One step forwards, two steps back for Europe’s hard right

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Welcome to the Financial Times’ Europe Express Weekend newsletter. I’m Tony Barber, the FT’s European Comment Editor, and every Saturday I’m sharing my thoughts on one of the main events or trends of the week.


It wasn’t a great week for hard-right politicians in Europe, was it? Marine Le Pen lost the French presidential election to Emmanuel Macron — and by a wider margin than seemed likely a few weeks ago.

Also on Sunday, Janez Jansa, Slovenia’s prime minister, suffered a heavy defeat in parliamentary elections. And three days later, the European Commission stepped up pressure on Hungarian premier Viktor Orban by starting a rule-of-law procedure that could mean EU funds will be withheld from Hungary.

Still, Europe as a whole presents a more mixed picture for the hard right than these developments suggest. Illiberal populists and nativists are on the back foot in some countries, but they are holding their own or are poised to make advances in others.

Overshadowing everything is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has made life difficult for hard-right politicians who until recently had nothing but good words for Vladimir Putin.

Take Orban. He won a thumping victory in Hungary’s April 3 legislative elections. No surprise there. As election monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe pointed out, the contest didn’t offer a level playing field between government and opposition.

But Orban’s pro-Russian leanings have landed him in the bad books of Poland’s ruling conservative nationalist Law and Justice party, previously his main ally in central Europe. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the strongman behind Poland’s government, observed acidly that the Hungarian leader “should be advised to go and see an eye doctor” if he doubted Russia’s armed forces had committed atrocities in Ukraine.

For excellent insights into why the Hungarian-Polish alliance is under strain, read Cordelia Buchanan Ponczek’s article for the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Elsewhere in central and eastern Europe, the tide of illiberalism has been receding over the past three years or so. Often, moderate political forces have gained ground by campaigning against corruption and political violence — as in Bulgaria and Slovakia.

An especially interesting case is Romania. It once looked as if it was heading down the same illiberal road as Hungary and Poland, but in 2019 Liviu Dragnea, the ringmaster of Romanian politics, was jailed for corruption.

He was let out last year, 16 months early, and instantly denounced his country’s new leadership as a “ferocious dictatorship”. I suspect that made many Romanians splutter with laughter over their mamaliga.

In western Europe, Spain and to a lesser extent Portugal are places to keep an eye on. As Lea Heyne and Luca Manucci write, it used to be thought that the painful experience of authoritarianism in the 20th century had made the Iberian peninsula immune to the modern hard right.

Wishful thinking, unfortunately. For the first time since the dictator Francisco Franco’s death in 1975, a hard-right party, Vox, has just joined a regional coalition government — that of Castile-León.

It’s possible that the same thing will happen in Andalucía, Spain’s most populous region, whose government this week called early elections for June 19.

In Portugal, a radical rightwing party entered parliament in 2019 for the first time since the restoration of democracy after the 1974 revolution. This party, Chega, is now the third largest in the legislature — though its electoral base is shallower than that of Vox, whose call for firm, centralised rule from Madrid appeals to many Spanish voters hostile to Catalan separatists.

The heart of the matter is that Europe’s traditional parties of the moderate right and left are in long-term decline — as we saw in the French election’s first round. Partly for that reason, there will be room on the political spectrum for anti-establishment populists and hardline nationalists for many years to come.

Furthermore, these forces are already reshaping politics in western Europe by tempting conventional parties on the right to steal or adapt some of their ideas on national identity, religion and culture. As that process continues, the old taboo against giving the hard right a share of power may gradually be eroded.

And finally

May 9 is Victory Day in Russia — that’s to say, victory in 1945. In Ukraine, Putin is digging in for a protracted conflict, says Max Seddon. That effort is putting Russia’s military deployments in Libya under strain, Samer Al-Atrush and Laura Pitel report.

Tony’s picks of the week

  • North Korea has flaunted increasingly sophisticated weapons in recent months. Christian Davies analyses leader Kim Jong Un’s expanding nuclear arsenal

  • International supply chains are under pressure, but a less globalised world is not is prospect, writes Marc Levinson for the Italian Institute for International Political Studies

tony.barber@ft.com

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