Europe’s Right Turn

13 mins. to read
Europe’s Right Turn

The Rightward Trend

All over Europe, the political right is on the march while the left appears to be in retreat. This phenomenon has important implications for how Europe evolves in the years to come.

In France, the government of President Macron has been under a virtual state of siege since his re-election in May of last year. Most recently, the country has been beset by a wave of riots further to the killing of a teenager of North African heritage by police. But even before the latest disorder – which follows on from widespread unrest earlier this year over the issue of Macron’s raising the retirement age – the right-wing Rassemblement National (RN − formerly the Front National) has been rising in the polls. In fact, it is probably now France’s most popular party.

President Macron, having served two consecutive terms as president, will not be permitted to stand again in 2027 under the constitution of the Fifth Republic. But if he were, polls suggest that Marine Le Pen, the leader of the RN, would beat him in a second round by 55 to 45 percent.

In Germany, the controversial Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) won a district election for the first time, last month, in Sonneberg in the federal state of Thuringia. The AfD is now the second most popular party in Germany according to recent opinion polls, behind the Christian Democrats (CDU) but ahead of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD).

In Italy, the government of Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, who came to power in October last year, is perceived as doing well. It recorded a crushing victory in May’s municipal elections, capturing a number of left-wing strongholds. Meloni heads the Fratelli d’ Italia (Brothers of Italy) party, which won 119 seats in the 400-strong Italian Chamber of Deputies in the general election of 25 September last year. The Brothers Of It supposedly can trace their roots back to Mussolini’s fascists, but contemporary supporters claim it is a right-of-centre modern party with a radical agenda.

If the Brothers are the largest party, Meloni is in coalition with the Lega (Mateo Salvini), and Forza Italia as well as other smaller parties. Forza Italia was led until his death last month by Silvio Berlusconi. The demise of Berlusconi will probably redound to Meloni’s advantage. The two disagreed over policy towards Russia since the invasion of Ukraine, with Meloni taking a much more hawkish stance. Notoriously, Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin formed a kind of mutual admiration society. Some Italian commentators have speculated that, without the charismatic Berlusconi, many Forza Italia members and voters will gravitate towards the Brothers, thus bolstering Meloni’s support base.

In Austria, the anti-immigrant Freedom Party made gains in state elections in Salzburg in April, winning nearly 26 percent of the vote. The party formed part of a coalition government until 2019, when it was obliged to withdraw as a result of a scandal. The Freedom party has been accused of being soft on Russia.

Finland also lurched towards the right in its general election of 2 April this year. Prime Minister Sanna Marin (leader of the Finnish Social Democrats) was ousted and replaced by Petteri Orpo, the leader of the conservative-inclined National Coalition Party. Marin was often compared to New Zealand’s former prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, having impeccably woke opinions. Orpo now presides over a coalition supported by the Finns Party which is generally described as “right-wing.” The Finns Party wants to limit all non-EU immigration. Now a full member of NATO, Finland, which has a 1,000 kilometre border with Russia, has emerged as a stalwart supporter of Ukraine.

In the Swedish general election of 11 September last year, the Sweden Democrats Party, which is often dubbed “right-wing populist” in mainstream media, doubled its share of the popular vote as compared with the previous general election in 2018, winning 20.5 percent. It became the second largest party in the Riksdag. The resulting coalition government led by Ulf Kristersson, leader of the conservative Moderate Party, is a minority government which relies on support from the Sweden Democrats which was awarded the chairmanship of four key parliamentary committees. The Sweden Democrats reject the label “right-wing nationalist”, citing the expulsion of all extremists from the party since Jimmie Åkesson became leader in 2005.

Hungary has been ruled by Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz Party continuously for the last 13 years. Orbán first gained power in 1998 and ruled in coalition with the two smaller parties until 2002. Thus, Orbán has been around longer than any other European leader. Hungary’s economy has flourished over the last ten years, but Hungary has caused consternation in Brussels over the issue of gay rights and freedom of the press. Fidesz won the Hungarian parliamentary elections in April last year, securing 135 seats out of 199 in the legislature. Orbán has refused to back the EU’s generally pro-Ukrainian stance and still has lines of communication open with Vladmir Putin.

Poland’s Law and Justice Party (PiS) has been in power since 2015. It was re-elected in the general election of 13 October 2019 when the PiS retained its majority in the 460-seat Sejm (Polish parliament) but lost its majority in the 100-seat Senate to the opposition. Under Mateusz Morawiecki, prime minister since 2017, Poland has been accused of “democratic backsliding” by curtailing freedom of the press and judicial independence. Morawiecki has been compared, perhaps unfairly, to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

All eyes are now on Spain, where there will be a general election on 23 July. The elections were called by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez after his ruling Spanish Socialist Workers’ party was trounced in regional and municipal elections in May. Currently, the right-of-centre Partido Popular (PP) is well ahead of the Socialists in the opinion polls and is expected to win more seats. The PP might be able to form a government in coalition with the Vox party which is normally described as “nationalist.”

Until recently, the ex-communist countries of eastern Europe were bastions of conservatism – “illiberal democracy” to use Orbán’s term − while the countries of western Europe were all inclined towards liberalism and socialism. That may be about to change.

Women In The Vanguard

One striking characteristic of the new European right is that it is overwhelmingly led by women.

The co-leader of the AfD is a woman called Alice Weidel. She has a doctorate in philosophy and is openly lesbian. Marine Le Pen, the 54-year old leader of the Rassemblement National has already run for the French presidency three times (2012, 2017 and 2017) and is almost certain to be a contender in 2027. She is twice divorced and has said that if she is elected president she will take her seven cats to the Elysée rather than a man.

Marine Le Pen has sought to distance herself in recent years from her father, the founder of the Front National, Jean-Marie Le Pen (who is still sniping from the sidelines, aged 95). Le Pen père ran for the presidency of France a record five times and in 2002 he actually made it into the second round against Jacques Chirac. His reputation never really recovered – even on the right – from an incident of Holocaust denial. One might say that politics is the Le Pen family business – though no one doubts that Marine Le Pen is her own woman. The other luminary of the RN is Marion Maréchal-Le Pen (Jean-Marie’s granddaughter and Marine’s niece), although Marion outraged her aunt by supporting the candidacy of Éric Zemmour in the 2022 presidential election.

Historically, the European right was characterised by social conservatism and an attachment to the Roman Catholic Church. One thinks of the regime of General Franco in Spain and the rule of Marechal Pétain in Vichy France (1940-42). But something fundamental has changed. The misogyny and homophobia of yesteryear seem to have dissipated, at least in Western Europe. At least one leader of the RN is openly gay. True, Eastern Europe is still more socially conservative. Hungary permits civil unions of same-sex partners under a law passed in 2009 when Fidesz was out of power; though it is significant that numerous eastern European countries, Poland included, have held out against all forms of same-sex partnership recognition.

Few of the new generation of right-wing women party chiefs lead conventionally conservative lives. Frau Weidel is in a relationship with another woman and has adopted children. Señora Ayuso and Madame Le Pen are divorcees. Signora Meloni is not married to the father of her child – something that would have been considered scandalous in Catholic Italy until quite recently. At the same time, Meloni is “pro-family” – meaning that tax breaks should be afforded to larger families to boost Italy’s flagging fertility rate.

Nor are any of these women devout Catholics, although there may be a nascent sense that what defines Europe as a civilizational entity is Christianity. That is a notion that the mandarins in Brussels have always sought to supress, partly because of France’s deep attachment to the notion of laïcité. (“Secularism” is the best English translation of that problematic word. Many people assume that secularism was a legacy of the first French revolution of 1789; but in fact, it came out of a long process of anti-clericalism in the 19th Century and was only enshrined in law in 1905). Nowadays, some French people see Christianity as a bulwark against what they regard as the Islamification of French life. These are deep and murky waters.

What the new right has in common is “patriotism”, and I agree there is much to unpack in that term, not least the differences between patriotism and nationalism. Plus, they are committed to more rigorous immigration controls. They strongly resent that opposition to mass immigration is often branded “racist.” They want a strong nation state based on the idea of national heritage and are in favour of law and order (very pertinent in France right now).

While they have all made Eurosceptic remarks – resentment of Brussels is rife across Europe – none would now seek to withdraw their country from the EU. Meloni aspires to reform Europe from within. She wants the European Conservatives and Reformists grouping in the European parliament to be the paramount caucus in Strasbourg after the May 2024 European elections. That outcome is now quite likely.

All across Europe, at a time when living standards are under pressure, the indigenous working classes resent the rights of minorities being prioritised – as they see it – above their own. For example, they resent illegal immigrants being accommodated in hotels at state expense while ex-servicemen remain homeless.

There is another fundamental reason why the right is advancing in Europe. There is a widespread perception – and in my view it is justified – that the net-zero agenda which has been so enthusiastically embraced by the political class across the continent (including in the UK) will harm the living standards of ordinary people. The ban on cars which run on fossil fuels will become a huge political issue over the next five years. As I predicted here, the arbitrary cut-off for the sale of new petrol and diesel-powered cars in the UK in 2030 is now the subject of heated debate in the British media. Many believe that the Greens – which are in power in numerous countries, including Germany (and which, by the way, wield disproportionate influence in Scotland) – have called the shots for too long.

But in terms of economic policy there is less coherence. Weidel is said to be a disciple of the Anglo-Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, the author of The Road to Serfdom, a bible of classical liberalism. Meloni is generally pro-market. Le Pen is more statist, recently having supported price controls in France. Purra is a fiscal conservative, advocating austerity where necessary to balance budgets. They all talk about cutting taxes for ordinary people, but Le Pen is also keen on spending. None of these women seems to be committed to free trade. Indeed, as I have outlined here before, there are good reasons to suppose that the EU will become a more protectionist bloc as time goes by.

Where Does This Leave The UK?

In contrast to much of Europe, the UK is moving leftwards. An opinion poll out this week shows Labour on 46 percent and the Conservatives on 28 percent, putting Labour a comfortable 18 points ahead.

The national mood has changed. Even Tory-inclined voters think that utilities such as catastrophe-prone Thames Water should return to public ownership. That was something that Jeremy Corbyn devoutly wished in 2017 – yet the water companies have been reviled as case studies in bad capitalism only recently. In reality, Thames Water and its peers are examples of how highly indebted, mature, ‘zombie’ companies collapse when interest rates snap back to historically normal levels.

It is therefore probable that sometime in the fourth quarter of next year, the current flailing Conservative government will be displaced by a Labour one under Sir Keir Starmer. Or at least a Labour-led government, as I can imagine scenarios in which there could be a Lib-Lab coalition – to be discussed soon.

Labour will increase taxes on “the rich” – though the rich are already leaving the UK in large numbers. It will paralyse the private-education sector, no doubt causing a serious degradation of the state-education sector in the medium term. It will kill off the North Sea oil sector and spend wildly on “green energy” projects, many of which will generate negative value.

It will not even begin to address the fundamental challenge that the welfare budget has been growing inexorably faster than the rate of economic growth. There is nothing to suppose that it will be able to improve public services, especially our creaking NHS which is accorded semi-religious reverence. I take back all the unkind things I have ever said about Sir Tony Blair – at least he understands, as evidenced by his piece in the Daily Telegraph yesterday, that the NHS requires structural reform.

It is interesting to conjecture how the Tories will remodel themselves while in opposition. Arguably, the principal reason why the Tories appear so devoid of talent at present is because Boris Johnson exiled all the Remainers in his desperate bid to “Get Brexit Done.” People of the calibre of Sir Nicholas Soames and Rory Stewart were kicked out of their seats, despite having served their country and constituents well. A depleted Tory parliamentary party in 2025 is likely to want to take stock. It’s unlikely that they will all become Rejoiners, but they might well be more kindly disposed to Europe − especially if Europe is seen to be turning towards the right.

It is paradoxical that, at the time of the UK’s 1975 referendum on membership of the Common Market, most Tories were in favour of staying in the bloc while most socialists were opposed to a Europe run by “fat cats” (Eric Heffer’s phrase). More than 40 years later, in the 2016 Brexit referendum, the situation was reversed. The Conservatives became the party of national sovereignty partly because they perceived that Europe was temperamentally left-wing and progressive. Labour largely supported the EU for exactly the same reason.

If Meloni − and prospectively Le Pen − were to succeed in restoring De Gaulle’s vision of une Europe des patries (a Europe of motherlands) rather than an overarching bureaucracy; if they could tame the Greens’ programme of deindustrialisation; and if they could find a humane solution to the challenge of mass migration, then Europe would seem like a much more attractive partner for right-of-centre British voters. The more so if voters continue to think – as is now evident from the polls – that Brexit has yielded few advantages for the UK.

In fact, the post-Brexit UK is now more clunkily regulated and more highly taxed than the EU, and is a more difficult place to do business. The automotive industry is under existential threat and the goose that laid golden eggs, the City, is in precipitous decline.

Ask Sir Jim Ratcliffe, chief executive of Ineos, who accused the government on Wednesday of driving business out of the UK.


This week, I attended the graduation ceremony of a godson. It was joyous, and surprisingly moving.

At a certain point, a spokesperson for the assembled graduates, all wonderfully kitted out in academic garb, took the podium. She said that what she had learnt from her degree course was that there is no such thing as “good art” or “bad art” – only art.

I find this notion profoundly disturbing.

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