ANALYSIS

Where did all the far-right votes in the EU, but also in Greece, come from?

Extremist surge in European Parliament is no longer geared by those you would traditionally expect, say analysts

Where did all the far-right votes in the EU, but also in Greece, come from?

The far-right parties that saw their influence grow in the European Parliament are no longer supported by fanatics only. So what accounts for the diversity of the “destigmatized” far-right vote? And who is today’s far-right voter?

There are a couple of images that spring to mind: He is a young, angry white, aggressive skinhead, with racist views. Usually a climate change denier. Probably an anti-vaxxer. Or he is an older ultra-conservative, homophobic man, constantly whining about the decline of Western civilization.

Is he, though? It seems that the voters who gave the far-right so much power in the next European Parliament no longer conform to such stereotypes.

It is even possible that the MEPs elected with the support of far-right parties will outnumber those of the liberal-conservative European People’s Party, and what prevents them from being a leading force is their fragmentation.

In the months leading up to the elections, polls suggested that the far-right vote came from a variety of audiences: young people, farmers and even migrants. They come from all social classes, ages and educational backgrounds.

After all, the governments of six of the 27 countries of the European Union already include parties with positions traditionally seen as far-right, and the Netherlands will soon join them with the government of Geert Wilders. In France, the crushing victory by Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) on Sunday brought immediate political developments with French President Emmanuel Macron dissolving the parliament and calling national elections on June 30. 

In Portugal, the rise of the far-right with Chega (“Enough”) coincides with the country’s 50th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution and the end of the dictatorship. In Spain, the neo-fascist Vox is also on the rise and organized a major event in Madrid at the end of May where it hosted far-right leaders from across Europe.

The Greek case

In our country, a large proportion of far-right voters concentrated around Greek Solution, which more than doubled its support since the last elections. Niki (Victory) also absorbed a significant number, while Voice of Reason had an unexpectedly good performance. As Rori points out, these parties “cover the whole spectrum of far-right ideology – ultra-conservative, religious, populists, radicals – and we know that despite the ban on the Spartiates (Spartans) party’s running, there is an extremist pool in the wider space of the extreme right.

“As the memory of the authoritarian past in Spain, Portugal and Greece fades and the legacy of the dictatorship is gradually destigmatized, the far right is gaining legitimacy among voters, no longer embracing extremism but populism and right-wing radicalism,” she notes.

Samaras says that what should be of greater concern is the shift of the traditional parties and government to the far-right’s agenda, which is in stark contrast to its liberal tendencies. “So far, the snowball effect has not made a strong appearance in Greece, but its rise is leading to radicalization phenomena, such as young people resorting to homophobic/extreme behavior,” he said and stressed: “The snowball effect will be limited if the center-right forces, which adopt far-right positions, decide to make it happen.”

Protest vote

The common denominator among voters who choose to cast one of these ballots is no longer so much ideology but, rather, a desire to express their deep dissatisfaction with the quality of life, the dwindling welfare state, rising housing costs and the belief that the established elites are not really listening to them or taking their concerns seriously.

Αs George Samaras, assistant professor of public policy at King’s College London, points out, voters and their needs have hardly changed in the last 20-25 years.

“What is happening is the so-called ‘snowball effect,’ as Matthijs Rooduijn describes it. Center-right and far-right parties are sliding towards more and more extremist positions, pulling with them like an avalanche more voters that get radicalized,” he says.

But what has happened since the last European elections? A series of crises of all kinds: the pandemic, the refugee crisis, inflation – and two wars.

“All these crises make up a mosaic of constant uncertainty, economic, cultural and political insecurity, all experienced together as an ontological threat,” describes Lambrini Rori, assistant professor at the Department of Political Science and Public Administration of the University of Athens.

“Citizens see their states coming under attack, unable to put a brake on the causes of fear and threat. The easy, flexible, populist narrative of the far-right offers both a sense of protection to those who existentially feel threatened and a way of protest against the establishment,” she adds.

The wrapping of the political product has improved, in a way that no longer resembles the stereotype. A far-right candidate can hardly be told apart from a hipster in a cafe or a well-dressed gentleman who reminds you of your father or grandfather.

As Rori underlines, the far-right has the ability to adapt its narrative and adjust its positions to the socio-cultural and economic situation. “It has a plasticity that helps it to potentially appeal to many audiences. At the same time, it is destigmatized over time and so voters more easily use it as a tool of protest to a large extent, rather than of affiliation, possibly ideological.”

The majority of far-right voters, however, are still men, while women, according to figures, are more progressive and vote for left-leaning parties.

Farmers

In the last week before the European elections, hundreds of farmers and hundreds of tractors descended on Brussels. The protest rally was organized by the Farmers’ Defence Force (FDF), a movement considered to be affiliated to the far-right.

In recent months, changes to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, aimed at advancing the green transition, have brought farmers out into the streets en masse. The far-right has exploited discontent with the changes being planned by blaming them on the “elite” and “Brussels bureaucrats” who are out of touch with the people working in the fields.

“The idea of Europe as a leader on green policy was popular across major segments of public opinion in most member-states, but the cost of the transition was not properly socialized,” says Mij Rahman, managing director in Europe and co-head of the London office at the Eurasia Group, adding that far-right parties were looking for and thus found a new target around which to wrap themselves.

Indeed, many farmers’ organizations across Europe accuse the EU establishment of trying to wipe them out with the Green Deal and seem to agree that only the far-right is listening to their concerns.

Impact on young people

On the island of Sylt, the “Mykonos of Germany,” affluent young men and women have fun dancing wildly to mixes of various Nazi songs, chanting “Out with the foreigners, Germany for the Germans” and making the Nazi salute. These images, which made the rounds on TikTok and YouTube, would be unthinkable in previous years, especially in Germany.

Generation Z appears attracted to the far-right, not necessarily because of ideology. In France, much of the success of National Rally has to do with its attempt to reposition itself as a safe, palatable alternative to traditional parties in power – an effort personified by the 28-year-old Jordan Bardella.

“It is an expression of absolute fatigue with incumbent governments, mainstream parties in power, which do not seem to be responsive to or capable of addressing the many challenges that countries face and young people in particular face,” notes Rahman.

He says there is a pervasive sense among young people that the opportunities available to their parents, perhaps even their grandparents, are no longer there for them. “That’s where the attraction of anti-establishment, anti-systemic parties lies, that promise to upend the entire political system can be quite appealing and it can be quite promising and convincing to these voters.”

Housing crisis

One point the leaders of the far-right parties are pressing is the housing crisis that is affecting many countries. In The Netherlands, for example, Wilders focused his pre-election campaign on affordable housing, which he linked to migration restrictions. In Portugal, Chega tapped into young people’s frustration with the housing crisis, linking it to migration, even though migrants certainly could not afford to buy the houses that locals were forced to leave due to over-tourism.

Different trajectories

Despite their success, far-right forces are unlikely to succeed in creating a coherent bloc. There are already two blocs – the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and Identity and Democracy (ID) – and there are reportedly talks of a third new alliance.

Mij Rahman notes that talk of a possible deal between Le Pen and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni is just noise.

“Le Pen desperately wants to become mainstream in France, so trying to emulate and copy what Meloni has done in Italy is in her interest, but it is not in the interest of the Italian prime minister to do a deal with Le Pen,” he explains. “Meloni gains far more by playing to the center and supporting the majority of [European Commission President] Ursula von der Leyen and I suspect that is what she will do. She gains a lot of influence, significant representation, possibly an interesting portfolio in the next Commission that has power and money probably attached to it.”

Also, despite signs of convergence between the two, given Italy’s huge public debt and limited fiscal space for the government, Meloni has an incentive to continue working with – or at least seeking a compromise – with the new Commission, says Leo Goretti, head of Italy’s foreign policy program at the Institute of International Affairs (Istituto Affari Internazionali/IAI).

“Le Pen, instead, will likely call for a neat break with the traditional EU consensus, as she has made clear by explicitly denying her support for a second term of Ursula von der Leyen as EC president,” he points out.

Nevertheless, the far-right parties will probably try to influence the agenda of the next European Commission, he stressed.

“Among the main issues on which they will in all likelihood try to influence the agenda of the next European Commission are a scaling down of the European Green Deal and the supposed excesses of an ‘ideological transition,’ as Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni described it,” says Goretti.

 

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