Geert Wilders and Tom van Grieken smiling for the camera. (Horacio Villalobos#Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)

January 8, 2024   5 mins

Of the torrent of elections scheduled throughout the world this year, the most transformative promises to span an entire continent. In all of the 27 nations which constitute the European Union, and which will ask their citizens to vote for EU parliamentarians in early June, at least one New or far-Right party is now active. In several (Finland, Italy, Slovakia, Sweden), they form part of a coalition government of the Right. In three (Hungary, Italy, Slovakia), they lead the government.

And, if 2023 closed with the surprise victory of Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party in the Netherlands, the year ahead promises much of the same. The Austrian Freedom Party is by some way the country’s most popular, and thus likely to win the parliamentary election in the autumn. In Belgium, which holds parliamentary elections in June, the New Right Vlaams Belang currently seems likely to win the election in Flanders, the larger and richer of the country’s two regions, while it also leads the overall polling. Both it and its closest rival, the New Flemish Alliance, seek independence from Belgium to form a separate Flemish state.

The symbolism of the rise of the New Right, in the state which hosts the European Union’s own capital, cannot be missed. But the same holds across the EU’s other lynchpin nations. Even Emmanuel Macron is said to believe that it will be Marine Le Pen who will wave from the steps of the ElysĂ©e Palace in 2027. In Germany, the Alternative fĂŒr Deutschland continues its climb, and the cordon sanitaire around mainstream collaboration with the party is likely to be breached this year. The AfD are certainly game: in a talk last month with Norbert Kleinwaechter, deputy leader of the party’s Bundestag grouping, I was told that “there is not so much difference between the CDU’s programme and ours”. In many German states — especially in the east, where the AfD is the strongest party — members of mainstream parties and the New Right have (as yet unofficial) dealings. As in Sweden, parliamentary arithmetic cannot be ignored forever and the centre-right will need the New Right if it is to govern.

Here we are seeing the EU’s darkest nightmare of populist insurgency made flesh. France and Germany have, for decades, underpinned a leadership which has projected a commitment to “ever closer union”, and sought energetically to realise it in practice. But while few of these New Right movements seek secession from the EU, their collective policy might be understood as “never closer”, effectively tearing the rhetorical heart out of the supernational project. If the New Right is successful, the EU itself will find itself commensurately, possibly terminally, enfeebled.

This is one of the most important continental trends of the century so far. In most commentary and reporting on the subject in the West and other democracies, it is regarded as an unspeakable political disaster, opening a space for the possibility of authoritarian governance everywhere. The preferred position is reflexive: to assume these parties are continuing to act as vehicles for an extremism which hides beneath their apparent commitment to democracy. Yet such an approach — with constant references to fascist or Nazi roots, which many of these parties do have — does little, ironically, to hold them to account. It is more than time to treat them as we do Left-wing parties in Italy, Germany, Portugal and Sweden with communist roots, as well as all others lacking totalitarian connections: to discount the most obvious slurs, and instead attempt to understand, clarify and critique their policies and rhetoric. Only this way can we understand the true nature of the New Right, and what its continuing rise this year will augur.

For instance, many of these organisations embrace economic and social policies commonly found in the programmes of social-democratic parties, which sit alongside their Euroscepticism, opposition to the rough end of globalisation and support for families. But within this field they vary widely. The two parties which surged into government in September 2022 — the Sweden Democrats and Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia — explicitly favour national and social conservatism, derived from the British Right, with the late Sir Roger Scruton as the presiding inspiration. Both parties support Ukraine, are pro-Nato (though Sweden is still impeded from joining because of a Turkish veto), and are socially moderate.

By contrast, the far-Right parties of central and Eastern Europe tend towards a harsher, even insurgent, political approach, in part reflecting the more recent post-communist adoption of parliamentary democracy and liberal institutions. The Bulgarian Vazrazhdane (Revival) is the standout party here, growing rapidly from its founding in 2014 to the third-largest party in parliament in the 2023 elections. It, by contrast, is pro-Russian, anti-American, opposed aid to Ukraine, and hostile to gay rights. In June last year, a group of protestors, reportedly led by a Vazrazhdane deputy, stormed a screening of the Belgian film Close, about an intimate friendship between two teenage boys.

A powerful, various and aggressive movement of this kind needs close scrutiny. But most importantly, it needs to be clear why across Europe so many millions of citizens in the working and lower-middle classes, the larger part of whom had historically voted for parties of the Left, now give their vote to the New Right. This growing constituency can no longer be dismissed as “deplorables” or “bigoted”. It is from these bases especially that the greatest support comes for a recasting of society, combatting what the American philosopher Michael Sandel calls the scorn of the “credentialed classes”, who have turned the concept of meritocracy into a system which “attributes deservingness to the successful”.

In most of the New Right parties, this leaning towards working-class concerns rests first and foremost on their opposition to mass immigration. Indeed, their first burst of support in the 2010s was generated by their taking this position, even as the traditional parties of Left and Right continued to broadly support the free flow of labour and generous refugee programmes. If the European New Right has developed one shared concern, this is it. At the same time (and partly as a result), the parties of the left — Labour, Socialist, Social-Democratic — were increasingly losing working-class members and acquiring middle-class, upwardly mobile, socially very liberal replacements.

This phenomenon is not novel to Europe, and was most prominently visible in the US, where the Donald Trump-inspired MAGA movement received the largest backing from members of communities hit by industrial decline. But the New Right and Trump are not analogous. The MAGA movement is, at least potentially, more insurrectionist than most of its European counterparts and it remains, mainly thanks to the unpredictable figure of Trump, more extreme. Most of the European parties have tended to moderate their programmes as they gain or approach power, with Giorgia Meloni as the case-in-point. Trump’s movement, by contrast, revolves around his maverick political persona, one which unfoundedly trumpets claims of electoral fraud, speaks of illegal immigrants as “poisoning the blood” of America, and threatens a one-day dictatorship if and when he wins the election this year.

It is precisely this relative moderation by the European New Right, and their growing proximity to power, that make closer reporting now essential. What they are against is clear; how they will deliver is not. More than the established parties, they play on their status as being new and unsullied by compromise. If the New Right cannot deliver on its promises for root and branch restructuring of politics, it will falter. This new year will therefore be the real beginning of their largest test — both of the democratic bodies they claim to be and of the policies they assert will transform their countries.

John Lloyd is a contributing editor to the Financial Times and is writing a book on the rise of the New Right in Europe.