Far-right political parties in Europe, particularly (but not exclusively) Germany, Spain and Italy, have increased their national vote share in recent years, demonstrating a resurgence in popularity that few would have predicted 20 years ago. In his latest article, NGS Risk Analyst Jason Davies considers the impact this renewed polarisation of national politics could have on the security environment, in the form of terrorism, protest and conflict.
The resurgence of far-right politics is a phenomenon being experienced across the world, most notably in Europe. Led by populist demagogues, parties that espouse radical forms of conservatism are achieving significant popular support and, in some nations, electoral success. Despite Germany’s attempts to condemn its extremist past, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has established itself as an entrenched opposition party and is currently second in national voting polls. The Spanish Vox, a party which often exhibits Francoist nostalgia, came third in a general election last week with a 12.4% vote share. And in Italy, Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy has been in power since October 2022.
With the growth of the far right in Europe, in both governmental and popular forms, a plethora of new security challenges will arise. Over the last decade, the continent has already experienced incidents of far-right civil unrest, terrorism and attempted regime change, all of which could become more numerous and impactful as extremist ideology permeates.
Attributes of the Far Right
A common feature of these parties is the doctrine of nativism, the desire to promote the interests of a native population over that of the “immigrant”. It is not always overt, but European nativism is often accompanied by xenophobia, especially against Muslims. Another tenet of the far right is reactionary politics, sometimes influenced by Christianity, which opposes social progress as a form of decadence. Vox, for instance, prides itself on defending Spain’s “Christian roots and oppos[ing] multiculturalism and mass immigration” – an agenda repeated across far-right parties.
The populists leading these organisations are adept at building cults of personality through their charisma and oratory skills. Populism is an ideology which seeks to subvert rationality with an appeal to emotion, subsequently mobilising supporters against a perceived threat. Through the proclamation of a crisis (almost always exaggerated), the populist will attempt to impose a sense of cultural tribalism, an “us” versus “them”. The enemy, according to populists, is assisted by a sociopolitical elite usually in the form of the government, large corporations, the media, or a deep state.
Far-right politics and populism have proved to be a successful combination and according to the European Centre for Populism Studies, are “a real challenge to the democratic values that are at the core of the political identity of Europe”. This is particularly true in countries such as the United Kingdom, where far-right populist parties operating outside of Westminster have had a significant impact on national discourse and policy. At its apogee, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) led by Nigel Farage was able to portray the European Union as an elitist clique intent on undermining British sovereignty and culture. Specifically, it was his portrayal of migration as an existential threat which immeasurably influenced voting behaviour in the 2016 Brexit referendum.
While these parties do not explicitly condone terrorism, their rhetoric – which is often sensationalist and alarming – may embolden individuals to commit acts of violence against those stigmatised by far-right politicians. In conjunction with increasing migration, the liberalisation of society, and the insecurities brought on by falling living standards (often attributed to refugees), it is possible that acts of right-wing terrorism will become more common in the future.
Between 2011 and 2021, the EU recorded 28 violent acts and 258 arrests relating to right-wing terrorism across the continent. Although fewer in number compared to Islamist, ethno-nationalist and left-wing incidents, the implications of far-right terrorism are broad. This is partly because of its unpredictability, making preventative counterterrorism efforts incredibly challenging.
The irrationality of far-right terrorism, which is exacerbated through conspiracy theories and other forms of indoctrination, can make any individual a target. This is most evident with the murder of Jo Cox in 2016, a British Member of Parliament who was labelled by the perpetrator as a “collaborator”, supposedly working to the detriment of white people. In the days preceding her death, she had defended the European Union and immigration. The assassination of German politician Walter Lübcke in 2019 likewise occurred as a consequence of his pro-migrant sympathies.
Violence has not been limited to specific individuals; it has also been used to intimidate the ethnic and social opponents of the far-right. Following the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris, a wave of reprisal attacks utilising small arms and improvised explosive devices targeted Islamic religious sites and businesses. In 2019, an individual aiming to kill “anti-Whites” live-streamed a shooting outside a synagogue and kebab shop in the German city of Halle. And in 2022, an extremist in Bratislava fatally shot two members of the LGBT+ community, accusing them of being enemies of the white race.
The storming of the United States Capitol in January 2021, the culmination of a fractious campaign to change the result of the 2020 election, could be a template for future acts of civil unrest in Europe. It demonstrates how a political authority like Donald Trump can incite far-right violence (insurrection according to some) through populist rhetoric. Although this level of collaboration is largely absent in Europe, the far right is “experiencing an increase in grassroots mobilisation” according to the European Journal of Political Research (EJPR). It is likely that politicians will start to manage these movements, leading to the potential targeting of political and social opposition.
Between 2008 and 2018, the EJPR recorded a total of 4,396 instances of far-right protest in Bulgaria, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Over 70% of these mobilisations were driven by nativism or, more specifically, the need to preserve national identity and curb migration. 820 (18.7%) of overall actions were labelled as confrontational, and 399 (9.1%) displayed violence.
Dates of national significance can be an instigator of far-right protest: on Poland’s Independence Day in 2017, an estimated 60,000 nationalists marched through Warsaw, some of whom were demanding an ethnically pure homeland. An anti-fascist counterprotest coincided with the march, leading to several instances of violence. Certain areas of policy, particularly immigration, are another driver of civil unrest. Over recent months in Dublin, far-right groups have hijacked movements concerned with refugee capacity, promoting xenophobic vitriol and imagery. Counterprotests likewise occurred, but violence was prevented by a police presence.
Far-right mobilisation can also be a response to demonstrations promoting social justice and solidarity with marginalised groups. After George Floyd was killed in 2020, Black Lives Matter protests denouncing racism and police brutality occurred across Europe. In what was condemned as “racist thuggery” by then-prime minister Boris Johnson, far-right groups clashed with protesters and the police in London. Several of the individuals chanted the name “Tommy Robinson”, an individual associated with UKIP and the nationalist English Defence League.
In December 2022, a German far-right organisation called the Patriotic Union (part of the wider Reichsbürger movement) was subject to a federal crackdown involving special forces. Its leader, Heinrich Prinz Reuss, sought to usurp government and reestablish the German Empire with the provocation of a civil war. Around 50 others were involved with the plot, some having backgrounds in the military and AfD. In the raids, several weapons and munitions were found.
Illustrating the problem further, five individuals were charged in January 2023 for plotting a separate coup against the German government. By kidnapping the health minister and sabotaging electricity infrastructure, these conspirators sought to accomplish what the Patriotic Union could not.
While these attempts seem farcical and have been treated as such by some politicians of AfD, they are serious affronts to the democratic process. Despite both plans being in their infancy, they warranted a comprehensive and multi-organisational security response, demonstrating the threat from these groups. The Reichsbürger movement has been under surveillance since 2016 and further raids against the organisation have inflicted casualties: a police officer was shot in March 2023 while searching a premise near Stuttgart.
A concern is a replication of these schemes in less affluent, more unstable countries, where the role of far-right political parties is more acute. Even more concerning is the role of external powers, such as Russia, who may see the far right as a vehicle for regime change. The Patriotic Union conspirators sought to cooperate with Moscow but were ostensibly rejected.
The EJPR believes that the mobilisation of the far right can be curbed by more stringent legislation against hate speech, inflammatory symbols, and the activities of extremist groups. In addition to statute, greater funding for deradicalisation programmes is also a pragmatic way forward. However, the appetite to endorse such measures is notably absent in many of the nations endangered by the rise of far-right politics.
Primarily, far-right extremism is deprioritised by governments when confronted with its Islamic counterpart, which is statistically responsible for more terrorist incidents in Europe. The latter is also easier to define for Western governments, whereas the line between centre-right and far-right politics is often ambiguous and can generate controversy. A report about the UK government’s counter-extremism programme (Prevent) recently concluded that right-wing terrorism is disproportionally targeted, especially because its definition was too broad.
The same government was accused of “normalising and mainstreaming far-right hatred against minority groups” in a February 2023 letter by equality groups. It also stated that the aforementioned report on Prevent relied on “incomplete and skewed evidence to minimise the threat of the far right”. Similar charges have been levied against a multitude of European governments, including those of Poland, Hungary and Finland. By facilitating the far right, radical governments can build an electoral base which is politically malleable.
If the current trend is to continue, governments that flirt with far-right politics will be more ubiquitous across Europe. Through the propagation of extremist doctrine, even from fringe opposition parties, far-right mobilisation and violence will increasingly be seen as permissible. With continued migration and deteriorating socioeconomic conditions, the indoctrinated may even consider it necessary.
Although the threat is evident, it is often dismissed as hyperbole or is used in conjunction with populism by rightist parties to generate support. While steps can be taken to combat far-right violence (e.g. stronger identification and deradicalisation efforts), it is harder to justify the censure of a political organisation in a democratic society. As such, the growth of parties such as AfD will probably continue unabated, changing the European political landscape in the years to come.
Author: Jason Davies, Risk Analyst, Northcott Global Solutions
Northcott Global Solutions provides risk assessments, tracking, security escorts, personal protective equipment, remote medical assistance and emergency evacuation.
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