Europe’s national populist uprising—led by the Central Europeans and far-right parties across the continent—just received a couple of big shots of mojo. Austria’s Islamophobic, EU-antagonistic Freedom Party emerged from the October 15 election in a position to govern with Austria’s conservatives, which would add a respected Western European country to the growing ranks of rightist-led states in the EU. And the weekend ballot in the Czech Republic, won hands down by billionaire populist Andrej Babiš’s ANO party, further fuels the insurgency that challenges the postwar vision of an integrated, liberal Europe without borders.
The triumphs of Babiš and Austria’s wunderkind, Sebastian Kurz, a 31-year-old conservative who went populist to win, could expand Central Europe’s bloc of illiberals into a yet more powerful, determined force in Europe. (Two weeks ago, this force’s greatest victory went almost unnoticed: EU heavyweights admitted that plans to resettle refugees across the EU according to quotas, which the Central Europeans have fought tooth and nail, were effectively dead.) Against the background of Brexit and the separatist movement in Catalonia, the future of the European project, as its denizens fondly call the EU’s larger mission, is in real jeopardy.
Earlier this year, establishment Europe had sighed in relief, concluding that “Europe” was safely back on track after the existential shock of Brexit and panicked backlash against the 2015 migration crisis. Indeed, in France and the Netherlands, voters appeared to have stymied right-wing populism by depriving Marine Le Pen’s National Front and Geert Wilders’ People’s Party—both EU-antagonistic, xenophobic nativists—of victories. But the final tallies should have been anything but comforting: Le Pen captured a third of the Fifth Republic’s vote for president; and Wilders’ party expanded its seats in parliament from 15 (2012) to 20, making it the nation’s second-strongest party—again.
Similarly, the triumph of Austria’s liberal candidate for president, Alexander Van der Bellen, in December 2016 set off celebrations, even though his opponent in the Freedom Party, a figure who’d knocked around neo-Nazi circles in his younger days, copped 46 percent of the tally. Nearly half of Austrians could vote for a former neo-Nazi running in a racist party that itself was founded by former Nazis! Grounds for celebration? Hardly. Does it mean half of Austria is racist? Not by a long shot.
Many Europeans believed that the tide had turned against the nationalists because they had so desperately wanted it to be the case. The hopeful jubilation exuded such relief because, in fact, Europe’s mainstream has no idea how to check the rightists’ steady advance. Their analysis of the phenomenon is deeply flawed, and their responses only exacerbate it.
The far right is more muscular than ever today, and its offensive against the EU and Europe’s political elite more advanced than most realize: Despite their jumbled programs and off-the-cuff rants, they proffer a vision of a fortressed, Christian Europe of nation-states with illiberal post-democracies and authoritarian leaders. One sign of their power and allure: A quarter of the parties in the EU Parliament, the union’s premier democratic forum, are ethnic nationalists opposed to the EU’s supranational Dasein. And EU Europe now has powerful nationalist autocracies on its flanks in the form of Russia and Turkey, which for EU Europe’s far right serve as models of the kind of patriotic, no-nonsense, militarily buff states to which they aspire. Moreover, Russia, knowing a kindred spirit when it sees one, assists them in destabilizing the EU by helping finance their causes and showering the Internet with extremist, anti-immigrant propaganda.