Far Right’s Rise In Europe Lays Largely In The Failures Of Mainstream Parties

Far right parties are succeeding in Europe because the mainstream parties aren't offering an alternative.

European Parliament Building With Flags

Last week, Dave Schuler noted that the results of the elections for the European Parliament showed a decided tilt toward the right throughout the continent, and in several nations a tilt toward parties that have previously lived on the fringes of politics. This is of concern for several reasons, not the least of them being the possibility that this success at the continental level will translate into success in national elections and that the political climate in much of Europe could take on a decidedly nativist, anti-immigrant tone. Over at Vox, Matthew Yglesias correctly points out that the mean reason that this shift is happening is not because Europeans are suddenly becoming rabidly right-wing racists, but because the mainstream parties in much of Europe aren’t doing anything to make life better for their constituents and the mainstream parties aren’t really offering significantly different agendas:

The far-right National Front party captured nearly a quarter of the French seats in this week’s European Parliament elections, prompting German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble to proclaim the results a “disaster” that brought “fascists” closer to the seat of power.

“What mistake have we made,” he asked, “if a quarter of the electorate voted for absolutely not a right-wing party, but for a fascist, extremist party?”

Ot’s an excellent question, but it’s also bizarre that Schäuble doesn’t yet know the answer. The answer is that political elites in Germany and France and Spain and Italy and elsewhere throughout the continentensnarled Europe in a misguided single currency scheme and then, having adopted it, have been unwilling to take the kind of steps that could make it workable.

And it’s not like they weren’t warned. In a truly bizarre 2009 paper for the European Commission titled “The euro: It can’t happen, It’s a bad idea, It Won’t Last — US economists on the EMU, 1989 – 2002,” Lars Jonung and Eoin Drea recount the overwhelming skepticism from the western shore of the Atlantic about the idea that Finland and Portugal should be using the same currency. What’s true, of course, is that American economists turn out to have massively underrated the willingness of European politicians to press forward with a bad idea even when the problems became apparent.


In France — like in essentially every eurozone country — the main party of the center-left and the main party of the center-right agree that the status quo of single currency, tight money, and austerity budgets must continue indefinitely. In countries ranging from Germany to Greece, the two main parties are actually governing simultaneously in coalition.

In the European Parliament, the upshot of the new election results is that the two main parties will govern together — just as they’ve been governing together throughout the eurozone’s existence.

Here in the US, there’s a tendency to rightly bemoan the way extreme partisanship and perverse incentives tends to make it impossible to get anything done. But the basic idea of rival political parties offering different approaches to the major issues of the day makes a lot of sense. It means that when one set of politicians is seen as failing, they can be replaced with another set who’ll bring a different approach. But in most European countries, there simply isn’t meaningful disagreement about how to handle the ongoing economic disaster. So over time, voters looking for something different have to turn to something outside the mainstream.

On some level, it’s something of an odd development given that all the nations in question have Parliamentary systems and it’s generally assumed that such systems allow for the existence not only of more political parties, but of parties that are generally in the mainstream that paint starker contrasts between each other than we’re used to in the United States. On the domestic front, perhaps, this is still largely true but when it comes to continent-wide policy on issues such as the Euro the major parties in all the major countries, and especially in France and Germany, seem to be in agreement on a policy that has become widely unpopular throughout the continent and, fairly or unfairly, is being blamed for a wide variety of economic problems. Given that, it is perhaps not surprising that voters would turn to the parties that are actually offering them an alternative when it comes to Euro policy, even if those parties tend to be so far to the right that it would be a serious concern if they actually obtained real political power rather than the faux power that comes with being a member of the European Parliament.

The big question, of course, is whether the success that these parties had in last weekend’s elections will translate into anything at the national level.  The first real test of that will come next year when the United Kingdom holds its first Parliamentary elections since 2010. The UK Independence Party, which did quite well in the elections for the European Parliament, will face its first national test since becoming a significant political presence. Recent polling has shown it out performing the Liberal Democrats and competitive with the Tories and Labour. Depending on how that holds up, the UKIP could find itself playing the role of power broker in a potential coalition government, or an effort by the other three parties to form a coalition to lock the anti-Europe forces out of power. Absent a collapse in support for the ruling parties, there aren’t likely to be elections in France for several years, though, so its unclear if the National Front would be able to capitalize on any supposed momentum it may have gotten from these elections. In that regard, it’s worth noting that the National Front has been a factor in French politics for decades now and has generally failed to attain any real power, although some have suggested the party’s fortunes may be changing now that it is lead by Marine Le Pen rather than her father.

In the end, of course, the political future in Europe will depend to a large extent on the economic future of Europe. Outside of Germany, France and the United Kingdom, that’ s not looking particularly good at the moment, though, so we can probably expect more of this type of politics in the future.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. DC Loser says:

    It’s one thing to vote for the far right in the European Parliament as a protest vote since they don’t really run anything. Let’s see what happens in the national elections.

  2. TPF says:

    This Thrusday there will be by-election in Newark, a safe Tory constituency. In the European elections UKIP topped the Tories in Newark. It will be interesting to see whether the UKIP can repeat their performance and get their first MP.

  3. Ron Beasley says:

    I lived in Europe for several years and I think Yglesias only gets it partly right. The Europeans tend to be very nationalistic and I’m not convinced the EU was ever that popular. A a result of colonialism a lot of the “others” from the Middle East, Asia and Africa became citizens of Britain, France and other countries in Europe. As the economies of Europe declined these “others” became resented by the natives. After 911 this became especially true of those from the Middle East.
    In addition, as many of us predicted the EURO has proved to be a mistake. A common fiat currency among countries with very different economies was destined to fail. The smartest thing Britain has done since WWII was to not join the EURO.
    I’m not really sure the existing political parties could have done much. The economy is changing, things are never going to be like it was. People don’t want to hear this but it’s true.

  4. Andre Kenji says:

    Britain has a First Past the Post system, so, the damage that UKIP can do is limited. They can take votes from the Tories and they are forcing the Tories to go to the right on Europe, The problem is not the economy, the problem is that the European Union was project from the elites to the elites, and now there is the inevitable backlash.

    Manoel Barroso was an EXTREMELY unpopular prime Minister in Portugal, now he is one of the most powerful members of EU. Take a look at the recent EU Google´s decision, or the fact that the EU wants to block Whatsapp´s purchase by Facebook due to pressure from the Telecoms;

  5. stonetools says:

    So far right parties are rising in Europe because the economy is screwed up and will be for the foreseeable future, huh? Why is that now? Oh yeah, let’s unbury the lede:

    In France — like in essentially every eurozone country — the main party of the center-left and the main party of the center-right agree that the status quo of single currency, tight money, and austerity budgets must continue indefinitely.

    Now which major US party supports tight money and austerity budgets? Which party has blocked or tried to block every attempt at fiscal stimulus? And which party just happens to be anti-immigrant as well?
    As you can see, not much difference between far right parties on either side of the Atlantic.