As the dust settles around Norbert Hofer’s close defeat in the Austrian presidential election, it is abundantly clear that European politics is experiencing an escalating shift to the far-right.
Hofer ended with 49.7% of the vote, losing out to Alexander Van der Bellen (who won 50.3% while running as an independent) by a mere 31,000 votes.
Hofer may have been defeated, but the nationalist fervour engulfing Europe is becoming very hard to ignore. There has been a surge in far-right support, and it isn’t contained to Austria.
Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in Holland are further examples of far-right politicians who are gradually building a firmer base of support. The crux of this support revolves around exploiting Anti-EU and Anti-Immigrant sentiments which seem to be coming to a head now across the continent.
A precedent has been set in Europe in the last few months, one of far-right parties achieving increasing popularity by railing against EU policy.
Viktor Orban of Hungary is another leader who has been outspoken in his unhappiness at the influx of refugees into Europe. Back in September, Orban responded to criticism of Hungary’s refusal to accept refugees by saying that ‘individual action is better than unified inertia.’ Hungary has refused to take in migrants in the continuing refugee crisis, instead passing them onto Germany and other EU member states.
Britain has generally avoided political extremes in the last century – opposing fascism and Nazism in the Second World War and rejecting communism in the aftermath. It is expected that we will continue to do so, but that is no foregone conclusion.
The impact the EU referendum could have on the British political landscape is worth consideration. The failure of Westminster to devolve sufficient power to Scotland has facilitated the rise of the Scottish National Party and led to a landslide victory for them at the last election. A vote to remain part of the United Kingdom seems only to have tightened the SNP grip on power north of the border. If the Scottish referendum is seen as a microcosm for the EU referendum, a similar potential reaction on a larger scale cannot be discounted. The SNP may not be a far-right party, but they have used unifying nationalist rhetoric to capitalise on the disenchantment of Scots and cement their position.
UKIP started out as something of a joke, and is still scoffed at by most of the core media in the UK. But the 2015 general election results papered over increasing sympathy for UKIP’s policies. UKIP only won one seat, but accrued 3.9 million votes. If proportional representation were in effect in the UK, our political identity might look very different right now.
Rejection of EU policy is creating a clamour across Europe, would a vote to remain do the same in the UK? It seems inconceivable, but this shift to the right is being caused by people who don’t feel the government are representing their viewpoints or interests.
We have already seen the reaction of labour voters to the current political climate – they demanded the more socialist views of Corbyn in place of the Blairite principles that had characterised labour’s recent history.
It is not inconceivable that the right could experience a similar change. If MPs and voters see the conservative leadership as being too centrist, David Cameron’s position could become increasingly tenuous. Furthermore, with no obvious successor to Cameron, could MP’s and voters be drawn away from the Tories towards UKIP? It’s easy to dismiss what is happening as just a European anomaly, but cast your eye beyond Europe, to the rise of Donald Trump.
Trump may seem to be little more than a populist, playing to the fears of a certain section of the population, but he has crushed the Republican opposition and done so with a number of extreme, conservative ideals. Whether he truly believes what he preaches (I rather doubt it), it is working and it has appealed to the American populace. The media told us time and again that as his outbursts became more outlandish his support would wane, yet it only got stronger (Trump is also ahead of Hillary Clinton in the polls).
The experts, pundits and the media have become complacent. Their unwavering assertions that the political status quo will continue have been proved wrong repeatedly. Our media condemn far-right groups and we don’t imagine that such feeling could emerge in Britain, but dismissing it entirely is naive.
Politics throughout the west is predictable right now only in its unpredictability. Twelve months ago, nobody expected that Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump would be competing for the presidency of the USA or leading the opposition in Britain.
The support for Hofer, Le Pen and Wilders is demonstrative of just how disillusioned the public feels with the establishment. There is clearly anger and frustration in a number of countries, but it is very hard to believe that half of Austrians harbour extreme anti-immigrant feeling. Instead, EU scepticism and disillusionment with the establishment is catalysing a swelling nationalist sentiment across the continent.
Something has gone wrong. The fundamental ethics of the European Union are in opposition to exclusionary, far-right ideals that became so prevalent in the 1930’s and 1940’s, yet here we are, discussing just how much influence far-right groups could wield in Europe in the coming years.
Britain has generally succeeded in remaining detached from the rest of Europe in its political evolution. We have long been a progressive state, capable of compromise. It is still likely that this will continue to be the case, but the changing face of Europe is a cautionary tale and burying our heads in the sand won’t help.
Nobody can predict what will come next or which way the pendulum might swing, but we are moving into potentially dangerous territory. The economic implications of the referendum may well dominate the headlines, but an ideological battle might not be too far over the horizon either.
It is a worrying indictment of the current climate that so many people only feel their views can be represented properly by such converse poles of the political scale. Things are changing at a rapid rate and by this time next year, British politics could be unrecognisable from where we are now.
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