Written by 6:40 am Europe Economy

Right-Wing Parties Are Selling Out Across Europe, Too

On Sept. 1 in Philadelphia, US President Joe Biden warned Americans against authoritarian-minded Republicans. Strangely, a great many liberals as well as conservatives criticized Biden for being “divisive.” His speech actually came too late: Biden should have inaugurated his presidency with a clear description of the global threats to democracy.

Indeed, the radicalization of an increasingly Trumpified GOP should alert us to a still patchily reported and under-analyzed phenomenon: Many formerly respectable right-wing parties outside of the United States are also breaking bad.

In elections later this month in Italy, Giorgia Meloni, a former minister in a center-right government, is likely to become the country’s first far-right leader since Benito Mussolini. Her coalition partner Silvio Berlusconi is an old and loyal friend of Vladimir Putin; another of her electoral allies, Matteo Salvini, also admires the Russian demagogue and fulminates against immigrants and the European Union.

Meloni herself opposes gay marriage and abortion rights for women. Like most far-rightists, she is obsessed with eradicating “wokeness.” As she put it in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Florida in February, “I see cancel culture fanatics in our institutions tearing down statues, tampering with books and comics, changing street names, accusing a shared history that they would like to rewrite.”

Meloni’s rise matters not only because Italy has been since the early 20th century a bellwether for far-right movements in Europe. More critically, Manfred Weber, president of the European People’s Party (EPP) — a family of mainstream, center-right parties across the continent — has publicly endorsed Berlusconi’s coalition with Merloni.

Unlike in many non-Western countries, right-wing parties in Europe and North America have a long record of respecting democratic norms. Take the EPP. It has the largest presence in the European Parliament; European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is a member. Recent leaders such as former German Chancellor Angela Merkel worked hard to isolate far-right elements. The EPP kept a fastidious distance from Germany’s xenophobic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), for instance.

In this the party was adhering to a long tradition. For decades after the calamities of Nazis and Fascism, even conservative European politicians were quick to marginalize the extreme right, recognizing that its hate-filled ideology was fundamentally incompatible with the basic values ​​of democratic societies.

Until 2018, for instance, Sweden’s conservative Moderate Party spurned all collaboration with the Sweden Democrats, a party with roots in Nazi ideology. This cordon sanitaire has now been broken and the Sweden Democrats are now set to become the second-biggest party, and a major power broker, in parliament. 

Against this backdrop of mainstreaming pariahs, Weber’s embrace of a far-right-dominated alliance seems especially sinister. It weakens the European Union’s own criticism of illiberal regimes in Hungary and Poland, and it enables further legitimization of neo-fascist movements such as Vox in Spain, which has already entered the Spanish political mainstream through its partnership with the center-right People’s Party.

Writing in El Pais, the Spanish philosopher Josep Ramoneda described the endorsement as a sign that “we are in a regressive phase of European democracy.” Yet it was barely covered in the American and British media.  

Indeed, criticism of Biden’s speech in Philadelphia confirms that many mainstream politicians and journalists are either indifferent to or prepared to normalize the rapid degeneration of once-respectable right-wing parties. The United Kingdom’s most prominent politicians and journalists kept boosting the disastrous Tory government of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, despite mounting evidence — from his attempt to illegally prorogue the British parliament to tearing up an international treaty over Northern Ireland — of his contempt for democratic norms and the rule of law.

A quick look at the UK’s broadsheets and tabloids would reveal that the same rapturous welcome is being extended to Johnson’s replacement, Liz Truss — a hard-right figure who has already launched unprecedented attacks on “wokeness” in the British Civil Service and the police.

As growth slows, inflation rises, heat waves and floods become routine, energy shortages loom, and more and more citizens feel helpless before such changes, right-wing parties in western Europe and the US are likely to become more raucously extreme. They have few new solutions for today’s destructive economic and environmental crises. They can, however, channel social unrest to their advantage by reheating identities of race, religion and ethnicity, and retailing myths of national greatness.

Let there be no doubt: Ongoing transformations in the economy and the environment will make the right more dogmatic, sterile and authoritarian, rather than more flexible, innovative and democratic. To deny this, or to chastise Biden for speaking the plain truth, is to become complicit in a ruinous political trend.

More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

• Biden Can’t See Why US Democracy Is in Trouble: Clive Crook

• Republican Paranoia Could Cost the Party: Jonathan Bernstein

• Not Everything You Dislike Is ‘ Anti-Democratic’: Tyler Cowen

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is author, most recently, of “Run and Hide.”

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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