Europe from the far right

Finding commonalities and differences between far right parties has been a long-standing challenge for scholars of the party family. In recent years, ‘Euroscepticism’ has emerged as one shared feature of far right parties in Europe, both in virtue of their peripheral position in party systems, and in virtue of their ‘nativist’ ideology which leads them to see European integration as a process that threatens the ‘autonomy, unity and identity of the nation.’

A more in-depth analysis of far right parties, however, shows that the link between their ideology and opposition to Europe is less than straightforward. First, far right parties frequently express an attachment to ‘European civilisation’ that seemingly contradicts the centrality of the nation in their ideology, and appears as radically different compared to the positions they hold on the European Union. Second, some of them have radically changed their positions on the EU throughout time, going from cautious support to open opposition.

In my recently completed PhD thesis, I sought to understand how parties belonging to the far right understand Europe, how they integrate it in their ideology, and how they determine their positions on European integration. Drawing on an in-depth interpretive analysis of party documents produced between 1978 and 2017 by the Movimento Sociale Italiano/Alleanza Nazionale in Italy and the Front National (now Rassemblement National) in France, I argue that the MSI/AN and FN repurposed key elements of their nationalist ideology to integrate Europe in their worldview, thus giving rise to a distinctive far right conception of Europe. Europe, to them, is a bounded community beyond the political confines of the European Union, a space of freedom and an endangered civilisation.

According to the ideology of the MSI/AN and FN, Europe appears first and foremost as a community of belonging. Consistent with the idea that nationalism as an ideology creates boundaries between ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’, the MSI/AN and FN defined Europe as a specific community, a  “community of interests and destinies, of history, of civilisation, of tradition among Europeans”  for the MSI/AN, and “a historic, geographic, cultural, economic and social ensemble” for the Front National. This community precedes the European Union and remains separate from it: it is a distinct civilisation which the parties consider to belong to, proudly defining themselves as ‘Europeans.’

Second, the MSI/AN and FN frequently spoke of Europe as a place of freedom and power, reflecting nationalism’s concern with the self-expression and political representation of the nation. Especially in the 1980s, both parties viewed Europe as a continent in need to restore autonomy vis-à-vis the United States and the Soviet Union. They also spoke of the need for Europe to be a powerful actor in international relations. For the MSI in particular, this powerful ‘political Europe’ was the ultimate goal of the project of European integration and remained so even in the 1990s. On the other hand, following the end of the Cold War and the introduction of the Maastricht Treaty, the Front National shifted from claiming autonomy for the European continent to focusing on the EU as a body limiting national sovereignty.

Finally, underlying the FN and MSI (but not AN’s) view of Europe was the strong sense of a continent in danger. Reflecting the view of far right parties as nativist parties perceiving outsiders and Others as inherently dangerous, the FN and MSI both presented Europe as a continent threatened by a series of perils of various nature, including (but not limited to) demographic decline, immigration, globalisation, hostile foreign countries and other political actors. These threats to Europe were the same that threatened its constituent nations, creating a link between the national and the transnational realm, but also formed the basis of the parties’ claims to be the only actors equipped to save Europe from decline and restore it to its past greatness.

At a time when the European Union remains a highly contested construction, the existence of a far right conception of Europe that goes beyond the EU points to an interesting fact: that Europe and the EU were and remain two different things. While the EU may seek to present itself as an embodiment of ‘Europe’, the existence of alternative conceptions of Europe shows that the EU does not hold a monopoly of the term ‘Europe’, and indeed, that its role as a legitimate embodiment of what ‘Europe’ is remains open to contestation.

Ms Marta Lorimer is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and Doctoral candidate at European Institute and Political Science, London School of Economics. See her profile here.

© Marta Lorimer. 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).