping for strong results in the June 6-9 elections to the European parliament.

The three have certain characteristics in common: strident nationalism, hostility to immigrants and Islam, and authoritarian instincts deployed in a search for political power by competing in free elections.

Yet the AfD, RN and FdI aren’t identical to each other. Each operates in its respective German, French and Italian context, making its policies and electoral prospects subtly different. You can find me at [email protected].

Spies, islands and “several tonnes of manure”

It hasn’t been a great week for the AfD. First, an assistant to Maximilian Krah, a senior AfD politician, was arrested on suspicion of spying for China.

Then it emerged that prosecutors in Dresden have placed Krah himself under investigation on suspicion of receiving illegal Russian and Chinese payments. He dismisses this as baseless “assumptions and insinuations”.

I will say more below about the AfD, Russia and China, but let me turn first to a no less interesting development. It concerns a dispute between the AfD and Marine Le Pen, RN’s probable presidential candidate in 2027, about France’s Indian Ocean possession of Mayotte.

In a clumsy, not to say provocative gesture, the AfD asked the German government to comment on whether France ought to hand control of Mayotte to the nearby Comoros, an independent African state.

Le Pen reacted with fury (see this Le Figaro article in French). “The AfD would do better to busy itself with Germany’s problems,” she said, while on a visit to Mayotte in which she reaffirmed French sovereignty over the islands.

This might seem a minor episode, but it’s not.

It demonstrates that, even though the AfD and RN are in the same hard-right European parliament political group, known as Identity and Democracy, the two parties often don’t see eye to eye.

Another example is the French party’s disapproval of the AfD’s airing of a “remigration” plan targeting foreigners and Germans of foreign origin for removal from Germany.

As Le Pen recognised, even to be indirectly associated with such a plan is bad for RN’s image, which she has been at pains in recent years to make seem less extreme. Le Monde, the Paris newspaper, described her reaction pungently:

Le Pen effectively poured several tonnes of manure on relations between [the two parties].

Three parties, three women

Apart from their shared nationalism, hostility towards minorities and purported commitment to “traditional values” on gender roles and the family, the three have something else striking in common. Each party’s leader or dominant personality is a woman — the AfD’s Alice Weidel, RN’s Le Pen and FdI’s Giorgia Meloni, who is Italy’s prime minister.

Co-leader of the AfD Alice Weidel
Alice Weidel, the more prominent of the AfD’s co-leaders © 2023 Getty Images

This distinguishes them from similar parties in Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden, which for the moment are all led by men, though that could doubtless change in the future.

In an article that focuses on Le Pen, Lorette Breban writes for the Gender in Geopolitics Institute that the probable purpose is to “give a softer image of conservative, xenophobic and nationalist policies which constitute their programme”.

Keep in mind, though, that in the days when it was known as the Front National, Le Pen took control of RN largely because she’s the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the party in 1972.

Party systems and geographical support

In terms of centralised party discipline and continuity of leadership, RN and FdI display more stability than the AfD, which has had several different leaders since its creation in 2013. Weidel herself is nominally one of the party’s two co-leaders, though undoubtedly the more prominent.

But a crucial difference between FdI and the other two is that Meloni’s party operates as one element of a three-party rightwing coalition. In France and Germany, a kind of cordon sanitaire still — just about — keeps traditional conservative parties from co-operating with RN and the AfD.

The AfD stands out from the other two insofar as Germany’s domestic intelligence agency considers elements of the party to be of a “proven rightwing extremist character”.

The geographical base of support for the three is also different. In Italy’s 2022 parliamentary elections, FdI attracted voters from up and down the country and emerged top of the polls, as shown by a useful map in the Spanish newspaper El País that you can find here.

By contrast, the AfD’s support is concentrated in former communist eastern Germany, where according to opinion polls it stands a good chance of winning three state elections later this year. The map below, showing the results of Germany’s 2021 Bundestag elections, illustrates the point:

Because the AfD’s support is not broadly based across Germany, its prospects of winning on a national level are not high — and that includes the upcoming EU elections.

RN’s support is not as widespread as FdI’s, but it has shown signs of expanding beyond its traditional areas of strength: old industrial regions of northern and eastern France, as well as the Mediterranean coast (map here).

Although RN has never triumphed in presidential or national parliamentary elections, it did come first in the EU assembly elections in 2014 and, more narrowly, in 2019.

Polls currently suggest victories for RN and FdI in June’s EU elections, but not for the AfD.

Foreign policy and the EU: Italy

On international affairs, there are noticeable differences between the three parties. Meloni has been staunchly pro-Ukraine in its war of self-defence against Russian invaders — more so, at times, than her coalition partners in the League and Forza Italia.

Giorgia Meloni
Italian premier Giorgia Meloni © Roberto Monaldo/LaPresse/ZUMA/dpa

She has also pulled Italy out of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and has in general taken care not to rock the boat in Italy’s relations with the EU.

As this White House statement shows, the Biden administration, though on the moderate left, values the rightwing Meloni’s stance on foreign affairs. As for British prime minister Rishi Sunak, he saw no harm in joining Meloni at a rightwing political festival in Rome four months ago.

Foreign policy and the EU: France

By contrast, Le Pen and her party were caught on the back foot by Russia’s attack on Ukraine in 2022. As Toby Greene writes in this piece for the journal Nations and Nationalism, the Russian assault “proved a significant campaign vulnerability” for Le Pen when she lost France’s 2022 presidential election to Emmanuel Macron.

As Greene says, RN’s Russophilia — now somewhat toned down — owes a great deal to a deeply ingrained anti-Americanism that in turn “cannot be separated from the influence of France’s wider Gaullist culture”.

Leader of Rassemblement National Marine Le Pen and the party’s president Jordan Bardella
Leader of Rassemblement National Marine Le Pen and the party’s president Jordan Bardella © AFP or licensors

On the EU, Le Pen has abandoned some ideas, such as taking France out of the eurozone, that alarmed millions of voters in the 2017 presidential election. However, she still stands for a militant assertion of national sovereignty — vowing at a rally last month to wrest back powers from an “intrusive and authoritarian” bureaucracy in Brussels — that appears incompatible with the way the EU works.

Georgina Wright explains, in this commentary for the Internationale Politik Quarterly, that a Le Pen presidential victory in 2027 “would pose risks for the whole of Europe and suspend the Franco-German engine” that, at least in theory, is what keeps the EU moving.

Foreign policy and the EU: Germany

Of the three parties, the AfD takes the most extreme foreign policy positions. Before the Russian attack on Ukraine, all German political parties contained elements keen to maintain close relations with Moscow, but the AfD went — and still goes — further than most.

In the 2017 Bundestag elections, it was the only party to produce campaign materials in Russian — a step aimed at appealing to Russian-speaking voters of ethnic German descent.

As for Germany’s efforts to distance itself economically from China, Krah told a state-run Chinese publication in 2022:

“The anti-China forces in Germany do not represent the interests of Germany. Decoupling from China would serve only the interests of America and damage our own industry severely.”

In this regard, it’s useful to know that Weidel lived for six years in China on an academic scholarship and speaks fluent Mandarin.

On the EU, Weidel made a statement in January that even Le Pen, and certainly Meloni, wouldn’t make nowadays. In an FT interview, she described the UK’s exit from the EU as “a model for Germany”, and suggested that if the 27-nation bloc proved impossible to turn into a group of more loosely linked nation-states, “we could have a referendum on ‘Dexit’ — a German exit from the EU”.

Whether that could ever happen is an altogether different matter. The barriers to a national breakthrough for the AfD seem formidably high, whereas FdI has already become Italy’s leading rightwing party — and Le Pen certainly fancies her chances in 2027.

More on this topic

The geography of European populism: unveiling nuances beyond stereotypes — an assessment by Mirko Crulli for The Loop, a political science blog of the European Consortium for Political Research

Tony’s picks of the week

  • Mexico is under pressure from the Biden administration to stop irregular migrants crossing the 2,000-mile border into the US, but its efforts are undermined by uneven enforcement and widespread corruption, the FT’s Christine Murray reports from Tapachula

  • Discussions are intensifying about how to extend majority voting in the EU, but the difficulty lies in striking a balance between improving the bloc’s power to act and protecting vital national interests, Nicolai von Ondarza and Isabella Stürzer write for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs

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