27th Feb 2024


How centre-right conservatives capitulate to the far-right

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Extreme rightwing parties in Europe seem to be making huge gains these days, with Geert Wilders' PVV in the Netherlands serving as the latest example. Who, many wonder, will follow? And what does this mean for Europe?

Still, this picture is not entirely accurate. If you zoom out a little, you see a fragmenting political system in many European countries, with ever smaller parties obliged to form ever wider coalitions to govern. Often only small political shifts are needed to bring a totally different coalition to power.

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  • Centre-right parties in particular hold the keys to democracy. But sadly, they often hardly seem to realise this

In other words, it is not only the score of the radical or extreme right that is important here, but precisely the score and behaviour of other parties — and centre-right parties in particular. They hold the keys to democracy but sadly, they often hardly seem to realise this.

In the Netherlands, it was the behaviour of centre-right parties that enabled the PVV to double its score and capture 23 percent of the vote last Wednesday (22 November). It became the largest party in the country, which was shocking enough for many.

Still, it is also important to keep in mind that the overwhelming majority — 77 percent — did not vote for it.

What happened is that first, the centre-right liberal VVD, for the first time in years, recently started to campaign on harsh asylum and migration proposals hitherto only advocated by the PVV.

And second, it opened the door to a possible coalition agreement with the PVV. In the incredibly complicated puzzle that government formation already tends to be in the splintered Dutch political landscape — the ballot paper contained no fewer than 26 parties — suddenly, many new coalition combinations could be laid out.

After all, a vote for the PVV would no longer be a lost vote. This 'normalised' the pariah position Wilders occupied for years, proposing unconstitutional ideas and hurling insults and racist remarks at political opponents.

Wilders immediately seized the chance.

'Geert Milders'

After two decades in parliament, he is far more experienced than most of his political rivals. He quickly moderated some of his proposals and polished his behaviour. Some started calling him 'Geert Milders' during the last weeks of the campaign, when he started indicating he would be willing to put some of his radical plans "in the fridge".

Whatever that means, no one knows. The fridge, as some comedians last weekend pointed out, would be full to the brim.

His party manifesto still mentions, among many other things, a ban on the Koran, mosques and asylum seekers, and automatic denaturalisation of criminal foreigners — all unconstitutional in the Netherlands.

Still, the floodgates were open and voters fell for it. Many new votes for the PVV came from centre-right parties.

Many observers confuse these political machinations by other parties, which played out in the last few days before the elections, with a 'surge of the far-right in Europe'. But there is no surge.

As the American political scientist Larry Bartels pointed out in his book Democracy Erodes From The Top (2023), far-right parties have a rather stable reservoir in most countries. Whether that reservoir is fully 'used up' or not, depends on the positioning of other political parties.

For instance, the far-right in Germany hardly profited from the arrival of Syrian refugees in 2015 because Angela Merkel's governing CDU staunchly insisted 'Wir Schaffen das" ("We will manage").

In other words, the public hardly accepted extremist proposals by the far-right because Merkel prevented it. In Hungary, by contrast, the governing Fidesz party made such a drama out of the migration saga that the electorate was ready to support extremist measures to stop it. Bartels writes: "It greatly matters how centrist political leaders position themselves".

As his colleague Daniel Ziblatt wrote in his book Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy (2017), more often than not it is the centre-right that makes the radical or extreme right both socially and politically acceptable.

US Republicans rolled out the red carpet for ultra-rightwing movements like the Tea Party, until they themselves were swallowed up by it. Since Donald Trump took over the party, the moderate center right ceased to exist in America.

In Hungary, Viktor Orbán has slowly but steadily moved his originally centrist party further away from the political center as well. The British Conservative party ran after Ukip (the UK Independence Party) until it was so radicalised that it became a kind of Ukip itself.

Something similar happened to German conservatives in the 1930s: they made alliances with the Nazis and were then completely overrun by them.

History never repeats itself, Voltaire once said, but people do — or centre-right politicians, in this case.

For post-war Christian Democrats, 1930s Germany was the ultimate nightmare scenario. For decades, they knew not to go down that path, providing stability with moderate positions and clear constitutional principles. In this way, they formed a solid buffer against extremism. Their message was: there is something to the right of us where none of us want to go. Where none of us should go.

Many conservatives in Europe seem to have forgotten this lesson. They sacrifice their principles on the altar of the polls and all too often try to overtake rightwing radicals on their own pet subjects like security or migration. The latest to do this is Manfred Weber, leader of the centre-right 'family' in the European Parliament, the European People's Party (EPP). After the PVV's victory, he proposed to further curb migration, because otherwise "extremists will benefit".

By doing this, centrist conservatives make extreme ideas mainstream, marginalizing themselves in the process because, as Le Monde wrote after the Dutch elections, "The original always beats the copy."

One look at the sorry state of the French Républicains, the Austrian ÖVP or indeed the Dutch VVD (which suffered heavy losses) illustrates the point — a dreadful combination of shrill slogans and growing insignificance. The political centre, which is where most voters are, is slowly deserted.

This is what happened in the Netherlands. For almost a decade, prime minister and VVD leader Mark Rutte rejected any dealmaking with Geert Wilders and his party. Rutte's successor has now let the fox into the chicken coop. Unfortunately, we all have to live with the consequences.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is an EU correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC. She is also a columnist for Foreign Policy and De Standaard.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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