“We are ready to open the ovens. We will turn them into soap… to wash cars and pavements. We will make lamps from their skin.” These remarks do not come from Nazi Germany, but from a Greek parliamentary candidate running as a member of the far-right Golden Dawn party speaking about immigrants. The fact that statement went largely unnoticed indicates a frightening development in European politics – the far-right has joined the mainstream. Greece is not the only place with a far-right problem; nearly every European country has had a far-right political insurgency in the recent past. Success has varied among these groups, but one thing is for certain – their popularity has increased immensely. By capitalizing on a fear of globalization, a misunderstanding of and failure to integrate foreign immigrants (especially Muslims) – exacerbated by the ongoing refugee crisis – in addition to the 2008 Recession and the ensuing Eurozone crisis, the far-right has become a powerful force in European politics.
Golden Dawn first gained significant political power in 2012, when it received 21 seats in the Hellenic Parliament. While the party styles itself as “nationalist”, its Hellenized swastika, openly white supremacist members, and highly-coordinated street gangs show its true colors: Neo-Nazism. Their platform includes advocacy for “Grexit” – a Greek exit from the European Union (EU) – and the expulsion of all immigrants from Greece – claiming that immigrants are “diluting” Greek culture, replacing it with their own, collecting benefits from the government without working, while simultaneously stealing jobs from Greeks. Anti-foreigner sentiments are continually aggravated because Greece is the first stop for refugees entering Europe. Golden Dawn’s claims of Greek victimhood appeal especially to the people who were badly affected by the 2008 Recession, and who have since become resentful of austerity. Even though the government tried to outlaw the party in 2013 for its violent activities, it has continued to thrive. In 2015, after Syriza’s failure to negotiate a deal that protected the Greek welfare state and sovereignty, the public further embraced Golden Dawn as an alternative.
In the UK, the far-right has not had that much success in terms of gaining representation. With the exception of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), a xenophobic and libertarian political party advocating Brexit (the British exit from the EU), and its electoral wins in the 2015 General Election, the far-right has had little success in joining Parliament. At a first glance, the British far-right consists mostly of soccer hooligans, but in reality, the truth is more alarming. The British far-right operates mostly through grassroots methods, social media, and rallies. The first modern manifestation was the English Defense League, a group which took advantage of Islamophobia and the fear that immigrants are stealing British jobs. Fear of economic insecurity dramatically increased during the 2008 Recession and elevated its appeal. Yet, after its founder and leader Tommy Robinson renounced his ties, the EDL faded into obscurity. Still, the fears that gave rise to the EDL did not disappear, and the refugee crisis has only exacerbated them. In the ensuing power vacuum left behind by the EDL, Britain First, originally a Facebook page with over a million likes, filled the EDL’s old role. Unlike the EDL, which really did consist mostly of soccer hooligans, Britain First is openly militaristic and has repeatedly demanded a “holy war” against British Muslims. It has recruited former soldiers and led “raids” on mosques. But even with its widespread support, Britain First has failed to enact any political change, while receiving criticism from Parliament and the Anglican Church (the Church even went a step further and criticized David Cameron for not accommodating more refugees). However, by having their agents terrorize Muslim-majority neighborhoods, Britain First has simply worked around its lack of representation through vigilantism.
Even before the 2008 Recession, the far-right in France made impressive gains. The ultranationalist National Front was able to actually make it to the run-off against incumbent Jacques Chirac in the 2002 French Presidential election by claiming 18% of the vote. This preexisting support for the National Front increased with the 2008 Recession, and by 2013, 62% of French citizens felt the EU was heading in the wrong direction, and one of the only parties to advocate for secession from the EU was the National Front. As the refugee camps in Calais grew and fear of Muslims increased in the aftermath of the November Paris Attacks, the Neo-Fascist National Front capitalized on those concerns with refugees, ramping up its Islamophobic rhetoric to gain even more popularity. While the National Front was unable to secure victory in the 2015 French regional elections, the resolve of its supporters has never been stronger, to the point where both Socialists and Republicans have openly considered a coalition to ensure the National Front never takes power. In any case, discrimination against French Muslims has only further fuelled sympathy for domestic extremism as Muslims become further disaffected from French society, which in turn feeds into more support for the National Front. This vicious cycle, which is contained not only within France but any state where Muslims are discriminated, can only continue to become stronger the more popular the National Front or any far-right movement becomes.
In short, cultural and economic insecurities are the driving factors in the popularity of these groups. If the EU wants to prevent the return of Fascism in Europe, it has to address the concerns of these people. To start off, the EU must stop imposing austerity. The potential downfall of the welfare state has caused many to fear for their own economic wellbeing and sovereignty. Then, it must take measures to integrate the immigrant and refugee population. Fear of the “outsider” is what drives support for the far-right, and EU leaders should realize that immigration is actually an economic bonus, not a liability. A 2014 OECD report, along with The Economist and the Wall Street Journal, have all pointed out that immigrants tend to create their own businesses, bring skilled labor and capital, are willing to work, and actually give more in taxes than the government gives them in benefits. Offering citizenship to the refugees and immigrants in general gives them more of an incentive to not only stay but also to integrate themselves further into the societies they have joined. Discriminating against them will only drive up resentment and fear on both sides. Once these measures have been taken, the far-right will lose legitimacy in the eyes of voters as their concerns have been addressed. Hopefully, by that point, the far right in Europe will return to being a fringe element.