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Right–wing populist movements and parties are rising almost everywhere in Europe. Recent parliamentary elections across most European countries show a similar picture. A growing number of voters, including working people, and at times even trade union members, feel attracted to the populist discourse and simplistic promises about the  preservation of jobs and the increase of public provisions. The ethnocentric worldview of the radical right clashes with the democratic and pluralistic founding values of the trade union movement. The trade unions are among the most active actors in the fight against extreme ideology but, at the same time, workers and some trade union members are being seduced by populist ideas. On top of this, there is increasing distrust towards democratic institutions, such as political parties or unions but also the media and legal institutions, with the European level being most affected.

Strengthening our understanding of far-right movements and political parties is one of the main goals of the ETUI work programme for the coming budget year. The significant growth of far-right movements across most EU member states is undoubtedly linked to the current so called “poly-crisis”, and to the cost-of living crisis in particular. Even in better-off countries, the lower and middle classes are under increasing economic pressure and dynamics of precarisation increasingly affect them in a cross-sectional way. The socio-ecological transformation of the economies, framed by the Green Deal at the European level, and the current energy crisis tend to exacerbate social conflicts and might even lead to new ones. The risk and fear of social disintegration is an important aspect explaining anti-democratic attitudes.

Next to ETUI’s structural research investigating the extent to which the current economic model causes living standards to drop for the many, while profits rise for the few, resulting in growing inequalities, we will renew our efforts in exploring the spill over effects of democracy at work on civic democracy. It has become increasingly clear that having an impactful and relevant voice at work supports and encourages the exercise of civic democracy. In our efforts to counter the far-right narrative with trade unions values of inclusion, democracy, and high labour and social standards, we will establish a transversal and multidisciplinary network of experts monitoring the far-right phenomenon, in collaboration with external experts and partner organisations. Another project in the pipeline, in collaboration with the Hans-Böckler Foundation, will look into the reasons for rising Euroscepticism, the individual social characteristics of supporters and voters of right wing populist parties and movements, and whether they are common in all European countries, the reasons why in some countries far-right parties and movements lack support etc.

A very important pillar of ETUI’s work is its education strategy on the issue of combatting the far-right. For two years now, we have organised training initiatives on democracy at work, fighting against xenophobia and racism, and since 2021, the Education department also offers a specific training module on strengthening trade unions in their fight against populism and far-right, as well as a specific communications training tool to help trade unions build a solid and value-based narrative to combat far-right extremism. In all these training activities, the ETUC roadmap on this topic is being applied.

In October last year the ETUI organised an event, in cooperation with the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation, at which a recent FES report was discussed arguing that countering the success of right-wing populists in Europe requires progressive parties and organizations  to focus on issues of (economic) inequality rather than cultural issues. This is especially relevant in the light of increasing economic uncertainty following the energy and inflation crisis and reinforces the role of trade unions in developing a policy based response to the challenges posed by right-wing populism. But the battle for people’s  hearts and minds is never an easy one, and the trade union movement will have to up its game if it wants this message to reach and permeate the broadest sections of our complex societies.  The ETUI is getting equipped to be able to provide the data, analysis and training needed to achieve this.