Italy is preparing to go back to the polls and this time Matteo Salvini looks set to return as the undisputed king of Italian politics. His Lega party (formerly the Northern League) has split with its coalition partner, the Five Star movement. For Salvini, the appeal of a general election is obvious: Five Star’s popularity has slumped during the 14-month government, but Lega’s has soared. It now boasts of being the biggest party not only in the north of Italy but — previously unimaginably — in the south. So Salvini can now ditch his coalition partner and seek his own majority.
If he succeeds, this will cause fresh headaches for Brussels and embody a far deeper conundrum. In the Euro elections in May, Lega became one of the largest parties in the European parliament and Salvini hailed the start of a new era. ‘Not only is Lega the first party in Italy,’ he said, ‘but also Marine Le Pen is the first party in France, Nigel Farage is the first party in the UK. Therefore, Italy, France, the UK — it is the sign of a Europe that is changing… a new Europe has been born.’
He may be right or wrong on that. But what that speech — and the rise of the Lega in general — demonstrates is that our political lexicon in Europe is all over the place. For years Lega has been described as ‘far right’ — but does this term really describe what’s happening to Italy? The changes in Europe have been profound and are becoming more so. But labelling every upstart party as far right is impeding our ability to assess, and navigate, the changes that are likely across the continent.
These changes have been happening for years now, and the vocabulary used to describe European politics stopped being fit for purpose some time ago. Governments that have supported unsustainable (and discredited) open-borders policies are described as ‘centrist’ and ‘mainstream’, while parties which challenge this have been labelled ‘xenophobic’, ‘racist’, ‘fascist’. Such claims have been unrelenting, and have been levelled at home as much as abroad.
A few months ago Jacob Rees-Mogg was criticised for having shared a speech given in the Bundestag by a politician from the Alternative for Germany party (AfD). The Labour MP David Lammy has also compared the European Research Group of Tory MPs to the Nazis. Given an opportunity to withdraw that comment he declined, insisting that the comparison ‘wasn’t strong enough’. Perhaps Lammy can provide evidence that Jacob Rees-Mogg has killed more than six million Jews?
Such terms are naturally thrown around by people who like to grandstand. But beneath them lies a well of confusion which urgently needs addressing. Terms such as ‘fascist’, ‘far right’ and ‘white supremacist’ are serious. Such sinister forces certainly exist, here in Britain and on the continent. But in recent years — especially since the Brexit and Trump votes — there has been an acceleration in claimed sightings and a blurring of the definitions. This is wrong not just because it means that perfectly decent people are maligned, but also because distinctly dangerous groups are confused with harmless ones.
The fog began to descend earlier this decade. Campaign groups which used to oppose neo-Nazis realised that there weren’t sufficient Nazis to justify their business models. They decided that, henceforth, attacking parties such as Ukip should also come under their anti-fascist remit. Soon anybody who opposed supranational institutions or sought to restrict immigration found themselves labelled as beyond the pale. It meant that the views of the majority of the public — in Britain and elsewhere — effectively became defined as far right.
In recent years this terminological mission-creep has morphed from being annoying to being disturbing. For if everybody is a fascist, then nobody is. And anyone who knows the scene across Europe will understand that we may well have need of these terms.
So where should the cordon sanitaire actually lie, and what red lines should actually exist? As I travel around Europe — in a different country most weeks — I try to find out for myself, on a case-by-case basis, which parties we should worry about, and which are being defamed. The picture is both more complex and more alarming than anybody has currently admitted. But as Britain leaves the European Union it is vital that we try to map this political terrain accurately.
Much of Europe is now dominated by nationalists. If the leftist critique which elides nationalism with fascism succeeds, and all nationalists are regarded as beyond the pale, then we may have very few allies in the years ahead. To my eyes, the reality across Europe is something like this. There are several parties that deserve the far-right label because of their veneration of far-right figures of the past, their desire to pull down democratic institutions and their willingness to engage in street-level violence. Into this category you could reasonably place Golden Dawn in Greece and Jobbik in Hungary.
But from there the problems are manifold, not least because on the far right, as on the far left, nothing is static. Parties move. People change. Yet whereas parties of the left and far left are allowed to move and evolve, those on the far right, it seems, are not. Perhaps the ugliest and most thankless job in European politics today lies in analysing which parties were once far right, but might now more reasonably be considered to be simply right.
For instance, the Sweden Democrats were undoubtedly a racist, far-right party when founded in the late 1980s. But in the Noughties a small group of smart young politicians opposed to the stiflingly left-wing consensus in Swedish politics, took the party over and moved it towards the political centre. This process has involved expelling any actual far-right elements. Today, in any country outside Scandinavia, the Sweden Democrats would be regarded as a broadly conservative political party — as well as the third largest in the Swedish parliament. Yet nationally and internationally, almost no one credits the transformation. ‘Far right’ the international press still says. Like Jobbik. And Hitler.
Aside from the fact that the commentariat likes to write ‘far right on the march’ pieces, and greatly prefers over-identifying fascists to over-identifying communists, the problem is that these terms are country-specific. There is, after all, a reason why AfD is regarded as such a particular anathema. The six-year-old party may be the official party of opposition in the Bundestag, but very few people want to take even the smallest chance with a questionable German movement.
In reality that party — which caused Jacob Rees-Mogg such connection-grief through just sharing a speech by one of its more moderate leaders — is a mixed bag. Some of its leadership and members are where Angela Merkel’s CDU used to be until recently. They would be inside any respectable conservative fold in Britain or America. They oppose recent migration levels but do not believe that no migrant can ever become German. They are critical of certain supranational institutions but do not want to tear down democratic ones. Nevertheless, if the AfD came to be dominated more by people like its leaders in the state of Thuringia, then it would become a different proposition, and may deserve the worst appellations.
So here is the problem: new parties are viewed with suspicion, but the old parties all have a history. Some, like Vlaams Belang in Belgium and Austria’s Freedom Party, have histories mired in collaboration or fascism.
Proximity to power is one of the few things that seems to allow a change in the way parties are described: either because they become more moderate in office or because once they are there people are embarrassed to keep calling them by the labels once lavished on them. When these parties come into government (as with the Progress Party in Norway) a swathe of critics demonstrate that they were only doing the name-calling up until the point at which it proved not to work.
Some of Lega’s past actions — or, rather, those of its leaders — have certainly justified being called far right. But the name-calling has diminished now, not only because of the party’s slight moderation to the centre right but also through the simple fact that it has been in government. And, of course, politics as a whole has shifted. Across Europe, a generation of politicians lost the support of the public. Policies were pursued without need of public approval. On occasion — as in the EU’s imposition of leaders on Italy and Greece — democracy itself was effectively bypassed. This inevitably breeds reactions on all sides. But if you use up your condemnatory language on Lega, what would you call the proud neo-fascists of Casa Pound?
Everywhere, things are made even more complex by the fact that the history matters. At a rally in Sabaudia last week Salvini made play out of the proximity of a monument to Mussolini. Does it mean he is aping the dictator? Clearly not. But it is also the case that trying to take every remnant of Mussolinism out of Italy is a different job from trying to take every remnant of Hitlerism out of Germany. Or Austria. The Italians feel differently about their 20th century.
As does Spain, where a new party — Vox — has recently enjoyed an electoral success that has seen the party lazily described in the British and international press as far right. In fact its founding members include people who were until recently in the centre-right Partido Popular and are far from fringe (let alone far right). Allegations of Francoist tendencies have been unjustifiably hurled. But even if such claims were justified, again in Spain attitudes to Franco are different, because their history was different.
You can see the temptation to make this simpler: to pretend all parties which don’t toe the social-democrat consensus of the pre-crash era are far right. But if we allow that outdated game to go on, it will not only hamper our ability to understand and deal with our neighbours, and few friends, it will also continue to provide a set of sticks with which to beat reasonable politicians at home.
We are going to have to deal with Europe for the foreseeable future. We will not be able to see it clearly using the old reading glasses. We must instead try to work out the new rules. Across Europe, an old order is losing power. Its leaders tried to put national self-determination and sovereignty beyond the pale. The sound of kicking and screaming in recent years comes, in part, from their realisation that the vilification didn’t work.
So what should the new delineations be? I’m not certain I know yet. Only that we need to be thinking about this. And that in the meantime a constant attention to the details is without doubt the best safety mechanism we have.