Benjamin Ward, Deputy Director of the Human Rights Watch, talks on how far-right ideologies are making their way into Europe’s mainstream political parties.
So, how has the far right increased in recent years within Europe?
Well, there is certainly good evidence to suggest that extremist parties have grown in support and in strength in many countries in Europe in the last decade or so, including in countries that don’t have any tradition of extremist parties. In some of the Scandinavian countries, for example in the Netherlands, as well as in countries like France and Austria, and Italy which have longer traditions of the far right and extremist parties.
Is there any one cause of this throughout the different countries or is it really a combination of different causes affecting different countries differently?
It is a very complicated question. There are of course always local reasons for support for political parties. But certainly, if one looks at the growing support for extremist parties in Western Europe, there is good evidence to indicate thatconcerns about immigration and the national identity, and culture are as important as economic explanation. And one reason for that conclusion is that the rise and support for these parties predates the economic crisis that began in 2008-2009.
So, in a sense it is not a really recent phenomenon of the last two or three years, as perhaps has been highlighted quite a lot in Greece, but has been an undercurrent that has been growing or bubbling away, if you like, for some time.
I think that the trend is certainly longer than that. Greece is a bit different and in Greece I think the link to the economic crisis is a much stronger one. The rise of the neonazi Golden Dawn Party which took up seats in the Greek Parliament only this year for the first time is something which is more strongly connected to the economic crisis in Greece (Σ.Σ.: Ο τύπος είναι πέρα, για πέρα νυχτωμένος…). But more generally, if one looks at the supporters of extreme right groups, of far right groups in many European countries and also the trends of that support – it is clear that economic factors alone are not going to explain that. And of course the challenge that that poses is that it means that when the economic crisis is resolved, and hopefully Europe gets back to growth, that phenomenon is unlikely to go away on its own.
So, when you saw the phenomenon is unlikely to go, do you think an improvement in economic conditions may suppress this activity or will it still continue?
I think it requires more than that. It requires concerted efforts on the part of mainstream political parties. One of the concerns that the Human Rights Watch has about the response of the mainstream political parties to the rise of these extremist parties and particularly their electoral success, is that theyhave often responded to this phenomenon by aping obedient moderated way the rhetoric of the extremist parties and also by embracing the voted down, but nonetheless recognizable versions of their policies, I think with the idea that this will draw support away from these parties.
But the problem with this approach that we see, and our research supports this view, is that it actually starts to legitimize the idea that for example xenophobic attitudes are socially acceptable and something which can be discussed in mainstream political discourse. So, rather than isolating and marginalizing these groups it actually helps to mainstream them more. That is where I think mainstream political parties and leaders need to think and recalibrate their strategy.
So, in some sense it is possible to talk about the rise in the far right both in terms of political activities by individuals in these groups, but also by the impact that they can have upon the agenda of other mainstream political parties.
Yes, I think the mainstreaming of the politics of extremist political parties is a very important part of understanding why they pose such challenge to human rights in Europe. It is not simply the activities of the sort of archetypal skinhead thugs, it is the effect that they are having on mainstream politics which I think is worrying.
And the other thing I think is important to mention is that there is an opinion polling that suggests that intolerant, xenophobic attitudes are quite widespread among the EU country citizens. And so, one can’t simply look at the 10-15% of people who vote for these parties and see them as the only people in society who have intolerant social attitudes and that I think is part of what’s driving this mainstreaming of those views by mainstream politicians. So, I think it is a challenge for the society as well as for the political leaders.
Have these more far right parties had a great deal of electoral success in terms of getting their members within parliaments, within local governments?
Yes, they have had some success. They’ve done quite well in the European Parliament for example which is less keenly contested and also where the electoral system favours more smaller parties. They have done well in some European countries, I mean they were part of the ruling coalition in Italy, in Austria. In the Netherlands the extremist party, perhaps not fully into the kind of classic far right frame, but nevertheless an extremist party supported the Government, the ruling coalition – the Freedom Party of Geert Wilders.
So, they have enjoyed some success. And of course in Greece they secured about 15% of the votes and have around 30 seats in the Greek Parliament. So yes, they are sort of entering the mainstream politics. And also I think when one looks at local elections, as well you do see some success there.
You talk about the far right as if it could potentially be a unified group. But is there any evidence that there is cooperation or acting together by these parties within Greece, Austria, Scandinavia, France? Or are they more sort of isolated activities in different countries but pursuing a similar agenda?
Well, they all have their own agenda and in some cases they have different political agendas. And one shouldn’t forget as well that we have these groups in the eastern part of EU as well – in Hungary, in Slovakia and elsewhere. It is not just the Western European phenomenon. But what is true is that there is a great deal of information sharing among the groups in terms of tactics and strategies that resonate well with local voters and the use of sophisticated communication techniques. The use of social media for example is something which has been embraced by many of these parties quite successfully.
And a concrete example of this was that when there was a proposal, if I recall it correctly, the proposal in Switzerland to ban mosques having visible minarets – within 24 hours of that proposal coming to light there were similar calls by extremist parties in Italy and in the Netherlands, and in the UK. That’s a concrete illustration of the fact that these groups are very much aware of one another and exchange the information. I think cooperation and collaboration maybe putting it too high but they are certainly exchanging information and ideas.
And one area of collaboration or collusion, if you like, that I saw was these various defense leagues that have appeared – the English Defense League, the Nordic Defense League, the German Defense League – that seems to promote the far right agenda very much targeted against Muslims as I understand.
Yes, I mean those are not the political parties that are kind of having their own impact in national politics. They are slightly more kind of marginalized groups that correspond perhaps to the more traditional view of kind of far right groups. They are organized. It is not clear to me that the Scandinavian groups and the Central European groups are that large. The English Defense League held a rally in one of the Scandinavian countries that was either this year or in the second half of last year. And the majority of people who attended were actually the English Defense League members and the numbers of people were actually quite small. I mean that is obviously a concern and something which the authorities I think now started to pay more attention to than they did before.
I think there is recognition, particularly after the massacre in Norway, that the far right groups have the potential to engage in violence in a way that means that they need to be monitored in the same way as Islamist groups need to be monitored. And perhaps the focus on Islamist terrorism has come at the expense of paying attention to the activities of these groups. But on the other hand I think that’s rather separate from the sort of political parties and their ties. I think that the phenomenon of a political party entering parliament, entering politics and through engaging in politics and the effect that it is having on mainstream politics is a more worrying part of the puzzle.