There Are Many Shades of Euroskepticism

Not all parties that resist deeper European integration are xenophobic.

Supporters of the National Front march in Paris, France, May 1, 2011
Supporters of the National Front march in Paris, France, May 1, 2011 (Front national de Loire-Atlantique)

With nationalist parties across Europe expected to well in the European Parliament elections this weekend, it may be tempting to group them all together in the far-right category. That would be a mistake. There are differences, some subtle, others more substantial, between the Euroskeptic parties which could easily frustrate some of their attempts to work together.

The New York Times reports that “fringe cranks steeped in antisemitism and other noxious beliefs from Europe’s fascist past,” including France’s Front national, “are expected to post strong gains in this week’s election.” The Front might win more votes than either the ruling Socialist Party or France’s mainstream conservatives.

Its closest European ally, the Dutch Freedom Party, is also likely to win more votes than either of the ruling parties in the Netherlands.

Citing The New York Times article, The American Interest‘s Walter Russel Mead finds many similarities between the various Euroskeptic parties.

Some of them say Russia is the new champion of freedom and security in Europe. Some say Europe needs to break away from its “submission” to the United States. Others urge attacks on immigrants and Roma. Some idolize Adolf Hitler and celebrate Mein Kampf. Many disparage Muslims and foreigners and gays and Jews in disgusting language. You can find them in England, France, Hungary, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Greece, Spain, Belgium, Italy and beyond. They are Europe’s resurgent far right.

Except the “far right” in these countries is far from uniform. Britain’s United Kingdom Independence Party is certainly Euroskeptic. Like the Dutch Freedom Party, it wants to break away from the European Union altogether. It has also displayed some xenophobic tendencies. But the party’s leader, Nigel Farage, rules out any cooperation with either the Front national, due to its latent antisemitism, or the Freedom Party, because it is also anti-Islam.

The Freedom Party is not antisemitic. Indeed, few other political parties in the Netherlands are as passionately pro-Israel. Also unlike the Front, and most nationalist parties in Central and Eastern Europe, it is a strong advocate of gay rights. Even UKIP, which calls itself libertarian, won’t go so far as to embrace gay marriage.

Some of the Euroskeptic parties, such as Greece’s Golden Dawn and Hungary’s Jobbik, are clearly fascist. Others, such as the Danish People’s Party and Freedom Party of Austria, are somewhat xenophobic but calling them altogether racist would be a stretch. Others yet, such as the Vlaams Belang in Belgium and Italy’s Lega Nord, can reasonably be called xenophobic and are certainly Euroskeptic — but they are also separatists. They not only want to rid themselves of immigrants and Brussels; they want to rid themselves of other Belgians and Italians and their national governments as well.

Perhaps the only thing these parties have in common, besides their nationalism, is their sympathy for Vladimir Putin’s Russia — which The New York Times correctly points out. And that is somewhat confounding. These parties claim to champion the sovereignty of the nation state in the face of European integration yet they are quick to defend a regime that tramples on the sovereignty of its neighbors when it suits it. They claim to be advocates of freedom yet embrace an autocracy.

But this sympathy for Russia is hardly a defining characteristic of a European far right. There are also left-wing parties that have justified Russia’s recent violations of Ukrainian territory.

It also hardly constitutes the basis for an alliance. Political parties don’t group together in the European Parliament when they agree on foreign policy, if only because the European Parliament has virtually nothing to do with foreign policy. The only reason for these parties to work together is that they all resist deeper European integration and believe the process should be reversed rather than accelerated.

However, already some of the milder Euroskeptic parties, such as the Freedom Party in the Netherlands, are criticized for cooperating with others that are close to racist. That doesn’t look to have dismayed its supporters so far but it very well could in the near future. Fundamental disagreements over economic and social policy hampered previous attempts to form a Euroskeptic bloc. There is little reason to believe this time will be different — especially when commentators and reporters continue to lump together all Euroskeptic parties as extremists.