Europe: strong on defence, hard on migration and hawkish on Russia (Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty)

July 22, 2023   8 mins

When Labour wins the next election, Britain will assume a role in Europe something akin to the indomitable Gaulish village in Asterix: the last holdout of liberal-Left political power in a continent swinging firmly to the Right. Yet for a certain kind of Brexiteer, their minds deranged by the Twitter battles of the previous decade, Europe’s Rightwards drift is an object of strangely self-defeating satisfaction. Like American Republicans endorsing the worldview of their enemies by calling the Democrats “The Real Racists”, Brexiteers still stung by accusations of fascism for daring to leave the EU can now point at the high walls springing up like dragons’ teeth across the continent’s eastern marches, or at the blooming electoral fortunes of the radical Right, to make the case that Brexit Britain is the real redoubt of liberalism.

And they would be right: the Conservative Party’s hurling open of Britain’s borders will vastly outweigh the demographic change wrought by New Labour’s idealistic commitment to multiculturalism in its transformative effects; in Britain, even the Right-wing populist parties are zealous economic liberals, while the most successful social conservative movement in recent memory is led by veteran feminists, preserving their gains of recent decades. For the harder-edged British Right-winger, Brexit could be viewed less as a means to unlock Britain’s stifled potential than as an act of noble self-sacrifice to free Europe from our own country’s inveterate liberalism, a hand-grenade selflessly jumped upon to allow the continental bloc to meet its historical destiny. It is not difficult to imagine, in a decade or so, a Right-wing equivalent of The New European appearing on the Waitrose shelves, portraying the politics of the European Union now coming into being as an inspirational model for British Rightists — just as the ossified mental image of 2010s Europe still is for British liberals.

If this is the case, then the reverse is also true: British liberals will recoil from the new European Union as they once did from Bush’s America, finding in it the perfect ideological foil for their own acts of political self-definition. As the Greek political scientist Angelos Chryssogelos observed last year, the deepening enmeshment of British liberals with American progressive causes “means that any centre-left alternative to the Conservatives will be as uncomfortable with Europe as the Conservatives are today, albeit for different reasons”, so that “core features of the EU like its [
] commitment to border security will become sources of ideological friction with progressive Britain, as much as the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice or fisheries are with conservative Britain today”.

There are already hints of the poles reversing, here and there: in The Guardian and the BBC’s newly horrified reaction to the brutally effective border management regimes of EU nations, or Gordon Brown’s claim that, “if you want to peer into the future of Europe”, you must observe with horror the rise of Vox, whose “power will embolden far-Right parties that have been proliferating across the continent”. His essay’s framing of Spain’s election this weekend as “a key battle in the Europe-wide struggle against neofascism”, in all its overwrought appeals to the ghosts of a century ago, is a perfect distillation of the mythologised version of the Second World War which still distorts our political discourse. Threatened by the 2010s version of populism, whose central tenets of rejecting unfettered globalisation and uncontrolled immigration have now become the European mainstream, the guardians of the neoliberal order reanimated the ghosts of Europe’s 20th century to preserve their hold on power. Once it was no longer tenable to claim that There Is No Alternative, the populist alternative was reframed as fascism to render it taboo to voters.

But while the obsessive need of anxious liberals to frame all forms of hard-Right politics as the revived incarnations of a dead 20th-century ideology may afford them a pleasing frisson of danger, it is of course analytically absurd. None of the Right-wing parties gaining power across Europe can plausibly fulfil the various definitions of fascism used by academic historians: historical fascism was hardly noted for its belief in the inviolability of national borders, after all. Last year’s dismissive essay by the great scholar of fascism Stanley Payne, whose definitions of the doctrine have been promiscuously applied by liberal commentators to the widely disparate Right-wing movements of today, echoes the famous scene in Annie Hall where Marshall McLuhan tells a pseud in a cinema queue he is an idiot who knows nothing of his work. Payne observes that, despite its total obliteration in 1945, “fascism once more became the dominant menace in the political and rhetorical imaginary, encouraged even further after the collapse of the Soviet Union”, so that its current “usage isn’t merely wildly contradictory, but applied in the most directly and specifically opposite ways”. But, as Payne observes, “all this is irrelevant to the political imaginary, dominated by fantasy and subjectivism and oblivious to empirical reality”.

The 2010s fascism scare was a natural product of ideology: following the fall of the Soviet Union, a highly mythologised narrative of the Second World War evolved as the foundational myth of the new American-led order. In the myth, both Anglo-Saxon liberal democracy and Soviet communism joined forces to save Europe from its fascist demons. After decades of confrontation, liberal democracy then won out as the superior ideology, destined to conquer the world and lead it to its bright new future. Open borders were the best defence against watchtowers and barbed wire, and a globalised world would be the prophylactic against destructive nationalism.

The results are as we see. Yet few people in 1939 would have recognised this ahistorical narrative: the nation Britain went to war to defend, Poland, was a Right-wing authoritarian regime, just like Britain’s sole ally after the fall of France, Greece. In reality, the Europe of 1939 that Britain bankrupted itself to defend was composed of a diverse spectrum of political systems, most of which would be considered impermissibly Right-wing by the expansive definitions of today. If long-standing political taboos are now being broken across Europe, it is a situation marked not by the return of fascism but by a return to a diverse mix of Right-tilted governance systems, each of which relies more on its own national context and interests than on appeals to some malign pan-continental internationale.

Analysis in these terms provides a more productive route to understanding Europe’s near-term future in all its paradoxical complexity. Consider the case of Poland and Hungary, natural ideological allies sharply divided by their opposing stances on the war in Ukraine. Deeply committed to a Ukrainian victory, Poland has more to lose than to gain from a Republican victory in next year’s American elections, no matter how Right-wing the eventual nominee. If anything, Poland’s security now requires a Democrat victory, while Hungary’s stance would be vindicated by the elevation of a Ukraine-sceptic Republican to the presidential throne. Similarly, Italy’s Giorgia Meloni inspired the last bout of anxious wailing about the revival of fascism in Europe, until her strong stance in favour of Ukraine, coupled with a boringly inoffensive administrative style, helped her government meld itself seamlessly into Europe’s mainstream centre-right. The general trend in modern European politics is not a return to the dark passions of the Thirties, but of mainstream conservatives painlessly absorbing challengers from their Right: while the continent’s centre ground is drifting Rightward, the radical energies of the hard-Right are being dissipated as they embed themselves within the mainstream.

The Europe of the 2020s, then, will be marked by a continuation of technocratic EU governance, only shifted further to the Right than the notional conservatism of the neoliberal era, which functioned only as Left-liberalism with a slight time delay. Its politics shaped by a bloody war on its eastern marches, and an accelerating migration flow from its south, the EU of the coming decade will be defined by its borders. Aside from the symbolism of its component members joining together to fend off migrants, the recent joint mission of Rutte, Von der Leyen and Meloni to Tunisia to woo the country’s new dictator Kais Saied into a lucrative role as Europe’s border guard perhaps indicates a new approach to our continent’s neighbouring North African regimes. Saied’s ejection of sub-Saharan migrants to the country’s desert border posts has met with the silence of Europe’s tacit approval. As in Libya, what European human rights legislation forbids EU leaders to do themselves can be safely carried out by regional partners with little fuss.

After all, the 2010s attempt to wish liberal democracy on North Africa failed utterly; the migration crisis it precipitated instead helped eradicate Left-liberalism as a viable electoral force in continental Europe. In these circumstances, both political necessity and ideological inclination will encourage EU support for North African autocrats as their chosen partners, neutralising the miseries of the deeper African continent as a source of political angst for the New Europe. North Africa will also surely fulfil a wider role for a Europe committed to energy transition and attempting to wean itself off Russian fossil fuels: as an untapped source of solar energy, Europe’s homes and factories will depend on the security of infrastructure erected on the burning sands of the Sahara. The stability of the regimes hosting Europe’s energy supply will thus vastly outweigh the democratic aspirations of North Africa’s people in the new European order, as Russia shores up its new position in the neighbouring Sahel, and Europe once again finds its strategic interests drawn to the Mediterranean’s southern shores.

On Europe’s eastern border, the Ukraine war will also define the political contours of the new Europe. Macron’s recent conversion to the idea of Ukraine as a Nato ally — an offer perhaps made in the secure knowledge the United States and Germany would forbid it — is a marked departure from France’s previous, failed attempts to woo Russia into a role as a security partner for an autonomous EU. Instead, Macron presumably views the perennial tension with Russia that would follow Ukraine’s absorption into the European sphere as a catalyst to strategic autonomy in itself, spurring measures like the recently-passed ASAP initiative for accelerated EU munitions production. Poland’s massive programme of rearmament to fend off the Russian threat is the greatest single boost to European defence capabilities in recent history. For all it’s loyal Atlanticism, a booming, militarised Poland will be a far greater asset to a European autonomist project than anything offered by a militarily weak and deindustrialising Germany, whose rising political force is, in any case, the Russia-sympathising AfD. Again, far from the continent-spanning Right-wing alliance which excites the liberal imagination, Europe’s populist parties are increasingly divided by the Ukraine war, with those committed to the Ukrainian cause making common ground with liberals and centrists to accelerate the consolidation of an autonomous European sphere.

Strong on defence, hard on migration and hawkish on Russia, the Europe now rapidly coming into being is a natural lodestar for British Right-wingers, dissatisfied at the failure of the Conservative Party to institute conservative governance. Like American conservatives making ideological aliyah to Budapest, perhaps British conservatives will soon look to Brussels as the inspiration for an unabashedly Right-wing politics, its harder edges ameliorated by sharp suits and inoffensively mainstream political aesthetics. Drawn closer into America’s cultural sphere by its wholesale adoption of the superpower’s progressive values, Britain’s political Left will conversely view our neighbouring continent with increased suspicion and distaste. Cut off by its own instinctive liberalism from the trends reshaping Europe, Britain will surely double down on its own Forties mythologising, the decade of the NHS’s foundation and of Windrush cementing its role as the ideological wellspring of the British state. The recent claim by the Labour MP Clive Lewis that the NHS is “our greatest defence against fascism” may not make any sense — Lewis is evidently not a student of the social policies of Thirties Europe — but is a perfect distillation of the new mythology swirling into formation.

But for the rest of Europe, the long ideological hold of the Thirties is finally fading into history: new political forms are being born as the last survivors of Europe’s nightmarish decades of self-destruction are laid to rest. The disastrous 20th century neutered Europe as an actor in history, and for decades it seemed like our civilisation would never escape its gravitational pull. The EU-wide rejection of the cordon sanitaire against Right-wing parties is thus a rejection of the last century’s debilitating stranglehold on political experimentation. Contrary to liberal fantasies, the taboo against fascism remains in force: it is only the use of the term to delegitimise any Right-wing form of governance that has lost its power. The corrective Rightward drift of Europe’s centre is in this sense a paradoxically progressive political force, while our retreat to cosy isolation, with Starmer as Left-liberalism’s Captain Mainwaring valiantly holding an increasingly civilisational Europe at bay, confirms Britain as the most politically conservative country on the continent. In finally laying the ghosts of the 20th century to rest, Europe is entering the future: as in Children of Men, only an increasingly dishevelled Britain stands alone, stubbornly holding out against the march of history.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.