Last week’s far right terrorist attack in Norway has prompted a lot of questions in European capitals, and many of the hardest questions are being asked inside the party headquarters of Europe’s center-right. Many of Europe's conservative parties have spent the last few years courting the far right vote, by co-opting some of their messages on immigration and cultural identity issues. In several countries including Denmark, Italy and the Netherlands the mainstream conservative parties have even allied themselves with the far right and invited them into governing coalitions. After the Norway attack, are those days over?
To answer this question, one must understand the current political balance in Europe, and why it has come about. Conservative parties now dominate the national governments of Europe as well as the EU institutions, relegating the left to just a few Southern countries. The Guardian put out a great interactive map today where you can trace Europe’s left-right balance over the past 50 years. Contrast the map just ten years ago in 2001 on the left with today’s situation in 2011 on the right (left-of-center in red and right-of-center, including Liberal parties, in blue). Considering that Spain and Greece now have their policies dictated to them by their conservative Northern European creditors, the left has effectively disappeared from Europe.
So why has Europe veered rightward at a time of economic crisis? There are probably many contributing factors – but the biggest cause is the complete disarray of the European left. From Scandinavia to Germany to France to Italy, European Social Democrats are in complete chaos, torn by infighting, a lack of enthusiasm and confusion over ideology. Europeans have voted conservative not because of some great ideological shift toward economic liberalism and laissez-faire capitalism. They have done so because the parties of the left have not offered any credible alternative for governance.
Nowhere except Hungary have conservative parties received strong electoral mandates from voters. In Germany and the UK the Conservatives were only able to form governments by forming coalitions with Liberal parties. In France, Nicolas Sarkozy was already incredibly unpopular with the French public when he was elected in 2007. But they still voted for him because the Socialists were offering no ideas for the future. The same can be said for Italy’s Berlusconi, now reviled by a majority of the public but kept in office because there is no alternative.
Neither of the main political groups are presenting the public with a cohesive ideological vision for the future. Into that ideological vacuum has stepped the far right. They have offered populist solutions to Europe’s problems, blaming immigrants and particularly Muslims for much of what ails society. A small but growing portion of the public has been drawn to this message, and they have not been offered strong ideological visions from Europe’s mainstream parties that could keep them from going down that road. The old populist promises of the European left - a fair society in the context of the welfare state - have largely been abandoned by Europe’s Social Democrats. In the UK, New Labour blurred the lines between center left and center right by courting business interests and pursuing welfare reform. Germany experienced much the same phenomenon.
With the mainstream parties starting to look so similar, more and more voters are turning to the far right as a protest vote – largely because it seems so different from the malaise that has settled into mainstream politics. As they’ve watched their voters start to move to far right parties, the mainstream conservatives have become alarmed. They’ve begun to adopt some of the same messages of the far right in order to stem the tide. In France, Nicolas Sarkozy’s thoroughly pointless deportation of Romanian gypsies last year was the ultimate expression of this. Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s warnings about Muslims and Gypsies in the run-up to the regional elections earlier this year was another example. Denmark’s ‘re-mantling’ of its border checkpoints, blaming “Eastern European organised crime,” was another such move. But perhaps the most pan-European manifestation of this effort was the oddly synchronized trifecta of speeches from Merkel, Sarkozy and Cameron denouncing multiculturalism last year was perhaps the most visible manifestation of this effort.
Will the Norway shooting make any further efforts to court the far right too distasteful for Europe’s center right politicians? Though they have been cautious in the first days of the shooting, the European left has shown an increasing willingness over the past few days to shame Europe’s conservatives for their alliances with and overtures to the far right. European Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmstrom, herself a Liberal from neighboring Sweden, has been particularly vocal on this issue. She had some particularly harsh criticism for Europe’s conservative politicians in today’s European Voice.
“We see this in the Netherlands, in Italy, in Denmark, France and many other places,” she continued, saying political leaders have not stood up to this rising tide but instead looked the other way. This has resulted in a Europe “where it’s fine to say that migration is a threat to our country, to our identity.” She said Europe’s mainstream parties should “take the concerns seriously, but challenge the solutions that these parties propose.”
If there is any silver lining to this horrible tragedy, it may be that it makes Europe wake up to the growing threat of the far right. Europe’s mainstream center-right leaders may find it less politically palatable to try to stem the success of the far right by co-opting their ideas. Perhaps after this unnerving wake-up call both the left and the right can try to combat the growing influence of populist, extremist parties by offering competing ideologies that can inspire people. Until then, there will still be an ideological vacuum for these groups to fill.