It is undeniable that the right wing is ascendant in Europe. While leftist parties did well here and there in recent elections to the European Parliament, the story over recent years has been mainly about the right, symbolized most dramatically by the soaring popularity of Marine Le Pen's National Front in France. But also in Denmark, Austria, Finland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Serbia, the one commonality is the dynamism of nationalist-style political movements. Right-wing parties in France and Denmark got a quarter of the vote in late May's elections, while the right in Austria got a fifth. Meanwhile, the Jobbik party in Hungary and Golden Dawn in Greece have garnered headlines the world over for their flamboyant neo-fascist views and popularity among significant swathes of the voting public.
While these numbers may not be enough to propel right-wing parties into executive power, they are, nevertheless, numbers that would have been unthinkable several years ago. While traditionally anti-immigrant, these parties have lately become in many cases pro-Russian. It is not that they like Russia per se; rather, it is that they see a kindred spirit in Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is a reactionary and Revanchist nationalist, embittered by the power balance of the Post Cold War, who thinks in terms of ethnic nations instead of post-national states. Like Putin's Russia, they are especially fearful of Muslims in their midst. Thus Putin has become an avatar to right-wingers from France to Greece.
What is behind this phenomenon?
Years and decades of immigration from Muslim North African countries and other parts of the developing world have seemingly threatened previously cohesive and mono-ethnic societies in Europe. Then there is the half-decadelong economic crisis within the European Union that has led to low or negative growth and indecently high levels of unemployment. And that, in turn, has led to very unpopular austerity measures. The combination of these social and economic stresses has gone a long way to delegitimize the European establishment so that someone like Putin, who challenges that establishment and what it stands for, immediately becomes a pole of attraction.
The European establishment in Brussels also represents something else that these right-wing parties oppose, and that goes relatively little remarked upon: In a word, it represents the old historical left. I don't mean the hard, Communist left. I mean the soft, traditional left. For the post-national European Union, organized as it has been for decades around the principle of the social welfare state -- in turn supported by high taxes and meager defense budgets -- is a left-wing or left-of-center historical project if ever there was one, at least in the world view of the right.
Certainly, the bureaucratic elite in the European Union capital of Brussels inculcates the attitudes of the traditional left much more than that of the traditional right. Unsurprisingly, you will find many members of the 1960s student protest movement among the older Eurocrats. Ironically, it was high American defense budgets throughout the Cold War years that allowed for Europe's security umbrella against the Soviet Union, leaving Europe financially free to devote itself to the kinds of expensive domestic programs normally associated with the left. And because the prolonged economic crisis on the Continent is undermining the reputation of the European Union, that of the left is also being subtly undermined. It is telling that while the political right is ascendant in Europe now, the left (with striking exceptions such as Greece, of course) appears somewhat moribund as a romantic force. At a time of social and economic stress, the left just doesn't inspire as much as the right does.
The allure of the old Western European Communist parties that had once dominated headlines in the 1960s and 1970s at the apex of the Cold War is now a thing of the remote past. The Cold War, remember, was close in time to World War II; in fact, it was a veritable tailpiece of it. That was an age when the right was delegitimized because of what Hitler and Mussolini had so recently done. But with World War II disappearing from view, and while a staid and squishy political establishment currently struggles to find a path through the economic crisis, the right looms dynamically as the left once did. In a sense, the rise of the right in Europe indicates that the effect of the Long European War, from 1914 to 1989, is finally over. There is no longer a taboo against neo-fascism. This is the great danger.
Mitigating this danger will be globalization itself in the form of new communications technologies, from air travel to smartphones, that while empowering sub-state groups -- united in some cases by ethnicity -- also empower new and more complex forms of identity not rooted in geography. This can mean that the ethnic right-wing nationalism currently afoot in Europe will be only a diluted version of the kind that gripped the Continent in the 1930s.
On the other hand, an aging European population with near zero birthrates coupled with a continuation of immigration from the less developed world will continue to stoke the kind of fear that empowers nationalistic parties united by ethnicity. Making it worse will be the prolongation of the economic crisis. After all, the Eurocracy in Brussels, as well as politically embattled regimes in the various capitals, will find it hard to make the dynamic adjustments necessary to return Europe to robust growth. For the European masses, the sense of security -- political, social and economic -- has been weakening on all fronts. And in such a circumstance, the left appears to have fewer answers than the right because the left cannot make an appeal based on atavistic emotion.
The rise of ethnic nationalism in Europe in the 1930s led to interstate war. The rise of ethnic nationalism in the early 21st century will almost certainly not. Instead, we will first see the creeping emergence of microstates such as Scotland and Catalonia. For a united Europe, however economically moribund, with power partially transferred to Brussels from national capitals, allows sub-state identities based on particular geographies to flourish. Second, we might see a form of paralysis within states themselves, as nationalist reactions to truly multicultural immigrant societies help undermine elected governments. Undermined governments with low defense outlays, emerging from decades in which national militaries have been delegitimized, do not go to war with other undermined governments.
Moreover, the Russian threat to Central and Eastern Europe will eventually be assuaged by Russia's own economic and social problems. Nor will Russia dominate energy markets in the future as it does now. This will give Moscow less leverage over Poland, the Baltic states and so on.
In sum, the rise of the right is part of a narrative about the decline of Europe and its place in the world as more demographically and economically vibrant societies in the Greater Indian Ocean and elsewhere continue their rise. Just as the European left has had no solutions to the current crisis, neither will the nationalistic right. Places in relative decline often make headlines. That is the case with Europe now.