If there is one thing we can take for granted after the rise of the radical right in Europe is that the populist parties are here to stay. To understand the exclusive relationship between the people and these factions, we have to look beyond the mere politics of scaremongering and unveil the asymmetries of a dislocated class conflict.
A van into a mosque (London, June 2017), a shooting in front of a bar (Italy, February 2018), a square full of torches burning with the flame of nationalism (Estonia, 2018). Three images, not on the same level, but different manifestations of the same phenomenon: the extreme right is back.
Or perhaps it never went away. To varying extents, the last ten years saw radical right-wing parties take on the role of the new protagonists in the political debate in Europe, on three paths of development divided into geographical areas: Scandinavia, Western Europe, and Central-Eastern Europe.
Although each party shows characteristics that are both particular and strongly characterised by their context, they belong to the same large and composite family. This makes it possible to identify the things they have in common, which go well beyond their rather homogenous rhetoric and anti-immigration sentiment.
If their answer seems to always be one and the same (let’s not forget the infamous "If you're black, go back"), it is because reducing them all to the smallest common denominator works right up to election day, but it hardly explains the underlying dynamics of this political faction’s growing popularity.
In the latest polls the Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) is now firmly established as the third party in Estonia in terms of voter support and intentions. The torchlight procession organized on the occasion of the centennial of Estonia’s independence made for an image as picturesque as it is unsettling. With his party at around 17 percent approval, party chairman Mart Helme can be almost sure of being able to take home a record result in next year's elections, which is in line with the generally favourable momentum that is currently carrying other radical and conservative parties in the rest of Europe as well.
To round off the picture of the Estonian nationalist microcosm, one can’t forget to mention the contribution by EKRE’s youth organization, Sinine Äratus ("Blue Awakening"), and the small group of the Soldiers of Odin, who came to the attention of the general public in February 2016 just after participating in a similar torchlight procession on that year’s Independence Day.
Leaving aside the Scandinavian nationalists and the illiberal tendencies of Poland and Hungary (and potentially of other members and neighbors in the Visegrád Group too), in Estonia and in Western Europe the far-right parties see uncontrolled immigration as the great threat to the survival of the democracies and peoples of Europe.
Their call to arms against this danger coming from the outside works as the ideal glue for the negative recreation of the identity of their community. The immigrant becomes the constitutive outside, working as a catalyst for the dynamics of a rediscovered concept of the people, whose exclusive relationship with the idea of their nation is inevitably also excluding towards a specific social group living on the same land. And that group, in consequence, is less entitled to benefits or general welfare claims.
This interpretation of The people = the nation represents a change of direction of social conflicts and the distribution of wealth as well as the competition for welfare benefits. The class struggle is no longer vertical but horizontal, between those left behind and others left behind even more, assigning the faults, failures, and the inability of our system to face new social risks to an arguably weaker social group. And all the while this is happening inside a class without class consciousness, but with a very specific enemy to blame instead.
This right-wing communitarianism that has resurfaced in recent years is not unique to Estonia, of course. In the UK, from smaller to more institutionalized organizations, from the English Defence League and Britain First to the meteor of UKIP (partly offset by the Tories’ shift to the right), a radical right of the people and the working class has become an inevitable actor to deal with: ask the family of Jo Cox, or the Muslim community of Finsbury Park.
In Germany, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has overtaken the ailing German Social Democrats (SPD) in the polls, leading to the entry of far-right MPs into the Bundestag for the first time in the party's history.
In France, we saw the ascent of Marine Le Pen and the historical 21.5 percent for the Front National in the first round of the presidential elections, which then saw Emmanuel Macron’s triumph, relegating the populist right-wing party outside the parliament, but keeping it alive in the cities and its strongholds in the French north-east.
Moreover, with Italy heading to the polls today, a record result could come for the Northern League (now “The League”) and Matteo Salvini, Berlusconi’s main coalition ally, who together with Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy, CasaPound and Forza Nuova represents the tip of the normalization process of neo-fascist ideas that part of the country has always continued to hatch, but so far never found the courage to bring out in the open.
Despite being culturally conservative and apparently supporting old and outdated ideas overtaken by history, the new radical right is a product of the last 25 years. They are back, they are reborn, and they are here to stay. Their strength lies not only in their ability to give a voice to instincts and impulses that otherwise would remain unrealized, but also to be able to mobilize a part of the electorate that otherwise for the most part wouldn’t vote at all.
Engaging far-right populism is the only way to unravel it as a lark mirror of electoral consent. Anti-immigration tendencies embody the cultural reasons of a discomfort that in reality is primarily social and economic. The marginalization and exclusion of far-right voters make liberal forces fall into the same interpretative misjudgement of those political formations they want to fight. If reactionism is presented as the solution to all problems by the latter, it is on the first to show that the emperor has no clothes.
Considering right-wing populists only as single-issue parties supported by "ignorant and racist people,” as it has happened in the past and is still happening now, is an unforgivable mistake. What we need to do instead is discuss the social risks these people face and live every day, and finally address their needs rather than their instincts.
Federico Plantera is a journalist and political commentator for one of Italy's largest online news portals, Il Fatto Quotidiano. Plantera holds an MA in political science and international relations and has done research into comparative social policy at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow as well as the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po). After shorter stays in 2014 and 2016, Plantera moved to Estonia in 2017.
Editor: Dario Cavegn