Europe’s “Tea Parties” Would Appall Their American Counterparts

Marine Le Pen, leader of France's Front national, addresses supporters in Paris, May 1, 2012

Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s Front national, addresses supporters in Paris, May 1, 2012 (Blandine LC)

They may be called “right wing” but Europe’s nationalists and populists are far to the left of their American counterparts when it comes to economic and social policy.

The Economist last month characterized Euroskeptic and anti-immigration movements such as France’s Front national, Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom Independence Party as “Europe’s Tea Parties.” Yet with the exception of Nigel Farage’s outfit, which brands itself as “libertarian,” these parties hardly share the American movement’s small government conservatism. Indeed, most of them are champions of the welfare state.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Front national‘s leader Marine Le Pen joked that American tea partiers would probably think her a “socialist.” Le Pen’s denunciations of “Anglo-Saxon capitalism” and globalization are not too different from the French far left’s. She opposes privatizations in a country where the government accounts for more than half of yearly economic output and seeks to withdraw from the European Union not only to keep immigrants out but to shelter French industry from foreign competition.

Wilders is a free trader — which might complicate his alliance with Le Pen in May’s elections to the European Parliament — but speaks disparagingly of welfare cuts that he believes are enacted to satisfy European budget rules.

Unlike America’s Tea Party, Wilders is socially liberal. He supports abortion and gay rights. Le Pen opposes marriage equalization and, though staunchly secular, doesn’t share Wilders’ Islamophobia. The leader of the Sweden Democrats, Jimmie Ã…kesson, has expressed concerns about “Islamization” that echo Wilders’ but also opposes gay marriage — as does the Finns Party next door. All are strong defenders of their respective welfare states but not Belgium’s Vlaams Belang which is almost neoliberal.

The Freedom Party of Austria is ambivalent: it opposes immigration in order to keep the welfare state affordable but also has some liberal economic views. So does Italy’s separatist Lega Nord. It opposes governments intrusions — but from Rome.

What the parties have in common then, with each other and America’s Tea Party, is their hostility toward a central government elsewhere. The Euroskeptics resent interference from Brussels as much as tea partiers worry about what they see as an increasingly imperious federal government in Washington DC. Lega Nord and Vlaams Belang further advocate autonomy from their national capitals.

They also appeal to similar voters. The Economist simplified somewhat when it described them as “angry people, harking back to simpler times” but they do tend to be white, working class and unable to keep up with a rapidly changing world.

They spring from the squeezed middle — people who feel that the elite at the top and the scroungers at the bottom are prospering at the expense of ordinary working people. And they believe the centre of power — Washington or Brussels — is bulging with bureaucrats hatching schemes to run people’s lives.

This is what sets even UKIP voters apart. Their grievances, about a sprawling European bureaucracy or a coercive federal government, welfare abuse and misguided “multicultural” policies, often here merit. Unusually, however, rather than proposing to deal with these issues one by one, “tea partiers” in Europe and the United States see them as part of the same problem: a deliberate attempt on the part of cosmopolitan or liberal elites to delegitimize “traditional America” or the European nationstate.

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