The Washington Post has published a surprisingly alarmist piece by Andrea Mammone, an historian at the University of London, that argues austerity policies in Europe have given rise to a new “fascism”.
We won’t quibble too much here with Mammone’s definition of fascism, although lumping together all of Europe’s right-wing nationalist movements under this term is problematic. He is hardly the first one to make this mistake and probably won’t be the last.
It’s his claim that austerity is contributing to the success of these groups that concerns us here. This is an original argument and it needs to be refuted before anyone else starts to believe it might be true.
Mammone claims that for decades the parties of the center-left and the center-right effectively bribed their voters with welfarism. Now that social protections are weakened, the Europeans who need them most are turning to extremists on the right.
Without this social safety net, mainstream parties have not been able to offer proposals that counter the right’s appeal to workers and people scared of globalization, capitalism and immigration.
There are several problems with this line of thinking.
One is that it assumes a segment of the electorate was always susceptible to political extremism. Perhaps it was, but this is not something we can just assume. Mammone should give us some proof and he doesn’t.
Even if many Europeans are extremists at heart, Mammone argues they can be duped into voting for middle-of-the-road parties by dangling some welfare provisions in front of them. That doesn’t reveal a very high opinion of the ordinary voter.
Finally, Mammone doesn’t get his chronology right: The dismantling of the welfare state preceded the “austerity” of the last few years while the recession didn’t bring nationalist parties into being. In some countries, like Denmark, Italy and the Netherlands, nativists have had success for years.
If Mammone misinterprets the rise of the far right, it is no surprise he comes up with the wrong solutions.
There is no way to restore the European welfare state to its 1970s glory without compromising the open borders and global economy he rightly praises.
Nor will doubling down on a “more social and inclusive Europe” (whatever that means in practice) satisfy nationalists when they oppose the European Union and everything it stands for.
To think nationalist voters can somehow be cured of their Euroskepticism by comprehensive EU social policy, so long as it helps them, is absurd.
Their problem is not with anything the European Union does; their problem is the European Union per se. They are projecting all their grievances on it. If you think this can be mended by a few more social policies, you’re really not helping.