Extremist Movements in Europe

The origin of «left» and «right» terms concerning politics dates to the French Revolution, in 1789. One of the main topics debated when writing the new constitution was the amount of power the king would have. Among the present in the National Assembly, those in favor of the king having an absolute veto sat on the right side of the assembly’s president, while those who disagreed sat on the left side.

Nowadays, we use the terms left-wing and right-wing when referring to two broad opposite political points of view. The left is known for having a more socialist economic perspective, while the right commonly defends capitalism and a free-market economy. Throughout the years, both gave impetus to different extremist movements. When it comes to the far-right, although having different facets, this extreme side of the political spectrum is known for supporting nationalist, authoritarian and anti-immigration policies.

The Rise of Far-Right – Nationalism and Globalization

In modern politics, we tend to look at the far-right as a consistent political ideology, while throughout history it has been a quite flexible movement. Even so, there has been a prevalent feature: nationalism, particularly ethno-nationalism. Indeed, the core of the movement idealizes a version of a cultural, national, and historical identity, with the rhetoric that it is constantly under threat and therefore needs to be defended.

From the perspective of many right-extremists, globalization constitutes  a significant threat to this feeling of «national identity». The free movement of goods, capital, services and people, the homogenization of culture, and the loss of economic independence are ways in which far-right movements have framed this holy war between external forces destroying the nation and the heroes defending it. Nationalism is seen by many as the savior that holds together the victims of tough and challenging times. Recently, for instance, Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the Rassemblement National in France, told supporters that globalization was «slowly choking communities to death». She backed up her statement with facts: globalization made many factories relocate from France to other parts of the world where labor was cheaper. This also happened in other European countries and heavily affected the middle class.

According to Arie Kacowicz, an academic expert on international relations, nationalism is one of the main resistors of media-induced globalization. However, there is a paradox: while nationalists often depict globalization, they also earn from it. In other words, changes in technology, for instance, create favorable conditions to the spread of right-extremist values. In fact, right-wings often use online platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and WhatsApp so that their followers are constantly bombarded with breaking news and political propaganda. This enables them to connect with each other, creating a mechanism of echo chambers in which their own opinions and points of view are shown over and over.

The Rise of Far-Right – The 2008 Financial Crisis

Since World War II, the extreme-right has been seen with worrying eyes, but the 2008 financial crisis was the alarm buzz for the sleeping giant in the room. Recent years have witnessed an important rise of the far-right, taking over European countries’ political systems until today.

The crisis led to low economic growth, a rise in unemployment and an increase in inequality. It revealed an unexpected unregulated character of the market and main financial institutions, which in turn sparked mistrust of the ruling elites. People faced lower or stagnant incomes, as consequence of severe recession policies, and fewer job opportunities. Moreover, governments were not able to provide welfare redistribution, nor assist the transition to higher welfare. For instance, the British austerity measures ended up raising inequality, affecting the poorest the most, because, as shown by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, “the cuts have fallen in a disproportionate manner”

Indeed, the middle and lower classes were the most affected and found that help from the EU was scarce. As governments were decreasing spending and constrained on borrowing, some countries needed to resort to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), such as Portugal and Greece. Large economies such as Spain, France and Italy were also largely affected. Italy’s, Portugal’s, and Greece’s debt-to-GDP ratio rose and has remained above 100% of GDP until today. This happened, in part, because the European Central Bank (ECB) was unable to act as a lender of last resort, imposing  austerity as one way to “save” European economies. Consequently, households felt hurt and blamed the EU for their newly found precarity. A Eurosceptic sentiment emerged among citizens and nationalistic ideologies were fostered through an increased  support of far-right parties, which constituted alternatives to the governments who faced the crisis. Eminently, most European countries have seen a rise in votes for far-right parties in the last elections.

Debt-to-GDP ratio of Portugal, Greece and Italy

Debt-to-GDP ratio of Portugal, Greece and Italy

18 out of 28 countries in Europe saw a rise in votes for far-right parties comparing the last two elections.

18 out of 28 countries in Europe saw a rise in votes for far-right parties comparing the last two elections.

Electorate’s Profile

According to the Horseshoe Theory, the political spectrum does not form a straight line but rather a horseshoe form. This means that the far right and far left, originally at opposite points of the political spectrum, would be  closer and bending in toward each other. In fact, both left-wing and right-wing extremist parties target similar audiences.

Extreme-right voters are often young millennials or old nationalists who view the current far-right as broken and wish to restore it. Far-right politicians look for people who feel victims of the current government and angry with the state of things, people who feel subject to marginalization and ostracization.

Therefore, both extremist sides make use of populist speeches focusing on insecurities, fears, and emotions. They offer the audience a sense of stability, security and belonging, and provide simple explanations to reduce troubling complexities over complex questions, easily dismissing critical thinking. In their speeches, they create a sense of urgency of change, inciting radical action, sometimes violent, and occasionally leading to “sacrifices for the greater good”.

The Drivers of Right-Wing Extremism

Migration stands as one of the most important topics of European right-wing parties. In a recent poll conducted by the Italian News Portal, Affari Italiani, 65% of Italians said they feel threatened by migration and would feel safer under the more rigid policies of the previous Minister of the Interior, who blocked NGO-backed rescue boats from docking in the country. Additionally, terrorist attacks across Europe, including the recent beheading of a French teacher by a Muslim extremist in Nice, heated the anti-migrant sentiment in Europe. European citizens increasingly resent the EU and its handling of  the refugee crisis, feeling that their well-being and safety are being threatened.

Arising from the consequences of the financial crisis, inequality and mistrust of the ruling elites  also play a role. In Spain, according to the Pew Research Center, people are increasingly unhappy with the country’s political system and are lacking faith that the elected officials are up to the task. Inequality continues to be an issue since redistribution of wealth was not a priority on the agenda during the crisis.

Among European countries, there are several examples which demonstrate rising Euroscepticism. For instance, in the 2017 presidential elections, the French Rassemblement National led by Marine Le Pen, who opposed Emmanuel Macron and advocated for Frexit, reached the second round, only 2,7pp behind Macron. In Spain, the far-right Vox Party gained a lot of media coverage, since founded in 2013, becoming  the third most voted party with 15,1% on the November 2019 General Spanish Elections. Finally, in Sweden, the Sweden Democrats are now on the top of the most recent polls.

Cartoon representing the battle for citizen’s vote between pro-Euro and anti-Euro parties in Europe.

Cartoon representing the battle for citizen’s vote between pro-Euro and anti-Euro parties in Europe.

There are, however, exceptions, like the Italian Movement Five Stars that is now getting closer to supporting the EU, even stating, in 2018, that the “European Union is the Movement’s home”. Another case is Poland’s current government which is considered softly Eurosceptic, believing Europe should help Poland and not the other way around, positioning against a federal Europe.


The right-wing is rising and came to stay. All over Europe, including Portugal, Spain and Scandinavia (countries where social democracy’s fall is not as strong as in the rest of Europe), the far-right is gaining ground against the left-wing parties. Anti-immigration and anti-Euro speeches are the used tool to convince voters. Inequality and discontentment towards democracy also constitute reasons for the people’s increasing support for the right-wing since the crisis.

However, recent polls point out to a decrease in the rise of right-extremist voting intentions. Almost all countries denote a fall regarding right-wing intention of vote, probably due to the current pandemic. People may prefer to vote for parties that can ensure more stability than more revolutionary ones when dealing with the CoVid-19 crisis. All this together raises a question: is the rise of the far-right decelerating or just starting?


Financial Times, Global Solutions Initiative, G1 Globo, The Guardian, Intereconomics, London School of Economics, New York Times, Pew Research, Politico, RMX, Time

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s