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16 January 2018

Economic uncertainty, not the economic crisis, at the root of far-right upsurge in Europe

Monthly forum 14122017

The recent electoral success of far-right parties with explicitly anti-EU agendas has sparked a lively debate at both the national and EU levels on its causes and potential remedies. The debate on the ‘Future of Europe’ launched by the European Commission last spring has been partly motivated by this phenomenon. The ETUI devoted its last Monthly Forum of 2017 to this topic, which is also a worrying development for trade unions as more and more far-right parties claim to defend workers’ rights.

Alexandre Afonso from Leiden University presented the findings of his recent research which looked into the question of how the far right relates to the working class. He showed that in the UK as well as in France far-right parties are stronger in areas with more blue-collar workers, who no longer represent the main constituency of left-wing parties as in the past. This can be explained by the fact that the political agendas of far-right parties have undergone a shift to the left with a pro-welfare discourse. He insisted on the word ‘discourse’ because when in power these parties usually face a trade-off with, in most cases, the liberal agenda of the parties they must govern with, and the policies they propose do not focus on social welfare. However, they do often adopt a blocking role when it comes to measures to retrench the welfare state. 

Daphne Halikiopoulou and Tim Vlandas, both from the University of Reading, insisted in their joint presentation that although there has been an increase in support for far-right parties in Europe, there has also been a lot of variation in their election results. Support for these parties is actually very much dependent on the policies put in place in a given country. Another important finding of their research is that, contrary to the common belief that the economic crisis has caused the upsurge in support for the far right, it is rather the cultural insecurity related to immigration that explains their recent success. “People are afraid that immigrants are going to erode national identity,” said Daphne Halikiopoulou. However, this does not mean that the drivers are purely cultural. “Economic insecurity matters but not in a straightforward way,” Tim Vlandas continued: “Economic insecurity is not just about economic performance”. In his view, economic uncertainty due to less protective labour market institutions, such as weaker trade unions, less generous unemployment benefits, etc., makes people more inclined to vote for far-right parties. He also added that those with economic concerns are numerically more important for the electoral success of the far right that those with cultural concerns.

Karl Pichelmann, from the European Commission, shared some reflections on why the EU is such an easy target for this far-right discourse. Beyond the obvious characteristic that the EU political debate shares with that in the US – blaming the Brussels/Washington elite for everything that goes wrong – there are also two other common factors. “The EU is associated with distributional policies which are potentially bad news for workers, especially those in the new Member States,” Pichelmann explained. Policies in areas such as trade and the single market cause the EU to be seen as an “agent of globalisation, not a response to it”. The EU is believed to help the “winners”, particularly when it comes to the dividing line between urban and rural areas.

Thiébaut Weber, Confederal Secretary of the ETUC, underlined the important role of trade unions in building solidarity among workers. He emphasised that racism and xenophobia also existed during the time when the working class voted more for left parties, and the trade union movement has always tried to remind people that they are not in competition with each other. The current debates on the Posted Workers Directive have proved how difficult it is to bring people together, and how important the role of the European trade union movement is in this respect. 

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