Refugees, terror and austerity cuts have combined to give rise to the far-right but the politics of hope may still win.
The past weeks have demonstrated how many European voters are moving towards the far-right of the political spectrum and that the continent is in the middle of a nationalistic wave.
A hardline extreme right party entered the parliament of Cyprus while, most astonishingly, Norbert Hofer, the presidential candidate of Austria’s Freedom Party, although narrowly defeated, gained an incredible 49.7 percent of the votes.
This immediately prompted France’s National Front – an allied party in the Europe of Nations and Freedom group in the European Union parliament – to release an enthusiastic statement.
The electoral performance was, in their view, promising “for the successes all the patriotic movements”, suggesting that “the return of national sovereignty is now a matter of time”.
Worryingly enough, the focus of these parties – especially on the issues of the EU, borders, immigrants, and refugees – are, with various degrees and frequency, being borrowed by mainstream and moderate political forces.
This is, not surprisingly, leading to a sort of legitimisation of these modern-day, right-wing nationalists.
Austria’s politics is a clear example. The government had implemented a strict stance on refugees and yet none of the candidates of main parties reached the second ballot, forcing the prime minister to resign.
As the Freedom Party is leading the polls for the 2018 legislative elections, the new centre-left chancellor, Christian Kern, did not fully ruled out cooperating with the far-right in the future.
Resentments among regional power might rise again, while privileges will be based on ethnic origins - and their alleged purity.
Some years ago, when anti-fascism was still a feature in European politics, governing with the “heir” of fascism would have been almost unimaginable.
Does all this mean that Europe’s “right of the mainstream right” has become an acceptable political actor cutting all its ties with a shady past?
This is causing significant confusion in some media reports and among politicians, as some are willing to forge alliances with rising far-right forces.
“But are the now-defeated presidential hopeful, Norbert Hofer, and his Freedom Party actually ‘far-right’?”, a BBC News editorial asks.
In another, it is suggested how “dissatisfaction, cynicism and outright rejection of traditional political parties [as well as business and banking elites] … This, and not far-right fervour, is arguably driving voters to stage ballot-box protests or to seek alternative political homes – to the delight of Europe’s populist parties.”
Unfortunately, the fact that mainstream parties employ an almost xenophobic language and gain votes through it does not necessarily mean a democratic and liberal “normalisation” of the far-right ideology.
The same Italian and German interwar fascisms had their relevant electoral moments, while anti-Semitism was not a taboo in a number of European countries at the time. We are all aware of what that led to.
Around a decade ago, Columbia University historian Robert Paxton rightly pointed out how “a fascism of the future – an emergency response to some still unimagined crisis – need not resemble classical fascism perfectly in its outward signs and symbols … the enemy would not necessarily be Jews.
An authentically popular fascism in America would be pious, anti-black, and, since September 11, 2001, anti-Islamic as well; in Western Europe it would be secular and, these days, more likely anti-Islamic than anti-Semitic; and in Russia and Eastern Europe it would be religious, anti-Semitic, Slavophile, and anti- Western. New fascisms would probably prefer the mainstream patriotic dress of their own place and time.” Does any of this sound familiar across the Atlantic?
Moreover, the use of labels such as “populist right” are not really helping. Populism is not an ideology. The widespread use of the term by the majority of commentators distracts from the true nature of far-right parties.
Are we then really sure that these movements moderated their agenda? In fact, they promote a narrow concept of community, that excludes all the “different” and foreigners.
There is also a sense of decline and threat that was widely exploited by interwar fascism, and by these extreme-right parties, which – after 1945 – resisted immigration on the grounds of defending the so-called “European civilisation”.
The future of European societies could, however, follow these specific lines: “Our European cultures, our values and our freedom are under attack. They are threatened by the crushing and dictatorial powers of the European Union. They are threatened by mass immigration, by open borders and by a single European currency,” as Marcel de Graaff, co-president of the Europe of Nations and Freedom group in the European Parliament, declared.
Another fellow party, the Belgian Vlaams Belang, calls for an opposition to multiculturalism. It “defends the interests of the Dutch-speaking people wherever this is necessary”, and would “dissolve Belgium and establish an independent Flemish state. This state … will include Brussels”, the current capital of the EU institutions.
The Austrian Freedom Party, on a similar line, “supports the interests of all German native speakers from the territories of the former Habsburg monarchy” and the “right of self-determination” of the German-speaking Italian bordering region of South Tyrol.
On the other hand, Marine Le Pen, president of the French National Front, promotes a principle of “national priority” for French citizens in many areas, from welfare to jobs in the public sector.
She also wants to renegotiate the European treaties and establish a “pan-European Union” including Russia.
At the end of these inward-looking changes, there will be no free movement of Europeans across Europe, and this will be replaced with a reconsolidation of the sovereignty of nation states.
Resentments among regional powers might rise again, while privileges will be based on ethnic origins – and their alleged purity.
In sum, this is how Europe will probably look if one follows the “moderate” far-right policies.
The dream of building the United States of Europe will become an obsolete memory of the past.
And the old continent will be surely less similar to the post-national one which guaranteed peace and – relative – prosperity after the disaster of World War II.
Andrea Mammone is a historian of modern Europe at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the author of “Transnational Neofascism in France and Italy”. He is currently writing a book on the recent nationalist turn in Europe.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.