The attitudes of European right-wing parties to the EU are highly diverse. In this interview, Joachim Becker explains how the rise of the right is connected with economic development, what EU strategies it is pursuing today and what this means for progressive forces.
Public criticism of the EU comes mainly from the extreme right. How is the success of the right linked with the increase in economic divergence in the EU?
Joachim Becker: Unequal economic development and the rise of the right are directly correlated. I see the rise of the right as a kind of sense of resignation of parts of the electorate. These people have given up hope that existing policy will be challenged in any fundamental way. They only see that the cake is getting smaller – and that if this is the case, less people will be entitled to it. This belief underpins the nationalist right’s exclusionary social policy.
How do right-wing concepts for European integration differ from those of the mainstream?
Joachim Becker: One cannot look at the political right in Europe in isolation from the so-called moderate forces. After all, the dominant strategy of the right to centre-left mainstream is to push ahead with neoliberal integration via a flexible and reactive policy of “muddling through”. This is exemplified by the EU Commission’s white paper on the future of Europe, where the only issue under discussion is the extent – not the direction – of the European integration project. In the initial political responses, the governments of the larger Western European countries indicated a preference for deeper cooperation amongst “willing” countries. But further differentiation of EU integration is not greeted with much enthusiasm by the Central and Eastern European countries, which are already excluded from the eurozone.
In terms of its content, the Commission’s white paper announced its intention to produce reflection papers on various topics. But although the financial and production sectors are where the 2008 crisis originated, these are not going to be among the topics covered. This “tabooisation” of the fundamental economic orientation of EU integration has contributed to the alienation of large sections of the population from the EU – and the nationalist right has benefited much more from this state of affairs than the left.
Currently, we are seeing more and more elements of right-wing politics being adopted.
Joachim Becker: Yes. This is especially evident from the fact that issues such as militarised border patrol and military cooperation are being shifted up the priority ranks. In addition, we are seeing increasing efforts to strengthen internal European border controls and exclude certain Southern European countries from the Schengen area. This security discourse has become an ideological point of connection between the Christian and social democratic mainstream and the nationalist right.
In this understanding, security is reduced to police and military aspects – the classic right-wing discourse pattern. If social democratic actors engage in this discourse, this contributes to consolidating the security discourse. The military intervention policy of some EU states has contributed to strong refugee movements in the Middle East, and this is now resulting in forceful calls for stronger border protection.
Where are there economic policy overlaps?
Joachim Becker: One example would be restricting the access of EU migrants to social benefits, as illustrated by the Austrian debate on cuts in family benefits for EU citizens or access to the labour market. The new Austrian coalition government, consisting of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), has advanced further in this direction than any other EU government. Similar concessions had already been promised to the UK by the EU before the referendum – and Angela Merkel strongly supported the Cameron government on this point, since this chimed well with the debate about alleged “social tourism” in Germany. Other parties, Christian democratic circles in particular, also saw a possible precedent for other EU countries in these special arrangements for Great Britain.
It is interesting that in the core countries of Europe, some sections of both the Christian Democrats and the far right are now seeking a core Europe. Their main concern is to get rid of the “weak economies” – the southern peripheral countries. Wolfgang Schäuble proposed a corresponding core Europe concept back in 1994, and these ambitions were illustrated afresh with the EU’s threat to throw Greece out of the eurozone if it rejected the Troika’s policy of cuts. In the view of the Christian democratic actors who advocate for a core Europe, Europe must become smaller and more homogeneous in order to enable stronger neoliberal integration. However, this plan would result in severe shocks to the overall architecture, which is why the concept has not yet been pursued in an offensive fashion.
In connection with this, a section of the nationalist right in southern Europe is seeking to leave the eurozone, most notably Italy’s Lega, which views the effects of the euro on Italian manufacturing as negative and sees a withdrawal from the euro as the key to overcoming the crisis. It is not surprising that Italy is the primary proponent of such an approach, since it is the southern European country with the strongest domestic industrial capital.
Which other forces of the far right advocate concepts of “core Europe”?
Joachim Becker: One example is the Freedom Party of Austria, which is essentially a right-wing bourgeois and pro-business party that also expresses sympathies for the Federation of Industrialists. As such, it represents a flexible core European position. The new coalition government of ÖVP and FPÖ has adopted a strongly pro-business line and has already fulfilled numerous demands of the Federation of Industrialists. FPÖ is facing a delicate balancing act between business interests on the one hand and the significant voter base it enjoys among the popular classes on the other. The party’s voters express relatively high levels of scepticism about the EU, which results in ambivalence and foundering in the Freedom Party’s positioning in this regard.
Alternative für Germany (AfD), too, has always criticised the EU loan programmes provided to the southern European peripheral countries, but has recently radicalised its position in favour of a complete dissolution of the eurozone. It represents a mixture of core European positions and support for the idea of “Europe of the Fatherlands”.
What does that refer to?
Joachim Becker: The section of the right that supports this idea wants to remain in the EU and the single market while simultaneously strengthening the powers of the nation state and giving the EU project a conservative-reactionary bend in regard to social issues, including human rights, equality and anti-discrimination. This current includes the “Remain” faction of the British Conservatives and is also strongly represented in many of the right-wing parties of Central Eastern Europe. The former Czech Prime Minister and President Václav Klaus condemns human rights as “inhumane” and “utopian”, while the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is committed to a strong competitive orientation and a strengthening of nation states. He seeks to protect Schengen through radicalised border controls and exclusionary action. He views security as a “police” issue, not in the sense of social security.
Moreover, a number of Eastern European governments have been long-time opponents of the Europeanisation of certain policy areas. They have consistently been opposed to tax harmonisation, for example, since their countries attract foreign capital through privatisation, low wages and low taxes. This is tied in with the region’s subordinate position in the European division of labour and the strategies of dependent development in Eastern Europe, which were consolidated in no small part by the EU during the accession talks. As suppliers, Central and Eastern European export industries are strongly oriented towards Germany. These Central and Eastern European industries also support the German-led policy of austerity, which is geared towards achieving foreign trade surpluses and serving the interests of export-oriented industry.
Finally, access to EU funds for public investment is a fundamental issue for both right-wing forces and more generally for Eastern European parties. The parties in the region defend the principle of free movement of labour in the EU. In this regard, there does exist some structural disagreement with the traditional positions of Western European right-wing forces. In the case of the Freedom Party of Austria, it is interesting to see a shift in the discourse away from Eastern European EU migrants towards anti-Muslim positions.
… and which concepts of Europe exist among the right wing of Western Europe?
Joachim Becker: The hardcore right in Western Europe is seeking a national, ethnically homogenous competitive community. French, Dutch, Belgian, Austrian and Italian far right-wing movements are working closely together to achieve this aim within the “Europe of Nations and Freedom” group in the EU Parliament. Their aim is to galvanise support amongst the middle class and working class using a mixture of neoliberal and conservative reactionary elements.
On the issue of EU exit, the Front National (FN) in France and the Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV) in the Netherlands are ambivalent but, at least in terms of their public statements, are increasingly advocating the idea of a split. In the 1980s, the FN backed common defence and border protection policies and a common currency. In contrast, during the French election campaign, it emphasised national sovereignty, protectionist measures and criticism of the euro. The party’s position on the euro was and remains an issue of some controversy. The PVV is highly critical of the EU and is extremely anti-Muslim. While the 13 per cent of votes achieved by the PVV in the parliamentary elections in 2017 was lower than expected, it still ranked just below the second-strongest force. The party is currently not viewed as a potential coalition candidate; however, it has already managed to shift the discourse on migrants in the Netherlands strongly to the right.
Nationalist forces in the more prosperous core countries are the ones arguing most strongly for a break, which also corresponds broadly to the patterns of secession seen in multinational states throughout history.
Yet the presumption that only a further rise of the right wing would seal the collapse of the EU does not stand up to hard scrutiny.
Joachim Becker: Well, we first have to acknowledge that the process of disintegration has already begun. Brexit is now a reality, which means that a break with integration policy to date (to the detriment of the interests of the dominant bloc) would not be unthinkable. This is a new development. At the same time, however, the political right is deeply divided, since a complete break with the EU is certainly not what is envisaged by large sections of the right.
However, it is important to recognise that the desire to change the EU from within can also produce a dynamic that is hard to predict. Ideas about its future direction are highly divergent, and the debate reveals parallels to the final phase of the crisis in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. In the final years of Yugoslavia, in particular, the debate honed on in which region should pay how much for whom. Once a certain point has been passed, the centrifugal dynamics have a tremendous potential for acceleration.
With the UK out, Italy is a second likely point of cleavage for the EU. In light of this, I would expect further – if not total – EU disintegration, which could lead to a subsequent integration project having an intensified nationalist and conservative reactionary hue. What we would be left with is a small, technocratic, neoliberal core Europe with a hierarchically graded periphery. In that sense, the question of the future of the EU is not just a question of whether the hardcore right will come to power, but how Christian democrat forces will evolve.
So the failure of economic integration is driving political disintegration?
Joachim Becker: Yes. On an economic level, we are experiencing a polarisation that is inherent in the structures themselves. Differences in the EU are becoming increasingly apparent as a result of the liberalisation of trade, services and, in particular, capital movements. What’s more, for many countries, the euro has eliminated a key economic policy instrument – the option to devalue their own currency – which has led to a de facto two- to three-way split of the EU. As such, the EU itself plays a role in the process for heightened national competition.
From a political point of view, the EU has been characterised by a bias in favour of executive structures (Commission, Council of Ministers, European Central Bank), while parliamentary bodies have played a rather secondary role. As a result, a technocratic pattern of politics has emerged – one that has not only severely marginalised social movements, but also left unions with little scope for influence. The Commission, which triggers legislation, is particularly closely linked to transnational capital. It is only natural that this fact has shaped EU policy strategically and paved the way for the enforcement of ordo-liberal and, subsequently, neoliberal policies. In addition, the EU also reinforces executive powers (i.e. those of the government) over parliaments at the national level, since it is the government representatives who sit on the powerful EU councils.
The neoliberal policy patterns at EU and national level have had a particularly negative effect on the popular classes, the former core electorate of social democratic parties. Social democracy has played an active role in the neoliberal restructuring of the EU. The former Commission President Jacques Delors, a key actor in the internal market project, was himself a social democrat. He was convinced that the social integration of the EU would naturally result from the economic one. Unsurprisingly, this has not been the case.
What are the political options for progressive forces in regard to the EU?
Joachim Becker: In my view, the idea of transforming the EU into a “social EU” is illusionary and cannot be defended based on the experience of recent decades. The corresponding idealistic images of the EU are, of course, hypothetically possible, but are not anchored in any political strategy. The goal of political re-foundation does not seem feasible. This would mean the end of the EU – just as the re-founding of the Soviet Union was its downfall. I cannot see any way in which the existing structures could be changed in a progressive way. This would require appropriate mobilisation in almost all EU countries, which is currently unimaginable. Even the crisis protests in the EU varied strongly from region to region and in terms of when they took place.
To achieve the goal of progressive reform, left-wing policies would need to break with key elements of EU policy. Of course, left-wing criticism must differentiate itself clearly from that of the right, and must approach the issues from different angles. The key lies in formulating specific political goals and examining to what extent they can be realised in the current structures and where the EU rules would need to be challenged. Essentially, it’s about creating scope for more socially and environmentally-oriented policy. This policy would also need to involve a change in production structures.
The EU is widely viewed as a peace project in response to the world war experiences of the 20th century. This causes many people to feel an enormous emotional bond with it. As a result, calls to break EU rules are often reflexively countered with the accusation that those who seek this are aiders and abetters of the right.
Joachim Becker: It is true that the EU evokes positive connotations – albeit with a greater degree of ambiguity than in the past. The polarising rhetoric of nation state versus EU is being intensified by both sides and is thus difficult to counter. The territorial order should not be an end in itself. Instead, we must examine at which territorial level it is possible to intervene effectively in order to promote social justice and ecological concerns. Anyone who believes that the EU is the answer to the nationalist right has, in my opinion, already lost the race. The EU is not the solution.
This interview was conducted by David Walch in 2017.