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The far right is having a moment in Europe. Actually, everywhere.

An expert explains recent (and maybe soon-to-be) far-right victories in Europe.

Giorgia Meloni, leader of Italian far-right party Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), delivers a speech on September 23, 2022 at the Arenile di Bagnoli beachfront location in Naples, southern Italy, during a rally closing her party’s campaign for the September 25 general election.
Andreas Solaro/AFP via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Giorgia Meloni and her far-right Fratelli d’Italia are expected to lead a far right victory in Italian elections this weekend. That win, if it happens, would come shortly after the far-right Sweden Democrats won the second-largest share of the vote, helping to oust the center-left from power and giving the far right a potential role in the next government.

These shifts are happening as Europe enters another precarious moment: a war on the continent that is increasingly unpredictable, and an inflation and energy crisis that will deepen as winter approaches.

The politics of Sweden, in northern Europe, and Italy, in the south, are very different, and the historical origins and reasons for the far right’s recent successes in each of those countries are unique. But, the far right shares certain trends across Europe — and, really, the globe. What is happening in Sweden, and Italy, is not all that different from what is happening in Brazil, or India, or the United States of America.

Pietro Castelli Gattinara, associate professor of political communication at Université Libre de Bruxelles and Marie Curie Fellow at Sciences Po, said that the far right is a global movement and a global ideology, even though one of the core tenets of these parties is a kind of nativism. That translates into a rejection of migration, but also of the social and cultural changes taking place within societies. The “woke” culture wars may look different in the US or Italy, but they are a feature of the modern far-right.

“New ideas coming from abroad are considered a danger to the nation-state,” Castelli Gattinara said. “We see that quite strongly when it comes to civil rights and, in particular, gender equality.”

Vox spoke with Castelli Gattinara about this iteration of the far right, how it has gained legitimacy in Europe and elsewhere, and what the specific developments in Italy and Sweden might mean for those countries — along with Europe, and the world.

The conversation, below, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jen Kirby

I want to start with a big question, which is: What is going on with the far right in Europe right now?

Pietro Castelli Gattinara

The main point about the far right at the European level is that it’s not the story of a resurgence. The story of the far right in Europe is very much a story of continuity. What we have seen and what we are seeing in different countries are new variants of an old story of something we have been seeing for quite a few decades.

Political scientists tend to analyze the trajectory of the far right in waves. We are now in probably the fourth wave of far right politics in Europe, considering the first wave as the interwar period.

The subsequent waves were periods in which a number of far right parties and movements were emerging both in the south and in the north of Europe, but they remained quite marginal. They were fringe parties with very clear ideas and very clear-cut ideologies, but they remained at the margin of their political systems. Throughout the 1980s, 1990s, those parties have generally gained access to representative institutions. And in the fourth wave, which is what we are seeing today, they have actually become completely mainstream. The distinction between what is the mainstream right and what is the far right is less and less clear. In that respect, I believe it’s also more difficult to set apart the European model from what we’re seeing in the US and in other parts of the world, where similarly, the distinction is becoming less and less clear.

Jen Kirby

This is a global phenomenon within democracies, not exclusively in Europe.

Pietro Castelli Gattinara

Absolutely. There are certainly some specificities about Europe, but it is not that different from what we have been seeing in the US with the radicalization of the Republican Party, what we are seeing in India with President [Narendra] Modi, what we have seen with Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, just to make some examples. It is a much broader phenomenon of radicalization of mainstream right ideas, and mainstreaming of far-right ideas, especially with respect to some topics such as ethnic diversity, immigration, and gender issues. The positions of the far right have now been actually endorsed by mainstream right parties.

Jen Kirby

How did that mainstreaming happen?

Pietro Castelli Gattinara

There’s no easy way to synthesize it. It’s a complex sociopolitical mechanism. But I would say, for the sake of simplicity, there are at least two main channels: one through the media and one through party and political competition.

With respect to party and political competition, there are at least two variants. One is mainstream right parties simply taking up the issues and the narratives of the far right. The best example is migration. The narrative of the far right on migration has been taken up by centrist and mainstream parties — and important to note, not necessarily right-wing ones. A number of Social Democratic parties, for example, in Denmark, or centrist parties — that’s the example of Italy — has taken up far-right narratives on migration, or have implemented far-right policies when it comes to migration. That’s the example of what happened in most of the European countries throughout the migration crisis.

Another party mechanism is coalition building or alliance building. That’s what we’re seeing in Sweden, where a moderate party that won the election will get the support of a radical right party to form of government. Or even more explicitly in the Italian case, whereby since at least 20 years, the mainstream right and the radical right, are in a coalition that is absolutely long-lasting and, up to today, quite solid.

The second is the media mechanism where especially commercial media are surfing on the issues and on the anxieties that far-right parties have brought into the political agenda. There again, the example of the US is very indicative — the politics of Fox News, in the past decades. We’ve seen a very similar scenario to the UK with the tabloid media, the whole mounting of the campaign on Brexit, for instance, has been brought about by a mix of far-right political actors and commercial media. And there are these moral panics, if you like the term, around security, around migration, around political Islam — and the media often participate to construct those problems.

Jen Kirby

You mentioned migration, and the wave of refugees in Europe in 2015 that the far right tried to capitalize on. I am wondering if migration is still very much a motivating electoral factor for these parties — or if they have morphed to embrace something different?

Pietro Castelli Gattinara

I still think migration plays a crucial role. Perhaps migration is a bit limited as an issue. But what is really the core ideological tenet of those actors is nativism; is the idea that country states should be inhabited exclusively by so-called native people; is the idea that there are homogeneous communities and that any type of contamination from abroad would impoverish the sort of natural purity of the nation-state. And importantly, this applies to race or ethnic diversity. It equally applies to religion. It also applies to ideas.

In a certain sense, new ideas coming from abroad are considered a danger to the nation-state. We see that quite strongly when it comes to civil rights and, in particular, gender equality. A number of far right parties in Europe today are focused on so-called “woke” culture, on combating new anti-colonial movements, and so on and so forth.

For instance, in the case of Vox [the political party in Spain] — called the same way as your magazine, but I suppose, takes quite different political stances — and Fratelli d’Italia in Italy. If you could see the intervention by Giorgia Meloni at the national convention of Vox, she stressed the importance for her that she is Italian, she is Christian, she is a woman, but she stands in opposition to the idea of gender equality, of same-sex couples, and so on.

Jen Kirby

It sounds like the backlash to “woke” ideology is becoming a cross-border phenomenon then.

Pietro Castelli Gattinara

Absolutely. Again, the far right is a global movement and a global ideology. We have seen through the years a lot of interconnection and transnationalism in the way in which these ideas have diffused. If you look at India, some of the anti-Islamic narratives that have been developed by Modi built upon a long-lasting panic about Islam, that has been developed in the US and in Europe.

The Italian far right has been inspired by Trump, and by the far right in other countries, and translated those narratives and those campaigns within the Italian system, which of course, has a very different colonial past and a very different history of race relations. There is quite a lot of diffusion.

We can also see a process of mainstreaming. One of the main frames of the culture war is the idea that there would be a class of intellectuals, especially academic professors, that would have a progressive agenda, and that would indoctrinate new generations based on so-called gender theories or woke theories. That’s a narrative developed in the Anglo-Saxon world, but it arrived also in other European countries. But this has also been part of the agenda of the latest Macron government [in France] which cannot be considered as a far right government. It has spent quite a lot of its time and its agenda into combating so-called “Islamic leftism” that would be described as some sort of sociology that would be excessively sympathetic toward Islamic communities in France. So that is an adaptation of the same narrative by non-far right political parties.

Jen Kirby

Connected to some of the culture war stuff has been the rejection of the EU and the “bureaucrats in Brussels”-type thing. I’m wondering how far-right parties in Italy and within other European countries are approaching the EU right now?

Pietro Castelli Gattinara

There are a number of far right parties in Europe that have been and are openly Euro-skeptic, meaning they reject the EU as a political project while idealizing a not very well-specified Europe of the peoples or Europe of the nations. In the south of Europe, and particularly in Italy, the opposition to the EU has always been mainly a campaign issue and not a concrete policy.

Today, there’s an acceleration of this process, because Giorgia Meloni, the leader of Fratelli d’Italia, is quite confident that she will win the next elections, and therefore, she is mainly addressing international audiences to get legitimated among those arenas, including the European Commission. Her main goal is not to scare off the EU with excessively radical proposals and many things she has been saying against the EU — she was calling the EU an organization of bankers and a threat to the national sovereignty of Italy — we do not hear any of these [now].

Jen Kirby

I want to talk about Italy for a second. The prediction right now is that the far right will take power. What’s going on there?

Pietro Castelli Gattinara

There’s certainly some aspects that are unique to the Italian context. The main aspect is that the alliance between the center right and the far right is a consolidated one, since 1994, when media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi emerged, he formed right-wing coalitions in which he accepted the participation of post-fascist parties, Alleanza Nazionale back then, Lega Nord, and so on. That alliance has been going for more than 20 years, so when I’m speaking about the blurring between the far right and the mainstream right that is perhaps the perfect example. That is unique about Italy.

The reason why the far right party like Fratelli d’Italia can now take the lead of the coalition has two main explanations. One is that Berlusconi is now aged and his party has lost most of its support, but also that Giorgia Meloni, as leader of Fratelli d’Italia, she has correctly understood that electorally it would pay off to stay in the opposition throughout the past few years. She founded her party in 2012, as a spin-off or as a rebirth of the National Alliance Party [Alianza Nacional], but ever since she has consistently refused to be part of any coalition government, unlike all the other parties in the Italian political system. Since the 2018 elections, we have had very different coalition governments, sometimes with the populist Five Star Movement, with the Social Democratic Party, with Lega Nord, with Berlusconi’s party. The only party that never accepted any compromise is Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia. She’s the only leader the Italian electorate does not perceive to have already tested. She is the only one that has not yet deceived the Italian electorate. That’s her biggest ace to play at the next election.

Jen Kirby

She’s the change candidate, essentially.

Pietro Castelli Gattinara

She has correctly understood that what the Italians challenge now is the idea of the establishment.

Meloni manages to present herself as opposed to the political establishment, but at the same time, as a credible politician because she has been in politics for a very long time.

Jen Kirby

What would it mean if she does become the leader of Italy — for Italy, and for Europe?

Pietro Castelli Gattinara

Symbolically, it would be a very serious change. [Meloni] will be the first female prime minister in the history [of Italy]. Secondly, it will be the first prime minister with a past in a post-fascist political party. The symbol of Fratelli d’Italia is the three-color flame, which used to be the symbol of the Italian Social Movement, the post-fascist party founded in the 1940s. The symbolic link with the fascist past is extremely strong and extremely important.

At the same time, the likely government will be just a reconfiguration of the same coalition that we have been seeing for the past 20 years. Fratelli d’Italia has retrieved up a considerable amount of the old personnel of Berlusconi’s parties, of the old ministers of Berlusconi’s governments. I have the impression that, in the end, it will be a reboot of the Berlusconi years — which is not necessarily good news — but with a much stronger attention to some of the issues that are at the core of our far-right ideologies, I think, in particular, in terms of gender equality, in terms of civil rights, abortion rights, in terms of migration, in terms of religion. But then when it comes to our economic policy, for example, it will be basically the old wine that we have already seen for 20 years with the Berlusconi governments.

Jen Kirby

So it may not be as radical a change, even if the symbolism is jarring. And that makes me wonder a bit about Sweden. The moderate right is in power, but will need the far-right Sweden Democrats to govern. What does it mean for governance when we have these types of alliances?

Pietro Castelli Gattinara

The Scandinavian context is different from the south of Europe. But what we have seen is that, generally, this is a consequence of an ideological and discursive transition that has already taken place. My colleague, Anders Jupskås at the Center for Research on Extremism, has been pointing at how the moderate party in Sweden had already endorsed the issues and the narratives of the Sweden Democrats, when it came to political Islam, asylum, and migration. There has been, let’s say, a convergence on those issues prior to the elections.

Now, as they come to perhaps share responsibilities within a government, then we can see some of those policies actually materialize. What we have seen in other counties is this will in no way contain the growth of the Sweden Democrats. It will actually hollow out the support for the moderates. Between the original and the copy, voters will always go for the original, and not for the copy. We don’t have a crystal ball, but if anything, one would expect that Sweden Democrats will confirm their electoral scores in the years to come by becoming even more legitimate and central to the Swedish political system.

Jen Kirby

These elections are happening as Europe is in the middle of crisis — the war in Ukraine, inflation, and the looming energy crisis. How do you think some of these electoral successes for the far-right might influence this moment?

Pietro Castelli Gattinara

The EU has been in a crisis since its very foundation. There’s always a new crisis affecting European Union politics. There’s a migration crisis, there is a terrorism crisis, there is war at its borders, there is Brexit. The politics of Europe are always a politics of crisis.

Now, this time, we’re seeing something that may be partly different, on one hand, because of the energy crisis and inflation, which might trigger important transformations in public opinion. On the other hand, because of the war on Ukraine, it has become more difficult for foreign parties to take direct inspiration from the figure of Vladimir Putin.

We’ve seen in Italy, Lega Nord, where Matteo Salvini has been a very outspoken admirer of Putin — he publicly said that, in his opinion, he’s the best politician currently alive a few years ago. He rapidly change this position as the war in Ukraine started. There was this very famous video of him at the border between Ukraine and Poland with a Polish mayor humiliating him by showing him the T-shirt with the face of bullying that Salvini had worn some years before, while [Salvini] went to Poland to express solidarity to Ukrainian refugees. So there has been switching of positions with respect to Russia, in particular.

Fratelli d’Italia had more consistent US and pro-NATO positions, but there is an in-between that is the relationship with the countries on the eastern border of the EU, and not only Hungary and Poland. Fratelli d’Italia is a strong supporter of both governments in Poland and Hungary because Meloni admires the way those governments have dealt with issues concerning family and abortion and gender rights. But the executives in those countries have very different positions with respect to Russia. So this issue might create a differentiation within different far right parties across countries in Europe.

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