1 June 2012
Matthew Goodwin

Professor Matthew Goodwin

Visiting Senior Fellow, Europe Programme


Across the political landscape in Europe new fears have arisen over the return of extremism.

Amidst economic chaos in Greece an openly neo-Nazi party - Golden Dawn - has entered parliament for the first time. In France, the far-right candidate at recent presidential elections polled over six million votes, and will almost certainly attract significant support at forthcoming elections to the French parliament.

In the Netherlands the anti-Muslim Party for freedom, led by the charismatic Geert Wilders, looks set to poll strongly at new elections despite bringing down the previous government. Meanwhile in Austria opinion polls suggest that the far right Freedom Party may become the strongest political force at the next elections, and is already the most popular party among 18-25 year olds.

Fears about a resurgent far right have also spread into the world of sport, where following the emergence of shocking footage of far right hooligans in Poland and Ukraine, concerns have been raised about possible threats to players and fans from minority backgrounds at the fast-approaching Euro 2012.

Some such as Sol Campbell have even urged fans from minority backgrounds to boycott the tournament altogether, while David Beckham has said he would be supportive of players who left the pitch due to racist abuse.

These anxieties are legitimate: across central and eastern Europe racist and anti-Semitic sentiment is far more entrenched than in the West, and is also anchored in societies that lack strong traditions of liberal representative democracy. According to one recent survey of public opinion in Europe, for example, Poland recorded the highest levels of homophobia and was only second behind Hungary in its levels of racism, anti-Semitism and sexism. 

Economy to blame?

Debates about how best to respond to the far right have tended to focus on one of two approaches. Particularly since the onset of the eurozone crisis and return of recession some argue that the rise of far right groups is a by-product of economic instability, and that as resources such as jobs become more scarce citizens will shift behind extremists in growing numbers.

Yet the reality is more complex: the far right has been on the march since the late 1970s, and achieved its most impressive election results during a period of economic stability and growth. Also when we explore the motives of its followers it is clear that while financial concerns are important they are only secondary to deeper anxieties about the perceived threat that immigration, minority groups and increasingly Muslims pose to national culture, values and ways of life. 

To ban or not to ban

At the absolute extremes of the spectrum and given the recent footage of far-right hooligans in Poland and Ukraine - and the continuing activities of neo-Nazi parties in Germany and Greece - a second approach argues that we should ban the most extremist groups altogether. The argument is rooted in history, and amidst the rubble of the Second World War led some democracies to ban parties that steered too close to the ideology of Hitler such as the Socialist Reich Party in Germany that was banned in 1952. 

In fact, as I write this I am in Berlin to join a debate about whether German authorities should proceed with efforts to ban a modern far right group - the National Democratic Party (NPD) - because of its alleged links a neo-Nazi cell that was responsible for around a dozen murders (the National Socialist Underground). In England, some similarly suggest that authorities should ban more combative groups like the English Defence League (EDL), on the basis of its deliberately confrontational strategy that poses a threat to public order. 

Exclusion leads to radicalisation

But again, the evidence does not stack up. Bans have seldom worked, and their presumed effectiveness is not supported by research. Consider this: one study that examined how ten European democracies responded to far right parties found that where they were not excluded from the political process they tended to abandon their extreme ideological positions in the search for public support.

In contrast, groups that were excluded and shut out of the process became more ideologically radical and reinforced their outsider status, leading their foot soldiers to become more - not less - committed. Also, where democracies have banned the far right, such as the decision to dissolve the Flemish Block in 2004, the anticipated effects seldom last the course. Only weeks afterward, the party organised its foot soldiers under a new name and only slightly tweaked its policies.

A perfect storm

For the European far right, a heightening crisis in the eurozone combined with ongoing public concerns over immigration have ensured the arrival of a perfect storm for its anti-system and anti-immigrant policies. It is clear that this storm is unlikely to pass soon, and we may well see more direct expressions of far right ideology at the approaching Euro 2012.

But for the democracies that host these challenging groups, the most effective response remains much less clear.

This article originally appeared on Channel 4 News online.