Causes of the Rise of the Far Right In Europe

Shahid H. Raja
16 min readMar 12, 2024

Introduction

Across Europe, far-right parties are gaining ground. Once on the fringes, they’re now climbing in polls, influencing mainstream politics, and even holding government positions. Right-wing or far-right nationalist parties are the biggest party in Switzerland (Swiss People’s Party) and the ruling party in Italy (Brothers of Italy, Lega), in Hungary (Fidesz) and in Poland (United Right), part of the government in Finland (Finns Party) while in Sweden (Swedish Democrats) and in Serbia (United Serbia) they support the government. Also, in North Macedonia, nationalist VMRO-DPMNE is one of the two major parties in the country.

This isn’t a temporary trend as their rise has coincided with a decline in certain left-wing support. Consequently, despite occasional setbacks, far-right movements have been steadily rising since the 1980s. They’ve become a permanent fixture in European politics. Even if they are out of power, they extract concessions by acting as kingmakers due to their substantial representation in parliaments and local councils.

Although different far-right parties have different agendas in their respective countries, there are some common issues which they are using as their narratives. Some far-right parties emphasize the preservation of traditional values like religion and family, contrasting them with what they see as the erosion of morals by liberal values and multiculturalism. For some, it is the unabated immigration while for others it could be Islam, and the EU, along with emerging issues like culture wars, minority rights, and the climate crisis.

Cyclical Nature of Extremism in Europe

However, before proceeding further, it is pertinent to note that the rise of extremist ideologies in Europe is not a new phenomenon. Throughout European history, periods of economic hardship, social unrest, and political instability have often provided fertile ground for extremist ideologies to gain traction and ascend to power. The French Revolution and subsequent Reign of Terror represented the triumph of radical leftist ideals while the subsequent rise of Napoleon Bonaparte and the establishment of the Napoleonic Empire illustrate how reactionary forces can exploit revolutionary fervour to consolidate power and impose authoritarian rule

Later on, the rise of Nazism in Germany during the interwar period exemplifies the far-right’s ascent to power in Europe. The Nazi regime capitalized on post-World War I economic turmoil, widespread disillusionment with the Weimar Republic, and grievances over the Treaty of Versailles to promote ultranationalist and racist ideologies. Similarly, fascist movements in Italy under Benito Mussolini and authoritarian regimes in Spain under Francisco Franco are historical examples of far-right governance in Europe.

While historical instances of far-right ascendancy in Europe share common themes of nationalism, authoritarianism, and the scapegoating of marginalized groups, the specific issues and contexts driving contemporary far-right movements may differ. Unlike historical incarnations of fascism and Nazism, which openly espoused totalitarianism and racial superiority, contemporary far-right parties often cloak their agendas in populist appeals to national identity, cultural preservation, and anti-globalization sentiment.

Four Phases of the Rise of the Far Right

Since the conclusion of the Second World War, far-right factions have vied for electoral positions across Western Europe. However, their ascent from the periphery to the mainstream began notably in the current century. The evolution of far-right political movements in Europe post-World War II can be delineated into four distinct phases.

  1. Phase 1 (1945–55): During the initial phase spanning roughly from 1945 to 1955, these parties held neo-fascist ideologies and wielded minimal electoral influence, except for the Italian Social Movement (MSI), the precursor to the Brothers of Italy (FdI), the party led by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.
  2. Phase 2 (1955–80): The second phase of right-wing populism, from 1955 to 1980, witnessed the emergence of diverse “flash parties,” which experienced sudden electoral success only to fade into obscurity after one or two election cycles. An exemplar of this trend was the Union and French Fraternity (UFF), which secured nearly 13 per cent of the vote and 52 seats in the 1956 French legislative election before swiftly disappearing.
  3. Phase 3(1980–2000): The third phase, spanning from 1980 to 2000, marked the entry of far-right parties into national parliaments across Europe, such as the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) and the deceptively named Center Party (CP) in the Netherlands. These populist radical right groups shared common themes of nativism, authoritarianism, and populism. Although not exclusively focused on single issues, they capitalized primarily on growing dissatisfaction with issues like immigration.
  4. Phase 4( 2000–2024): This progression set the stage for the fourth phase at the turn of the century, wherein far-right parties transitioned from the fringes to the mainstream, garnering increased electoral support. Their average vote share in EU member states surged from around 1 per cent in the 1980s to nearly 10 per cent in the 2010s. (It’s important to note that individual party support varies significantly; for instance, from less than 1 per cent in Ireland to over 50 per cent for Fidesz in Hungary, the latter achieved through elections that were deemed free but unfair.)

( Courtesy Vox/ https://www.vox.com/world/23516807/europe-right-wing-parties-orban-meloni)

Causes of the Rise of the Far Right in Europe

The rise of right-wing populism globally is a complex phenomenon influenced by various factors. Some of the main factors contributing to its rise include the following.

A. Widespread Economic Discontent

Economic discontent in Europe has played a significant role in fuelling the rise of the far right. Some of the ways it has been done are as follows.

  1. Inequality and Economic Marginalization: Economic discontent arises from pervasive inequality and economic marginalization experienced by certain segments of society. The gap between the wealthy elite and the working class has widened in many European countries, leading to a sense of resentment and disillusionment among those who feel left behind by the inexorable march of capitalism. Far-right parties exploit this discontent by framing themselves as champions of the economically marginalized, promising to address socioeconomic disparities and restore fairness to the economic system.
  2. Cost of Living Crisis: Rising living costs, including housing, healthcare, and education, have exacerbated economic discontent among European citizens. Many individuals and families struggle to make ends meet as their purchasing power stagnates or declines in the face of inflation and rising expenses. Far-right parties capitalize on this cost-of-living crisis by blaming mainstream political parties for failing to alleviate financial burdens on ordinary citizens. They promise populist solutions such as tax cuts, welfare benefits, and protectionist measures to alleviate economic strain and win support from financially stressed voters.
  3. Concerns about Future Economic Prospects: Economic insecurity and concerns about future economic prospects for families contribute to the appeal of far-right parties. Many Europeans worry about job stability, career advancement, and the ability to provide for their families in an increasingly competitive and uncertain global economy. Far-right movements exploit these anxieties by portraying themselves as the defenders of national economic interests against perceived threats posed by globalization, immigration, and free trade agreements. They advocate for economic nationalism and protectionist policies to safeguard domestic industries and preserve jobs for native-born citizens.
  4. Austerity Policies and Economic Austerity: The implementation of austerity policies in response to the 2008 financial crisis has contributed to economic discontent in Europe. Austerity measures, including public spending cuts, wage freezes, and pension reforms, have disproportionately impacted low-income households and exacerbated social inequality. Far-right parties capitalize on public frustration with austerity by criticizing mainstream political parties for prioritizing the interests of financial institutions and multinational corporations over the needs of ordinary citizens. They promise to reverse austerity measures and prioritize investments in social welfare programs, infrastructure, and job creation to stimulate economic growth and address the root causes of economic discontent.

Far-right parties exploit this discontent by offering populist solutions and scapegoating immigrants, globalization, and mainstream political elites for the economic challenges faced by ordinary citizens. Addressing economic grievances requires comprehensive policy responses that prioritize inclusive economic growth, social welfare, and equitable distribution of resources to mitigate the appeal of far-right movements.

B. Globalisation

Globalization, characterized by increased interconnectedness and integration of economies worldwide, has indeed had a profound impact on manufacturing industries in Western countries. As traditional manufacturing sectors have declined due to outsourcing and competition from lower-cost producers in emerging economies, job losses and economic insecurity have become prevalent in certain regions. The decline of manufacturing industries has contributed to the rise of far-right movements in Europe for several reasons:

  1. Economic Discontent: Job losses and economic insecurity resulting from the decline of manufacturing industries have created fertile ground for far-right movements to exploit. These movements often capitalize on the grievances of disenfranchised workers by attributing their economic hardships to globalization and international trade agreements.
  2. Cultural Anxiety: Globalization not only affects economic factors but also cultural aspects. Far-right movements often exploit anxieties about cultural identity and national sovereignty, portraying globalization as a threat to traditional values and ways of life. This cultural anxiety resonates with certain segments of the population who feel marginalized or threatened by rapid societal changes.
  3. Scapegoating and Xenophobia: Right-wing populist movements frequently scapegoat immigrants and external forces, such as multinational corporations and international institutions, for the economic woes resulting from globalization. By framing globalization as a process that benefits elites at the expense of the working class and national interests, these movements stoke xenophobic sentiments and anti-immigrant rhetoric, further polarizing societies.
  4. Nationalism and Protectionism: The decline of manufacturing industries has fuelled nationalist sentiments and calls for protectionist policies aimed at shielding domestic industries from international competition. Far-right movements advocate for policies that prioritize national interests over global cooperation, appealing to voters who feel disaffected by the perceived loss of control over their economic destiny.

C. Disillusionment with Mainstream Politics

Disillusionment with mainstream politics is a significant driver behind the rise of the far right in Europe. Beyond the provided material, here’s a comprehensive analysis incorporating additional insights:

  1. Failure of Traditional Parties: Many Europeans perceive traditional political parties as failing to address their concerns effectively. This disillusionment stems from a variety of factors, including perceived corruption, elitism, and a disconnect between political elites and ordinary citizens. Mainstream parties are often seen as catering to narrow interests or engaging in political manoeuvring rather than prioritizing the needs of the broader population. This failure to deliver tangible solutions to pressing issues such as economic inequality, immigration, and social integration creates fertile ground for far-right parties to capitalize on public dissatisfaction.
  2. Perception of Stagnation and Inertia: The perception of stagnation and inertia within mainstream politics further fuels disillusionment among European voters. Many feel that traditional parties are entrenched in the status quo and are unwilling or unable to enact meaningful change. This perception is exacerbated by political gridlock, where mainstream parties struggle to forge consensus or implement reforms, leading to a sense of frustration and alienation among voters who seek decisive action on pressing societal challenges.
  3. Populist Appeal as Outsiders: Far-right parties often position themselves as outsiders challenging the political establishment. They capitalize on disillusionment with mainstream politics by presenting themselves as the voice of the “forgotten” or marginalized segments of society. By framing themselves as anti-establishment alternatives, far-right parties appeal to voters disenchanted with traditional political elites and offer a promise of a fresh start or radical change. This populist appeal resonates with individuals seeking to disrupt the existing political order and express their discontent through electoral means.
  4. Crisis of Representation: The rise of the far right in Europe reflects a broader crisis of representation within liberal democracies. Many citizens feel that mainstream parties do not adequately represent their interests or values, leading to a sense of alienation and distrust in democratic institutions. Far-right parties exploit this crisis of representation by positioning themselves as champions of the “silent majority” or defenders of national identity and cultural heritage. They offer simplistic solutions to complex societal problems, promising to restore a sense of agency and sovereignty to disillusioned voters.
  5. Identity Politics and Cultural Anxiety: Disillusionment with mainstream politics intersects with broader cultural anxieties and identity politics in Europe. Far-right parties exploit fears of cultural change, immigration, and multiculturalism to mobilize support among segments of the population who feel threatened by demographic shifts and social transformations. By framing themselves as defenders of national identity and cultural heritage, far-right parties tap into sentiments of nostalgia and belonging among voters who perceive mainstream parties as indifferent or hostile to their cultural values and traditions.

D. Proportional Electoral Systems

Proportional electoral systems in Europe allocate legislative seats in proportion to the share of votes received by political parties. It plays an important role in facilitating the rise of the far right.

  1. Increased Representation: Proportional electoral systems allow far-right parties to gain representation even if they don’t secure an outright majority in elections. In majoritarian systems, such as first-past-the-post, extreme views are often marginalized because parties need to win a plurality of votes in individual constituencies to gain representation. In contrast, proportional systems enable far-right parties to garner support from specific demographic segments or regions and enter legislative bodies, amplifying their influence on policy-making.
  2. Fragmentation of the Political Landscape: Proportional electoral systems contribute to the fragmentation of the political landscape by accommodating a diverse array of political parties representing various ideological positions. This fragmentation provides an opportunity for far-right parties to distinguish themselves from mainstream political competitors and appeal to disaffected voters disillusioned with establishment parties. Far-right parties often exploit issues such as immigration, nationalism, and identity politics to attract support from segments of the electorate dissatisfied with the status quo.
  3. Coalition Dynamics: In proportional systems, coalition governments are common due to the likelihood of no single party securing an absolute majority of seats. Far-right parties may leverage their legislative power by forming or influencing coalition governments, thereby gaining a platform to advance their policy agenda. Even when far-right parties are not part of the governing coalition, they can still exert pressure on mainstream parties by leveraging their parliamentary seats to block or amend legislation, particularly on contentious issues related to immigration, multiculturalism, and national identity.
  4. Media Visibility and Public Discourse: Proportional electoral systems afford smaller parties, including far-right parties, greater visibility in the media and public discourse. Media outlets often cover the perspectives of various political parties proportionally to their representation in legislative bodies. Far-right parties capitalize on this visibility to amplify their message, disseminate their ideology, and appeal to a broader audience. Their presence in parliamentary debates and committee hearings enables them to articulate their positions and shape public opinion on controversial issues, contributing to the normalization of far-right discourse in mainstream political discourse.
  5. Electorate Polarization and Protest Votes: Proportional electoral systems may encourage electorate polarization and protest voting behaviour. Dissatisfaction with mainstream parties or perceived societal grievances may lead voters to cast their ballots for far-right parties as a protest against the political establishment. The proportional representation system provides a platform for voters to express their discontent by supporting alternative parties, including those espousing far-right ideologies. This protest vote dynamic can bolster the electoral success of far-right parties and contribute to their rise in European politics.

E. Rapid Demographic Changes

Rapid demographic changes, particularly increased immigration and refugee flows have been significant factors contributing to the rise of the far right in Europe.

  1. Cultural Anxieties and Identity Concerns: Rapid demographic changes often trigger cultural anxieties among certain segments of the population. These anxieties stem from concerns about the preservation of national identity, cultural values, and social cohesion. Right-wing populist movements exploit these fears by promoting nativist and nationalist narratives that prioritize the interests of the dominant ethnic or cultural group. They frame immigration as a threat to national identity and cultural homogeneity, portraying immigrants and refugees as outsiders who dilute traditional values and customs.
  2. Economic Perceptions and Competition: Far-right movements often capitalize on perceptions of economic competition and resource scarcity exacerbated by increased immigration. They propagate the idea that immigrants and refugees are responsible for job losses, wage suppression, and overburdening social welfare systems. By framing immigration as an economic threat to native-born citizens, these movements garner support from individuals experiencing economic insecurity or downward mobility, particularly in regions where job opportunities are scarce.
  3. Security Concerns and Terrorism Narratives: Heightened security concerns, particularly in the wake of terrorist attacks perpetrated by individuals with migrant backgrounds, have fueled anti-immigrant sentiments and bolstered the far-right agenda. Right-wing populist movements exploit fears of terrorism and public safety, portraying immigrants and refugees as potential security risks and advocating for stricter border controls, immigration policies, and surveillance measures. They capitalize on public anxieties about safety and use these narratives to justify discriminatory policies targeting specific ethnic or religious groups.
  4. Political Polarization and Social Fragmentation: Rapid demographic changes have contributed to political polarization and social fragmentation within European societies. As demographic shifts reshape the cultural and ethnic composition of communities, tensions arise between native-born citizens and immigrant populations. Right-wing populist movements exploit these divisions to mobilize support, exacerbating societal polarization and deepening cleavages along ethnic, cultural, and religious lines.
  5. Media Manipulation and Propaganda: Far-right movements leverage media manipulation and propaganda to amplify anti-immigrant sentiments and advance their political agendas. They utilize social media platforms, alternative news outlets, and sensationalist rhetoric to disseminate misinformation, spread xenophobic narratives, and demonize immigrant and refugee communities. By controlling the narrative and shaping public discourse, these movements manipulate public opinion and sway voters toward their nationalist and exclusionary ideologies. Right-wing populist movements often appeal to identity-based grievances, including concerns about national identity, religion, and traditional values. Leaders frame political issues in terms of ‘us versus them,’ portraying marginalized groups as threats to the nation’s identity and security.

F. Lack of Alternative

The vacuum created by the decline of far-left parties in Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism has indeed played a role in providing space for the far right to thrive.:

  1. Disillusionment with Traditional Left-Wing Options: The decline of far-left parties in Europe has left a void in the political landscape for voters who traditionally aligned with leftist ideologies. Disillusioned with mainstream centre-left parties that have shifted towards more centrist policies, some left-leaning voters feel alienated and disenchanted with their traditional political options. These voters may perceive the far-right as a viable alternative, particularly if they are dissatisfied with the perceived capitulation of mainstream parties to neoliberal economic policies and globalization.
  2. Appeal of Order and Control: Far-right parties exploit the disillusionment with traditional left-wing options by offering simplistic solutions to complex societal challenges. They appeal to voters who seek order, stability, and control in the face of perceived social and economic upheaval. Far-right narratives emphasize law and order, national security, and cultural preservation, promising to restore a sense of control over immigration, globalization, and perceived threats to national identity. This appeal to order and control resonates with voters who feel marginalized or left behind by rapid societal changes and seek reassurance in authoritarian leadership.
  3. Perceived Alternative to Mainstream Parties: Some voters, disillusioned with mainstream political parties perceived as out of touch or ineffective, may view the far-right as a credible alternative capable of challenging the status quo. Far-right movements position themselves as anti-establishment outsiders fighting against entrenched political elites and bureaucratic institutions. They exploit public frustration with perceived political corruption, inefficiency, and gridlock, presenting themselves as agents of change who will disrupt the existing political order and prioritize the interests of ordinary citizens.
  4. Promises of Economic Protectionism: Far-right parties often advocate for economic protectionism and nationalist policies that resonate with segments of the population affected by deindustrialization, job insecurity, and globalization. They promise to prioritize national economic interests over international cooperation and free trade agreements, appealing to workers who feel abandoned by mainstream left-wing parties that have embraced neoliberal economic policies. By scapegoating immigrants, multinational corporations, and global institutions for economic woes, far-right movements offer a simplistic narrative that resonates with voters seeking economic protection and stability.
  5. Identity Politics and Cultural Preservation: Far-right parties exploit identity politics and cultural preservation as rallying points for disaffected voters who feel threatened by demographic changes and multiculturalism. They frame immigration as a threat to national identity and cultural heritage, tapping into anxieties about cultural assimilation and social cohesion. By championing nationalist and xenophobic narratives, far-right movements offer a sense of belonging and security to voters who perceive mainstream left-wing parties as indifferent or hostile to their cultural values and traditions. Mainstream parties adopting far-right positions in an attempt to win back voters have inadvertently made far-right views more mainstream, contributing to the rise of these parties

G. Social Media and Disinformation

The media, including both traditional outlets and social media platforms, has played a significant role in contributing to the rise of the far right in Europe.

  1. Amplification of Populist Messages: The rise of social media has provided far-right movements with unprecedented opportunities to amplify their populist messages and reach a broader audience. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube enable far-right leaders and movements to disseminate their ideologies, narratives, and propaganda directly to users worldwide. This direct communication bypasses traditional gatekeepers, allowing far-right actors to bypass fact-checking and editorial scrutiny and present their messages without moderation or context.
  2. Disinformation Campaigns: Social media platforms have become battlegrounds for disinformation campaigns orchestrated by far-right actors seeking to manipulate public opinion and sow division. Disinformation tactics, including the spread of false information, conspiracy theories, and targeted misinformation campaigns, have been utilized by far-right movements to exploit societal grievances, exacerbate fears, and undermine trust in mainstream institutions and democratic norms. These campaigns thrive on social media’s viral nature, enabling falsehoods to spread rapidly and reach millions of users unchecked.
  3. Polarization of Political Discourse: The rise of social media has contributed to the polarization of political discourse in Europe, creating echo chambers where users are exposed to ideologically aligned content while being shielded from opposing viewpoints. Far-right movements leverage social media algorithms and filter bubbles to reinforce their narratives and create an echo chamber effect, further entrenching their supporters’ beliefs and fostering hostility towards dissenting voices. This polarization intensifies societal divisions and diminishes opportunities for constructive dialogue and consensus-building.
  4. Direct Engagement with Supporters: Social media platforms facilitate direct engagement between far-right leaders and their supporters, fostering a sense of community and camaraderie among like-minded individuals. Far-right leaders utilize social media to cultivate a loyal online following, share personalized messages, and mobilize supporters for rallies, protests, and political campaigns. This direct engagement fosters a sense of belonging and empowerment among far-right supporters, reinforcing their commitment to the movement and increasing their likelihood of active participation in offline activities.
  5. Normalization of Extreme Views: Social media platforms have played a role in normalizing extreme views and hateful rhetoric by providing a platform for far-right actors to disseminate their ideologies without consequences. The anonymity and lack of accountability afforded by social media enable individuals to express and amplify extremist views without fear of repercussions, emboldening far-right movements and contributing to the mainstreaming of hateful rhetoric. This normalization desensitizes users to extremist content, making it more acceptable and accessible to vulnerable individuals susceptible to radicalization.

Conclusion

These factors interact in complex ways, and the specific dynamics driving the rise of right-wing populism vary across countries and regions. However, these factors provide insight into the broader trends shaping contemporary political landscapes globally.

--

--