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Drop the drama, modern Europe looks little like the 1930s-vintage

Jackboots on the shelves.

For those who don’t know it, Godwin’s law says that the longer an online discussion continues, the greater the probability of someone making a comparison involving the Nazis or Hitler. Of course, how long this takes to happen depends on what the discussion is about.

If the topic is one like the announcement last week of an alliance between Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, then things naturally get fast-tracked, with media commentators leading the way.

Take this piece on The Guardian by John Palmer entitled: “The rise of far right parties across Europe is a chilling echo of the 1930s.” I imagine the scaremongering slogan and nod to Nazism in the title attract lots of clicks. Although so too would: “The rise of Movember moustaches is a chilling echo of the 1930s.” And at least that would be more accurate.

After this melodramatic start, Palmer’s article proceeds to speed happily the wrong way down the autobahn, telling us that support for far-right parties “has been fed by the worst world recession since at least the 1930s”, that “the far right might win as many as a third of European Parliament seats in elections next May” and that “time is running out to counter them”. I won’t spoil the rest of the story for you, but Marshall Petain has a nice cameo. All very entertaining, alarming and bound to get the righteous folks in the Guardianista community fired up. But not based on reality.

Anti-Golden Dawn protests. Kokotron

In fact, taking Europe as a whole, there is no evidence that the parties of the far-right have done better during the post-2008 crisis than in the previous years of that decade. Those pushing this view tend to cite Marine Le Pen’s performance in the 2012 French presidential election and the growth of Golden Dawn in Greece. However, not only does this line of argument ignore the clear differences between Le Pen Jnr’s Front National and a violent organisation like Golden Dawn, but – more importantly – it glosses over the dips suffered by radical right parties in several other European countries during the crisis.

Toxic brand

As Cas Mudde shows in an excellent article, in only 19 out of the current 28 EU member states has a far right party increased by at least one percentage point over the 2005-2013 period. And in just four of them has it made a gain of more than five percentage points. Sure, some parties – like Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) – have risen again recently in opinion polls, but there is no clear and unidirectional far-right surge caused by the crisis. And I have certainly not seen anything that suggests they could take even close to one third of the seats at the 2014 European Parliament (EP) elections, as Palmer claims.

Indeed, despite the best efforts of Wilders and Le Pen, we will not see a unified block among the Eurosceptic Right in the EP next year. For example, two such parties which seem set to increase their number of MEPs, the True Finns and the Danish People’s Party, have already said they will not join the new alliance. So too has Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party (UKIP). For all three, the risk of being tainted with the “far-right” brush at home far outweighs the benefits of any alliance at European level.

Although rehabilitated in some countries, the far right remains a toxic brand in others like the UK where the British National Party (BNP) has crashed and burned, while the English Defence League (EDL) often attracts more counter-protestors than members to its marches. Of course, “Fascism is on the rise” makes a great story for the media and so these movements also attract a lot of cameras and column inches. As Rob Ford (this one, not the Toronto guy) put it recently during a discussion, the likes of the EDL provide a useful pantomime villain for journalists, one side of a simple morality play (as is also true of very marginal extremist Muslim groups). But their importance is greatly overstated.

More complex than jackboots

Rather, the situation in Europe is more complex and far more interesting than the “jackboots in the streets” narrative. The EP elections will almost certainly produce a parliament containing more critical voices than it ever has before. But this will be due not just to advances by those on the variegated Right, but also to the presence of new deputies from parties such as the Dutch Socialists, Beppe Grillo’s Five-Star Movement in Italy and Syriza in Greece – none of which could be classified as right-wing.

What they and the Eurosceptic Right have in common is not the promotion of any anti-democratic ideologies (on the contrary, all sides present themselves as the defenders of democracy), but the charge that democracy in Europe, at both national and supranational levels, is not working. And that the political leaders, policies and institutions of Europe have failed the people, who in turn have ever less real say over how they are governed. Although I disagree with many of the simplistic answers provided by such parties, the questions they pose are very relevant ones, grounded in the reality of 21st century Europe. But they have little in common, thankfully, with that of the early 20th-century.