Of course, the growth in support for far-right populist, anti-European, anti-immigrant parties has been force-fed by the worst world recession since at least the 1930s and possibly since before 1914. Mass unemployment and falling living standards in the euro-area and the wider EU made worse by the crazy and self-defeating austerity obsession of European leaders has opened the door to the revival of the far right.
Parties that skulked in the shadows for decades after 1945, playing down their sympathies with fascism and Nazism are now re-emerging having given themselves a PR facelift. Marine Le Pen, leader of the French NF, plays down the antisemitic record of her party..
The Dutch far-right leader has ploughed a slightly different furrow – mobilising fear and hostility not against Jews but rather Muslim immigrants in the Netherlands. Like Marine Le Pen, Wilders obsessively focuses on the alleged cosmopolitan threat to national identity from the European Union. It is a chorus echoed in other European countries by the Danish People’s party, the Finns party and the Flemish Vlaams Belang among others.
For now, the French and Dutch populists are carefully keeping their distance from openly neo-Nazi parties such as Golden Dawn – whose paramilitary Sturmabteilung – have terrorised refugees and immigrants in Greece, and the swaggering Hungarian Jobbik, who terrorise the Roma minority. For now, our own Ukip is tactically keeping its distance from the new European far-right alliance while whispering a similar story about “east European immigrants”.
Ridiculous comparisons have been drawn by some commentators between the rise of the populist far right and the growth of the radical left – notably the Syriza party in Greece, which has pushed for a reverse of austerity crisis policies, both in Greece and throughout Europe. In fact, Syriza represents the main challenge to Golden Dawn’s offensive. Moreover, while the Italian Northern League may be drawn to the far-right alliance, the bulk of the semi-anarchist followers of the comedian Beppe Grillo in the Italian parliament are anti-fascist and unlikely to take the same path.
According to some pollsters – the far right might win as many as a third of all the seats in the European parliament after the European elections next May. That would still leave the centre parties – Christian Democrats, Social Democrats and Liberals – with many more members. But for the European parliament to form a credible majority all of these parties might well be forced much closer together than is good for them or good for European democracy. It could threaten eventual paralysis of the European parliament itself.
Such a situation would be unsettlingly reminiscent of 1936, when the centre and the left – notably in France – temporarily halted the swing to fascism but formed an unprincipled and ineffective coalition. Its collapse on the eve of the second world war accelerated the advent of Phillippe Petain’s Nazi collaborating regime. History does not normally repeat itself in an automatic fashion. But it would be foolish to take the risk.
More worrying than the growth of the far right are the temporising gestures to the racists and anti-immigrants now coming from mainstream Tory and even Liberal Democrat politicians and from some of the new “Blue Labour” ideologues. The warning from the likes of David Blunkett that hostility to Roma immigrants might lead to a popular “explosion” is worryingly reminiscent of Enoch Powell style rhetoric.
An effective antidote to the growth of far-right populism requires that the European left is capable of articulating and following through on a comprehensive alternative to economic stagnation, an ever-widening income and wealth gap, the degradation of our social standards, civil liberties and democratic rights and the mindless drift to a global arming catastrophe. But to succeed that alternative has to be fought for at European as well as national and local levels, and to be delivered will require more, not less, European integration.
Time is running out not only for the European Social Democrats to show they understand this but also for the wider socialist left and the greens throughout Europe to show that they can create a counterbalance to the rightward drift of the centre. Without that the new far-right alliance may only have to hold together and wait for their hour to strike.