Matthew Goodwin
Visiting Senior Fellow, Europe Programme

Across Europe, radical and extreme right-wing politics continue to dominate headlines. At the extreme end of the spectrum, the forthcoming conclusion to the Anders Breivik trial in Norway is likely to revive debate over current responses to right-wing extremist violence. This has been further fuelled by the recent shootings in Wisconsin and an ongoing review in Germany of how security services responded to the neo-Nazi cell, the National Socialist Underground (NSU). Meanwhile, interest in populist extremist political parties will turn to the Netherlands next month, where Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom is currently predicted to capture 18 seats, and - over the longer-term - to Austria where next year the resurgent Freedom Party looks set to deliver a strong performance.

Putting the issue of violence to one side, amidst the current climate numerous commentators have traced support for these parties to the eurozone crises. The argument - that populist extremism is essentially a by-product of feelings of economic threat and inequality - is an old one. In earlier decades, it was applied to explain support for interwar Nazism, as well as whites' hostility toward African-Americans in southern America and a rising tide of 'anti-foreigner' violence in Germany in the early 1990s.

Those who subscribe to this view will no doubt point toward a recent Eurobarometer survey, the results of which highlight ongoing opportunities for populist extremists. At broad level it tells us that European citizens remain deeply concerned about the economic situation in Europe, with 75% considering this to be 'rather' or 'very' bad. When asked to rank the top two issues facing their countries, economic concerns dominate: unemployment, the 'economic situation', inflation and government debt emerge as the four most important issues across Europe as a whole. Nor do citizens appear confident that the situation is likely to improve. A clear majority of those who responded - 60% - think the 'worst is still to come'.

The survey was undertaken shortly after an election in Greece that saw the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn enter parliament, and an election in France that saw Marine Le Pen attract worldwide attention after polling 6.5 million votes (or 17.9% of the vote). And while some may point to these results as evidence that the emergence of Golden Dawn, Marine Le Pen or support for Geert Wilders is principally the result of economic hardship, they would be wrong. The reality is that populist extremists were on the rise long before the collapse of the Lehman brothers and the onset of the eurozone crisis. Most serious analysts trace the rise of parties like Le Pen's National Front to the early 1980s, and note how some of their most impressive performances were recorded not during periods of economic decline, but rather periods of relative economic stability and growth. So let's be clear: while the crisis may have cultivated new opportunities for populist extremists, it is by no means the cause behind their rise.

Indeed, the Eurobarometer survey sheds light on a broader cluster of issues that are both of concern to citizens and targeted by the likes of Le Pen and Wilders. Perhaps most importantly, while large numbers of respondents are concerned about the financial climate they also appear united in the view that they cannot trust European political elites. In the Netherlands, this message is hammered home by Wilders who has increased the volume of his opposition to European integration and bailouts for financially failing states. In an attempt to take this anti-EU, anti-bailout and anti-establishment message global, Wilders has even launched a website in English. And there is clearly a receptive audience as levels of public trust in decision-makers at the European level have continued to fall.  On average, only 31% of respondents said they 'tend to trust' the European Union, as compared to 50% in 2004. This means that public trust in the EU is now at its lowest level ever.

A similar picture emerges at the national level, where only 28% say they trust their government (a drop of six points since 2004), only 27% say they trust their parliament (-11 points) and only 18% say they trust their political parties (+4). At both the European and national levels, then, it appears political elites are simply failing to win over the confidence of voters. This is not the sole reason for the rise of populist extremists, but it is one important contributory factor.

The data also reveal how other aspects of the populist extremist agenda enjoy significant support. Slightly more than one out of every ten of those surveyed ranked crime as one of the top two issues facing their country, while 8% opted for immigration. Interestingly, the only case where immigration emerges in the top three important issues for citizens is in the UK - a country that lacks a successful far right-wing party. It is also worth noting that this particular survey does not probe more specific public anxieties over settled Muslim communities and Islam, which often appear at the forefront of campaigning by the likes of Wilders and are linked to claims of cultural (rather than economic) threat.

Economic concerns have certainly surged to the forefront of the public mindset, but evidence on the drivers of support for far right-wing parties points to the importance of anti-immigrant hostility in understanding their appeal. Moreover, much of this research throws doubt on the assumption that public hostility to immigration is rooted simply in feelings of economic threat, and concerns over scarce goods. Rather, perceived threats to the cultural unity of the native population, to values and ways of life are far more important in propelling support for the likes of Geert Wilders than is often assumed. The challenge that faces elites at the European and national level is a daunting one: to regain the trust of citizens and appease their anxieties over cultural as well as economic threats. The eurozone crisis may have enlarged their political space, but these challengers were already well on their way. 

Report on Understanding and Countering Populist Extremism in Europe >>