In early 2017, Europe’s far-right parliamentary bloc met in Koblenz, Germany, to plot its political future. The meeting of the bloc’s leaders — which included Marine le Pen from France, Matteo Salvini from Italy and Geert Wilders from the Netherlands — took place shortly after the inauguration of US President Donald Trump. The group was optimistic about its prospects. “Yesterday a free America, today Koblenz, tomorrow a new Europe,” declared an excited Wilders.
Today, the far right faces a watershed year. After the 2019 European Parliament elections, the European far-right bloc has doubled in size, and Boris Johnson has finally extricated the UK from the European Union — a dream of the far right for some time. On the other hand, Trump heads into an election year amid his own impeachment trial.
The success of the Brexit referendum and Trump’s long-shot presidential bid in 2016 signaled a global turn to the right. Will 2020 deliver a different verdict?
Responding to Impeachment
The news of Donald Trump’s impeachment spread across the world in the hours after the historic House vote in mid-December in favor of impeachment. However, world leaders and high-profile politicians generally reserved judgment on the event. “World reaction muted to nonexistent” was the headline in USA Today. Some responses were general, as when China’s The Global Times took the opportunity of the impeachment to point out the growing “flaws of Western-style democracy.”
Two major exceptions to the lack of reaction from politicians worldwide were Russian President Vladimir Putin and Italy’s leader of the far-right League party, Matteo Salvini. Both expressed strong support for Trump, predicting that he would not only survive the proceedings, but even benefit from the impeachment in terms of electoral support. Both Putin and Salvini condemned the Democratic Party for trying to reverse the will of the people outside the ballot box. The Russian president, during his annual press conference, stated that the Democrats were simply trying to reverse their 2016 loss by “other means.”
Salvini’s League is leading the polls with 31% support. He not only expressed support for Trump, but empathized with him. Indeed, Salvini may also face legal proceedings in 2020 for having blocked a refugee transport from docking at an Italian harbor last year. As with Trump’s impeachment, the Italian senate will decide whether the proceedings will take place or not
Other Trump allies around the world have been notably quiet. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, overwhelmed by his own corruption scandal, was careful to put distance between Israel and the United States over Trump’s assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, hit by the threat of US trade sanctions, has also not come out strongly in support of Trump in this hour of need. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan joined Trump at the White House in November and appeared before journalists just as the impeachment hearings were getting started in the House. It was a sign of support for Trump, certainly, but otherwise Erdogan has been quiet about the political challenges the US president faces.
With the exception of Israel and the Philippines, where he remains popular, Trump has very low favorability ratings around the world. Based on Pew polling conducted in 32 countries last year, only 29% of people have confidence in the US president. Even in countries with right-wing leadership, like the UK and Hungary, Trump’s numbers are in the low 30s. No doubt that helps explain why Boris Johnson took pains to ask Trump not to “interfere” in the UK elections at the end of last year.
Trump’s erratic policies, his tendency to slap trade sanctions even on close allies, and his mercurial temperament also help explain why the coterie of right-wing and populist leaders around the world are adopting a wait-and-see approach to Trump’s political future.
Brexit and the European Far Right
In Europe, the reactions of far-right parties to Brexit were similarly low-key and revolved around two messages: respect the popular vote and avoid painful negotiations. In particular, Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini and Vox’s Santiago Abascal all agreed on the necessity to respect the “will of the people” and also warned the European Union not to use painful Brexit negotiations to punish the UK and deter other member states from contemplating withdrawal.
Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel, leaders of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), expressed similar sentiments. However, the AfD has called for a possible “exit” of Germany from the EU, the first major German party to adopt such a policy. Indeed, the major far-right parties in Europe, with the exception of AfD and a few others, are very cautious about threatening a possible withdrawal from the European Union. Even Spain’s Vox, which captured around 15% of the vote in last year’s election, is not enthusiastic about a “Spaxit,” even though an EU court ruling in favor of parliamentary immunity for jailed Catalan separatist leaders has put pressure on the party to support EU withdrawal in response.
The euroskepticism of the 2010s that produced calls for a withdrawal from the EU has largely given way to a different far-right strategy: to gain influence within European structures and use them to advance its agenda.
Partly this about-face reflects the interests of the electorate. The National Rally has stepped back from the idea of “Frexit” and leaving the euro bloc because “The French people have shown that they remain attached to the single currency,” according to a party document. Or, as Salvini has said, “We don’t want to leave anything; we want to change the rules of the EU from the inside.” The country where sentiment to leave the EU is highest is the Czech Republic, and it only hits 34%.
The other part of the story is the growing far-right representation in the European Parliament, the coordination of far-right parties in the European space, and the influence of far-right NGOs like CitizenGo. The UK has always been something of an outlier in the European Union — joining late and negotiating multiple exceptions to EU rules. It looks as if Brexit will be an outlier as well.
In 2017, given the victories of Trump and Brexit the year before, Geert Wilder was justified in his optimism about the future of the far right. In the next few years, he could point to other reasons to be cheerful: the win for Bolsonaro in Brazil, the reelection of Narendra Modi in India, the success of the far right in the Hungarian and Polish parliamentary elections, the electoral surges of Vox in Spain and AfD in Germany.
The situation in 2020 is not so clear. Scandals have overwhelmed key leaders like Netanyahu, Bolsonaro and Trump himself. The far right’s participation in the Austrian coalition government came to an end as a result of another corruption scandal. Despite much media exposure, the efforts of Steve Bannon, Trump’s ideological adviser, to build a “Nationalist International” have not borne fruit.
Much depends on two factors: the results of the Brexit negotiations and the outcome of the 2020 US election. If Britain suffers economically as a result of withdrawal from the EU, the backlash against Johnson and his populist politics will be significant. And if Donald Trump loses in November — in the Electoral College as well as in the popular vote — it will send a strong message that his brand of illiberal, xenophobic populism lacks enduring appeal.
The triumphalism of the far right and its claims of an inevitable march away from liberalism will suffer a major blow. However, the cautious approach by far-right parties worldwide to Trump’s impeachment and Brexit may well signal that those political actors are now adopting long-term strategies to gain power. Their long-term strategy is shifting to a slower infiltration of democratic institutions both at the national that supranational level.