The Normalization Of Far-Right Populism In Europe

A new coalition agreement in Austria highlights how bigoted, far-right policies are being embraced by mainstream political parties in Europe.

Herbert Kickl, Austrian politician (FPÖ) – (Photo credit: Michael Lucan, Lizenz/Creative Commons)

The results of the elections to the European Parliament in May 2019 have caused great concern in the various national governments of EU member states as well as in the European organizations: Although expected by opinion-makers and predicted by opinion polls, it was nevertheless surprising that the French far-right party Rassemblement National won first place in France (with just under 23.3 percent) and the Brexit Party first place in the UK (with 30.52 percent).

Former Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s Lega managed to win 38% by launching and prioritizing two topics, both referring to the impact of the ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015: ‘A Europe that protects its citizens’ and ‘A Europe that preserves our ways’. These agendas have been recontextualized across EU member states and into the programs and manifestos of formerly mainstream but now national-conservative parties as well. As Mudde states, conservative parties now openly ‘discuss immigration and multiculturalism as threats to national identity and security’. Thus, one can legitimately state, the center has moved to the right.

Indeed, as elaborated in my forthcoming book The Politics of Fear. The shameless normalization of far-right populist discourses, an Orbánization of Europe is taking place. In other words, Hungarian Prime Minister’s Viktor Orbán’s nativist messages, his repeated warnings with respect to an alleged Islamic threat to Europe’s ‘Christian civilization’ have resonated well. Although, due to realpolitik, the European People’s Party (EPP) has officially suspended Hungarian’s far-right populist party Fidesz, Fidesz’ MEP Lívia Járóka was reelected as one of the 14 vice-presidents of the European Parliament.

Moreover, as was leaked from the tedious backstage negotiations for nominating the Presidents of the Parliament and the European Commission, Orbán and the Višegrad countries successfully prevented the election of left-wing Dutch social-democrat Frans Timmermans as President of the Commission. Timmermans had repeatedly criticized Orbán’s ‘illiberal’ and authoritarian policies as well as his antisemitic campaigns against George Soros. As political scientist Jan-Werner Müller legitimately summarizes, ‘to date, in no country in Western Europe or North America, has a right-wing populist made it into office without help. Always did it require conservative collaborators from the establishment. Wherever conservatives and Christian Democrats decide against supporting right-wing populists, they have not been able to succeed.’

Historically speaking, socio-political and discursive changes have always been dialectically related and interdependent. Of course, new norms and values and their discursive realizations were rarely accepted without powerful interventions, scandalization, and crisis; in other words, what cultural theorist Jürgen Link calls ‘processes of denormalization’. However, it is important, I believe, to distinguish between intentional changes brought about by massive power and threats of punishment in totalitarian/authoritarian regimes, and changes in liberal democratic countries. In the first case, as famously described, for example, by Victor Klemperer for Nazism or by Gilles Guilleron for Stalinism, quasi new, ideologically based realities are forced upon the respective people and publics. In the latter case, which is the one I am concerned with here, changes happen via power struggles over hegemony, step by step and over time. Labeling all changes as normalization would therefore, I argue, constitute an inflationary use of this concept.

Accordingly, Link elaborates extensively and with the help of many examples that such processes happen in times when the ‘normal democracy’ (Normaldemokratie) cannot sustain the balance the antagonistic opposition between the traditionally left and right. This hegemonic consensus was, for example, disrupted through the many crises since 2007. Link concludes that the rise of left-wing and far-right populisms are not to be considered as ‘anormal’; quite to the contrary, they manifest important demands and necessities, they challenge the failure of the ‘old systems’ to cope with the ‘apparent normalization of precarization, short-term changes of minimum wage jobs, which especially older working women cannot cope with, and forced internal migration’. In this way, populisms per se should not be assessed as ‘normative sins’ against the center; they should rather lead to discussions of the antagonisms, of topics, strategies, and interests which have been silenced or tabooed, for example in the so-called ‘refugee crisis.’ As Link concludes:

The refugee crisis of 2015 can be characterized as a two-stage collapse of normality classes in the Mediterranean, whose cause in turn was an antagonism in the wake of the military intervention of the higher normality classes into the lower ones (‘causes of flying’).

Thus, if antagonisms, i.e. conflicts and opposing interests, are not openly debated, windows of opportunities are delivered to populists. Populist parties instrumentalize such opportunities for their diverse interests and policies – in the case of the far-right by emphasizing nativist nationalism and racism.

The move of conservative, Christian-democratic social parties to the right is also evidenced by several empirical quantitative and qualitative studies of Tweets and Facebook postings as well as election manifestos – of a range of Italian mainstream, populist, and far-right populist parties in the case of Schwörer (2018) and of 39 parties from Switzerland, Austria, Germany, the UK, and the Netherlands in case of Manucci and Weber (2017). In summary, these studies conclude that – as soon as far-right populist competitors enter the stage, this causes a ‘right-wing populistization of the right-wing’ – accordingly, mainstream conservative parties toughen and extend their anti-immigration policies. In a similar vein, Krzyżanowski’s (2020) detailed analysis of the normalization of racism in CEE countries, more specifically in Polish public discourse, allows tracing the various steps of how explicit racist, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant discourses are being disseminated by the governing party PiS since late 2015 while drawing on collective memories and stereotypes related to the virulent traditional Polish antisemitism.

Normalization does not happen in a straight-forward way. Rather, as Krzyżanowski and Ledin illustrate, much ambivalence accompanies such discursive shifts, i.e., a borderline discourse, ‘which verges on civility and uncivility, in context-dependent ways’ (ibid.), quite similar to the strategy of “calculated ambivalence”. Of course, these steps require great efforts in terms of argumentation and legitimation strategies, which always have to accommodate the routinely sayable and unsayable in a specific context. Krzyżanowski’s research exemplifies how the Polish government succeeded in creating an overall hostile attitude towards refugees (labeled as ‘illegal migrants’) via threat and danger scenarios although almost no Muslims live in Poland and only very few refugees were welcomed and hosted in Poland. The media and moral panics which were triggered resemble the anti-immigrant and anti-refugee campaigns in other EU member states; they are similar to much rhetoric employed, for example, by the Austrian FPÖ, the Italian Lega, and the British UKIP (now Brexit) parties.

Other quantitative and qualitative in-depth studies have succeeded in tracing such normalizing and recontextualizing, multi-level processes of discursive and political change in even more systematic detail, by examining day-to-day media reporting and manifold other genres (such as speeches, parliamentary debates, posters, and laws) in a specific period of time, which was clearly externally defined by politically salient events. For example, Rheindorf and Wodak (2018) analyzed debates about salient concepts which metonymically condensed significantly different ideological positions towards integration, migration, asylum, and so forth, in vehement and antagonistic political struggles, in the Austrian context of 2015/16. In this way, we were, for example, able to illustrate how the term Integrationsunwilligkeit (‘unwillingness to integrate’) came to dominate Austrian political and media discourse in 2015 and how the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ was subject to securitization and economization.

To trace the ‘life history’ of this term, we combined qualitative and quantitative linguistic methods to show its frequency, collocates, contextualization and instrumentalization in legitimizing ever-stricter policies. Indeed, this term which was previously only employed by the FPÖ has now been established as a fixture in the Austrian media and, by implication, public discourse and marks a notable shift in the political discourse on integration, by providing an example of the culturalization of discourse on integration, now recontextualized as assimilation. Normalization processes encompass the incorporation of fringe ideologies into the mainstream – not only of politics but of popular culture and other fields as well – through recontextualizations and resemiotizations, usually moving from backstage to frontstage, and across fields as well as genres.

In the new turquoise-green coalition agreement in Austria, established on January 7, 2020, many people were surprised and dismayed to find three explicit proposals of FPÖ hardliner Herbert Kickl – former Minister of Interior Affairs in the Austrian national-conservative coalition government (December 2017-May 2019) and since June 2019 chief whip of the FPÖ in parliament. The new coalition program is titled – not surprisingly – ‘Protecting Borders and Climate’, thus equating the non-equatable. The new coalition program contains a ban on ‘headscarves’ for girls under age 14 at schools, the ‘preventive detention’ for potentially dangerous asylum seekers – controversial not only because it may violate fundamental constitutional rights –, and new so-called ‘return centres’ (Rückkehrverfahrenszentren) for rejected asylum seekers. Obviously, the scandals caused by many statements by Kickl, which illustrate early stages of attempting to shamelessly dismantle the Austrian liberal democracy, have been dismissed, forgotten or backgrounded in order to facilitate the coalition government. Only time will allow evaluating the consequences of such normalizing processes.

Let us briefly recapitulate some aspects of the recontextualized and normalized proposals in more detail which – in 2019 – even became the prominent subject of international media reporting, inter alia in The New York TimesThe Atlantic, and The Guardian. This is, of course, not surprising, given Kickl’s provocative flouting of taboos regarding the independence of the judiciary or his many insinuations of Nazi rhetoric and revisionist politics of the past.

First, in respect to ‘preventive detention’: After a state employee had been killed by a migrant who had already committed several criminal acts, had lost residency status, and should have left Austria, Kickl suggested that potentially dangerous migrants and asylum seekers should be preventively incarcerated. Which criteria would be used to determine potentially dangerous people, however, has remained completely unclear and vague. In a characteristic move, Kickl euphemistically described this incarceration without a crime as ‘preventive detention” (Sicherungshaft). Legal experts and the political opposition – including the Greens – strongly opposed such a measure, pointing out that it would violate the Austrian constitution and the principles of equality and personal freedom. Moreover, in the Austrian context, such a measure and its name – despite being a euphemism – evoke many negative associations with the Gestapo of the Nazi regime.

Secondly, the suggestion by Kickl to rename ‘reception centers’ for asylum seekers and refugees (Aufnahmezentrum) into ‘departure centers’ (Ausreisezentrum) also caused massive scandal and debates: The new label implies that the safe haven, the space where refugees would finally not have to fear for their lives, is not a place to stay but – by definition – a place from where one should leave. Relabeling detention centres as ‘Rückkehr(verfahrens)zentrum’ in the new coalition program of 2020 is thus another example for the use of euphemisms to mask the racialization of space. Obviously, refugees who have been denied asylum rarely want to ‘return’; they are forced to leave the country, detained until their departure. Finally, the proposal to forbid Muslim girls until the age of 14 to wear headscarves relates to far-right gender politics which the Austrian Greens had always opposed.

These measures imply that the Greens, who had always campaigned for Human Rights and liberal values, have now accepted policies which they had previously vehemently opposed. Red lines were thus crossed, explicitly legitimized by rationalization legitimation, by pointing to the achieved consensus for combatting the climate crisis, which they had insisted on in the coalition negotiations. Other rationalization arguments used included the TINA argument – ‘there is no alternative’ to this government – and the ‘proportionate weight’ argument – as the national-conservative People’s Party ÖVP had won 37% and the Greens ‘only’ 14%, they were forced to accept a predominantly national-conservative program. Otherwise, they argue, the negotiations would have collapsed. Be that as it may: Kickl’s proposals have obviously become acceptable, i.e. normalized, in the official coalition agreement of the Austrian national-conservative-green government, thus manifesting the center’s ‘move to the right’.

Professor Ruth Wodak is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a Emeritus Professor at Lancaster University & University Vienna. Her profile can be found here:

© Ruth Wodak. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

This post was originally hosted by CARR’s media partner, Rantt Media. See the original post here.