Nativism is driving the far-right surge in Europe – and it is here to stay

Cas Mudde
Photograph: Javier Lizón/EPA

In 2016, the far-right Vox party gained a mere 0.2% of the vote in the Spanish legislative elections. This Sunday, Vox came in third with an estimated 15.1% percent, 5.7% behind the mainstream right Popular party (PP). Within three years, Spain has transformed from a European exception into a European average in terms of far-right electoral success.

As I argue in my new book The Far Right Today, no country is immune to far-right politics. Almost all countries have a rather fertile breeding ground for at least populist radical right politics, with pluralities (and sometimes even majorities) of the population thinking there are too many immigrants (nativism), that crime is punished too leniently (authoritarianism), and that political elites are corrupt (populism). Whether or not this translates into electoral success for far-right parties is, simply stated, a matter of supply and demand.

As long as socio-economic issues like pensions and unemployment dominate the political debate, far-right parties tend to struggle. They only become relevant when “economic anxiety” can be connected to socio-cultural issues, like European integration or immigration. And they thrive when other issues easily related to their core ideology dominate the political agenda.

In Spain, this was the rather specific issue of Catalonian independence. After polling around 1% for a few years, Vox started to rise in the polls in October 2018, when tensions flared over the first anniversary of the Catalan independence referendum of October 2017. The party soared in the polls in December, amid violent clashes between the police and pro-independence supporters in Barcelona. As the issue remained high on the political agenda, Vox gained 10.3% in the April 2019 elections.

It is therefore no longer accurate to speak of a 'populist' surge in Europe. At the very least, it is a 'rightwing populist' surge

Directly after the elections the political debate focused on the drama of the protracted, and ultimately unsuccessful, coalition formation process between the center-left PSOE and radical left United Podemos. Irrelevant to that story, Vox saw its support drop into single digits, until the Catalonia issue came back in the news. As pro-independence Catalans took to the streets to protest against the sentencing of their leaders for their role in the 2017 independence referendum (deemed illegal by the Spanish state), Vox once again soared in the polls.

As in other countries, far-right electoral success is not only a matter of political events. Vox was helped by the right turn of the two mainstream rightwing parties, the old PP and the new Citizens (Cs), their courting of Vox at the local (Madrid) and regional (Andalusia) levels, and the disproportionate attention the Spanish media devoted to the party and its leader, Santiago Abascal.

While the process has been uniquely rapid in Spain, the mainstreaming and normalization of the far right has become a common phenomenon of 21st-century Europe. Whereas far-right parties were challengers from the outside in the last two decades of the previous century (the so-called “third wave” of postwar far-right politics), they have become part of the political mainstream in the first two decades of the new century (the so-called “fourth wave”). Not only do far-right parties now average some 15% of the national vote in Europe, they are considered Koalitionsfähig (acceptable coalition partners) in many countries, at least at local or regional levels, while their key frames and policies are promoted, in less and less moderate versions, by mainstream (rightwing) parties from Austria to Sweden.

Moreover, whereas rightwing populist parties continue to prosper, leftwing populist parties have lost their momentum. The left-populist party Podemos was the big sensation of the 2015 Spanish elections, but it has lost half its seats since then – despite shedding much of its populism and entering into an electoral coalition with the communist IU. United Podemos plays a minor role in the political debate, on Catalonia or other issues, although it is still the most important coalition option for the prime minister, Pedro Sánchez of PSOE.

It is therefore no longer accurate to speak of a “populist” surge in Europe (and beyond, for that matter). At the very least, it is a “rightwing populist” surge. More accurately, it is a “far-right” surge, which includes both populist (anti-liberal democracy) and extremist (anti-democracy) parties of the right.

While populism is a crucial part of the story, the real king is nationalism, or better put nativism, and he is here to stay.

  • Cas Mudde is a Guardian US columnist and the Stanley Wade Shelton UGAF professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. His latest book is The Far Right Today