Right Wing’s Surge in Europe Has the Establishment Rattled
Laerke Posselt for The New York Times
Published: November 8, 2013
HVIDOVRE, Denmark — As right-wing populists surge across Europe, rattling established political parties with their hostility toward immigration, austerity and the European Union, Mikkel Dencker of the Danish People’s Party has found yet another cause to stir public anger: pork meatballs missing from kindergartens.
A member of Denmark’s Parliament and, he hopes, mayor of this commuter-belt town west of Copenhagen, Mr. Dencker is furious that some day care centers have removed meatballs, a staple of traditional Danish cuisine, from their cafeterias in deference to Islamic dietary rules. No matter that only a handful of kindergartens have actually done so. The missing meatballs, he said, are an example of how “Denmark is losing its identity” under pressure from outsiders.
The issue has become a headache for Mayor Helle Adelborg, whose center-left Social Democratic Party has controlled the town council since the 1920s but now faces an uphill struggle before municipal elections on Nov. 19. “It is very easy to exploit such themes to get votes,” she said. “They take a lot of votes from my party. It is unfair.”
It is also Europe’s new reality. All over, established political forces are losing ground to politicians whom they scorn as fear-mongering populists. In France, according to a recent opinion poll, the far-right National Front has become the country’s most popular party. In other countries — Austria, Britain, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Finland and the Netherlands — disruptive upstart groups are on a roll.
This phenomenon alarms not just national leaders but also officials in Brussels who fear that European Parliament elections next May could substantially tip the balance of power toward nationalists and forces intent on halting or reversing integration within the European Union.
“History reminds us that high unemployment and wrong policies like austerity are an extremely poisonous cocktail,” said Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, a former Danish prime minister and a Social Democrat. “Populists are always there. In good times it is not easy for them to get votes, but in these bad times all their arguments, the easy solutions of populism and nationalism, are getting new ears and votes.”
In some ways, this is Europe’s Tea Party moment — a grass-roots insurgency fired by resentment against a political class that many Europeans see as out of touch. The main difference, however, is that Europe’s populists want to strengthen, not shrink, government and see the welfare state as an integral part of their national identities.
The trend in Europe does not signal the return of fascist demons from the 1930s, except in Greece, where the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn has promoted openly racist beliefs, and perhaps in Hungary, where the far-right Jobbik party backs a brand of ethnic nationalism suffused with anti-Semitism.
But the soaring fortunes of groups like the Danish People’s Party, which some popularity polls now rank ahead of the Social Democrats, point to a fundamental political shift toward nativist forces fed by a curious mix of right-wing identity politics and left-wing anxieties about the future of the welfare state.
“This is the new normal,” said Flemming Rose, the foreign editor at the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. “It is a nightmare for traditional political elites and also for Brussels.”
The platform of France’s National Front promotes traditional right-wing causes like law and order and tight controls on immigration but reads in parts like a leftist manifesto. It accuses “big bosses” of promoting open borders so they can import cheap labor to drive down wages. It rails against globalization as a threat to French language and culture, and it opposes any rise in the retirement age or cuts in pensions.
Similarly, in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders, the anti-Islam leader of the Party for Freedom, has mixed attacks on immigration with promises to defend welfare entitlements. “He is the only one who says we don’t have to cut anything,” said Chris Aalberts, a scholar at Erasmus University in Rotterdam and author of a book based on interviews with Mr. Wilders’s supporters. “This is a popular message.”
Mr. Wilders, who has police protection because of death threats from Muslim extremists, is best known for his attacks on Islam and demands that the Quran be banned. These issues, Mr. Aalberts said, “are not a big vote winner,” but they help set him apart from deeply unpopular centrist politicians who talk mainly about budget cuts. The success of populist parties, Mr. Aalberts added, “is more about the collapse of the center than the attractiveness of the alternatives.”
Pia Kjaersgaard, the pioneer of a trend now being felt across Europe, set up the Danish People’s Party in 1995 and began shaping what critics dismissed as a rabble of misfits and racists into a highly disciplined, effective and even mainstream political force.
Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s National Front, has embarked on a similar makeover, rebranding her party as a responsible force untainted by the anti-Semitism and homophobia of its previous leader, her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who once described Nazi gas chambers as a “detail of history.” Ms. Le Pen has endorsed several gay activists as candidates for French municipal elections next March.
But a whiff of extremism still lingers, and the Danish People’s Party wants nothing to do with Ms. Le Pen and her followers.
Built on the ruins of a chaotic antitax movement, the Danish People’s Party has evolved into a defender of the welfare state, at least for native Danes. It pioneered “welfare chauvinism,” a cause now embraced by many of Europe’s surging populists, who play on fears that freeloading foreigners are draining pensions and other benefits.
“We always thought the People’s Party was a temporary phenomenon, that they would have their time and then go away,” said Jens Jonatan Steen, a researcher at Cevea, a policy research group affiliated with the Social Democrats. “But they have come to stay.”
“They are politically incorrect and are not accepted by many as part of the mainstream,” he added. “But if you have support from 20 percent of the public, you are mainstream.”
In a recent meeting in the northern Danish town of Skorping, the new leader of the Danish People’s Party, Kristian Thulesen Dahl, criticized Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, of the Social Democrats, whose government is trying to trim the welfare system, and spoke about the need to protect the elderly.
The Danish People’s Party and similar political groups, according to Mr. Rasmussen, the former prime minister, benefit from making promises that they do not have to worry about paying for, allowing them to steal welfare policies previously promoted by the left. “This is a new populism that takes on the coat of Social Democratic policies,” he said.
In Hvidovre, Mr. Dencker, the Danish People’s Party mayoral candidate, wants the government in, not out of, people’s lives. Beyond pushing authorities to make meatballs mandatory in public institutions, he has attacked proposals to cut housekeeping services for the elderly and criticized the mayor for canceling one of the two Christmas trees the city usually puts up each December.
Instead, he says, it should put up five Christmas trees.