Dr. Anastasakis: Biggest Risk in the EU is Far-right Parties Deciding to Unite in the EP

Dr. Othon Anastasakis is the Director of the European Studies Centre and South East European Studies at Oxford (SEESOX) at St Antony’s College, Oxford University.

From a historical perspective, Dr. Othon Anastasakis acknowledged that the rise of far-right parties in the European elections does not represent a significant rupture from the past. The mainstream political context still dominates European politics, which he finds reassuring. However, he sees two main risks for the future: the unification of far-right parties within the European Parliament and the potential alliance of center-right parties with far-right elements, which could normalize extremist rhetoric.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

Following the European Parliament elections, Dr. Othon Anastasakis gave an interview to ECPS, discussing the risks confronting the European Union and European liberal democracies. Dr. Anastasakis, the Director of the European Studies Centre and South East European Studies at Oxford (SEESOX) at St Antony’s College, Oxford University, stated, “What I see in Europe today is a process of securitization and the geopoliticization of the European Union. This shift is largely a response to the wars in neighboring regions, especially Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In the face of these realities and a multipolar global environment, there is a turn towards a defense-oriented agenda.” He emphasized that this process of geopoliticization is shaping the EU’s future direction.

Dr. Anastasakis underscored the significant risk to the EU’s normative agenda, noting that the EU, as a democratic club, shares specific values, rules, and procedures. He expressed concern that as the EU faces increased geopolitical and security challenges, it may struggle to maintain its commitment to these normative values, particularly in external relations, trade, and foreign policy decisions. He highlighted the risk that the EU might compromise its democratic credentials to bring in countries that may not yet be ready for membership.

Another risk Dr. Anastasakis highlighted is the potential for far-right parties in Europe to unite within the European Parliament to create obstacles on issues such as migration and climate change. He also pointed out the risk that center-right parties, particularly those in the Christian Democrat bloc, might be tempted to ally with far-right parties on certain issues or adopt parts of their discourse, leading to the mainstreaming of far-right rhetoric. He noted that this has already been observed in the field of migration, where mainstream parties are often influenced by far-right narratives.

However, from a historical perspective, Dr. Anastasakis acknowledged that the rise of far-right parties in the European elections does not represent a significant rupture from the past. The mainstream political context still dominates European politics, which he finds reassuring.  Overall, Dr. Anastasakis cautioned that while the current situation does not mirror the catastrophic rise of far-right movements in the early 20th century, it poses significant challenges that require vigilant attention to safeguard the EU’s democratic values and stability.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Dr. Othon Anastasakis with some edits.

Populism and the Far-Right Are Broad Umbrella Concepts

How do you see the historical evolution of populism and far-right movements in Europe influencing current political landscapes, particularly in the context of the recent European Parliament elections?

Dr. Othon Anastasakis: Populism and the far right are two broad umbrella concepts that encompass a wide variety of parties and formations. Due to their broad nature, they are understood in different ways and include many different far-right parties and movements. This makes it very challenging to group them together or understand them as a single entity.

Far-right parties themselves are not united as a whole. Their intrinsic nationalism means they have very specific goals related to their own nation-states. When observed collectively, especially in contemporary Western and European politics, they can be highly disruptive and reactionary to mainstream democratic politics, which has been the norm in Europe for the past eight decades or so.

Far-right politics are also evolving, often softening their positions when they are close to power. As long as nationalism and the nation-state remain central in international politics, far-right parties will continue to advocate their extreme nationalistic, racist and populist discourse. They are particularly influential during times of low economic growth and increasing economic inequality, as they find audiences receptive to their messages.

Finally, when democratic leadership is weak or lacks determination, it creates an environment where far-right parties can infiltrate, penetrate and promote their ideas.

What happened in the European Parliament elections regarding populism and the far-right? Is this a watershed moment in European history?

Dr. Othon Anastasakis: I wouldn’t call it a watershed moment. Yes, there was an expectation and a lot of publicity about the rise of far-right politics during these European elections. However, the outcomes showed no massive change overall. While there was some rise of far-right parties in various national European settings, the Christian Democrats managed to increase their position in the Parliament, the Liberals lost somewhat, and the Social Democrats remained more or less the same. Mainstream parties maintained their numbers and power within the European Parliament.

That said, what we did see was significant: the rise of the far right in two particularly influential countries in Europe. In France, the far right gained ground, impacting national politics and leading to immediate elections under Macron. Similarly, in Germany, the AfD’s rise weakened the Social Democratic Party. These developments in France and Germany, which are often pivotal in shaping European politics, are more indicative of the rise of the far right than the overall European Parliament spectrum.

One Lesson from History Is the Danger of Appeasement

Poster of Vladimir Putin looking like Hitler in a demonstration against the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in Valencia, Spain on February 27, 2022. Photo: Shutterstock.

Considering the rise of far-right parties across Europe as proved once again by EP elections, can we draw parallels with similar movements in the early 20th century? What historical lessons should we keep in mind to understand and address these modern developments?

Dr. Othon Anastasakis: First, let me say that history never repeats itself in exactly the same way, which is important to keep in mind. We never encounter identical circumstances that produce the same outcomes repeatedly. However, understanding what happened in the past helps us comprehend why the present has unfolded as it has.

Given that history doesn’t repeat itself precisely, we can still draw valuable lessons from it. One common question we face today is whether we are seeing a repeat of the 1930s with the rise of the far right, and to what extent. The 1930s were unique in European history due to the circumstances that led to the rise of many fascist parties, especially the Nazi party in Germany.

One lesson from history is the danger of appeasement during moments of aggressive behavior. The 1938 appeasement of Hitler serves as a lesson not to follow a similar path with someone like Putin, who has invaded Ukraine. Negotiating with aggressive behavior can lead to further territorial ambitions.

Another lesson is that persistent economic inequality, especially during times of economic crisis, can bolster the strength of far-right parties. This was evident in the 1930s following the 1929 economic crisis. These historical insights remind us to address economic disparities and avoid appeasement to prevent similar political outcomes today.

In your 2001 article "Post-communist extremism in Eastern Europe: The nature of the phenomenon," you discussed the emergence of far-right parties in Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland and Hungary, years before the governments of Kaczynski and Victor Orbán. Do you think the dynamics that led to the rise of far-right parties have changed in Eastern Europe? What patterns can you identify?

Dr. Othon Anastasakis: First, let me say that while far-right politics is a wider European phenomenon, it is not exclusively a Central European issue. In my reading of the European continent, three main factors may create divergences between Western Europe and Eastern Europe.

First, there is the Communist legacy. This long and totalitarian history has created circumstances that can sometimes lend themselves to a lingering appeal of authoritarianism. The Communist legacy remains a significant point of reference in these regions.

Second, we must consider the legacy of empires versus those who were colonized. When discussing post-Empire Europe, we often assume all countries were colonizers, which is not the case. Western European countries like Britain, France, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands had overseas empires. In contrast, many Eastern European countries, from Poland down to Greece, were part of empires. This division affects the development of politics, particularly nationalistic politics.

Third, connected to the second point, is the division between civic and ethnic nationalism. The understanding of national development and the way citizens are embedded within this context vary significantly. In Western Europe, there is often a more civic understanding of nationalism, whereas, in Eastern Europe, there is a longer historical experience of ethnic nationalism. This influences how far-right nationalism behaves and forms its ideology in these regions.

How has the narrative and strategy of far-right parties evolved from the post-communist era in Eastern Europe to the present day? Are there historical factors that continue to play a significant role in their resurgence?

Dr. Othon Anastasakis: Even in Eastern Europe, where we can roughly divide nationalism into civic versus ethnic types, history plays a very important role in the development of far-right parties and politics in general. The national experiences of these countries significantly impact how their politics evolve.

For example, Hungary, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, became a nation-state after World War I, leaving many ethnic Hungarians outside its borders. This created a unique brand of Hungarian nationalism. In contrast, Poland, which also faces issues with the rule of law similar to Hungary, has a different historical background. Poland, often caught between Russia and Germany, has experienced its territory being divided and annexed by these powers. This historical context results in a far-right experience that can be either anti-German or very much anti-Russian.

Thus, the historical experiences of these countries influence how far-right parties develop and form their own versions of nationalism.

Meloni Is Not Mussolini, the AfD Is Not Comparable to Hitler’s Germany

Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s prime minister, speaks at the Atreju convention in Rome, Italy on December 16, 2023. Photo: Alessia Pierdomenico.

In the same article, you discuss four theses about the rise of far-right extremism, one of which is the revival of the fascist era. With the rise of Giorgia Meloni in Italy and her party, Brothers of Italy, and the rise of the AfD in Germany, do you see a revival of the fascist era?

Dr. Othon Anastasakis: Not in the way that it happened in the 1930s. As I mentioned earlier, history doesn’t repeat itself exactly. There are lessons to be learned, but the context is always different. In the 1930s, the aftermath of World War I played a significant role. The experience of being winners or losers, especially in Germany’s case, where it was a clear loser, defined how the country developed during the turbulent interwar period. This era saw the testing and eventual failure of liberal politics, leading to the authoritarian regimes of the 1930s.

Today, the background is very different. We have the European Union, which provides a unique context of political and economic integration among its member countries. Any attempt by far-right parties or anti-European, protectionist forces to gain power would first have to involve dismantling the EU, which is not an easy task.

In this sense, we are in a different historical moment. Meloni is not Mussolini, and the AfD is not comparable to Hitler’s Germany. However, these parties do contain elements that make them susceptible to fascist ideas, language, and rhetoric.

One important and common issue that enables these parties to develop their discourses is migration. Unlike in the 1930s, today’s migration context has been developing for a few decades, but under conditions of crisis, it becomes a significant scapegoat. Migration is an issue that many far-right parties across Europe use to their advantage.

In your article "Europeanization of the Balkans," you underline how the EU membership process has transformed Balkan countries in terms of consolidating democracy and the rule of law. When you consider the surge of far-right populism in Western Europe, can we talk about the Balkanization of Europe?

Dr. Othon Anastasakis: Overall, I don’t use the term "Balkanization" because I think it’s a stereotypical and simplistic way of understanding a region. It doesn’t accurately reflect the true complexity of the area. My thesis back then was that the conditionality imposed by the European Union, particularly in the political context, was crucial. This conditionality made the countries accept and adopt certain norms required for EU membership. In this sense, Europeanization—a much broader concept—was able to take root in those countries.

What I see in Europe today is not Balkanization, but a process of securitization and the geopoliticization of the European Union. This shift is largely a response to the wars in neighboring regions, especially Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In the face of these realities and a multipolar global environment, there is a turn towards a defense-oriented agenda. This shift could change the nature and spirit of the EU, moving it beyond its historical focus on economic integration and soft power.

One significant risk I see is the potential impact on the EU’s normative agenda. The EU is a democratic club, a group of countries that share specific values, rules and procedures. As the EU faces increased geopolitical and security challenges, it may struggle to maintain its commitment to these normative values. This concern is particularly relevant in its external relations, trade and foreign policy decisions. Even with the enlargement agenda, there is a risk that the EU may compromise some of its democratic credentials to bring in countries that may not yet be ready for membership.

So, while I do not fear Balkanization, I do see a process of geopoliticization that is shaping the future direction of the European Union.

In your doctoral thesis "Authoritarianism in 20th Century Greece," you examine the authoritarian ideology and educational policy of two dictatorial regimes in 20th century Greece: the Metaxas dictatorship of 1936-1941 (the 4th of August regime) and the military junta of 1967-1974 (the 21st of April regime). What interactions do you observe between these two periods and the rise of Golden Dawn in the 2010s and the Greek Solution party now?

Dr. Othon Anastasakis: Dictatorships, particularly in the Greek context, belong to the past and do not present themselves as viable alternatives for political power and governance after the transition from dictatorship to democracy in 1974. The periods of the 1930s and 1960s were different as the military was a significant force in Greek politics. During political or party crises, the military often positioned itself as an alternative, intervening in politics multiple times. For instance, Metaxas, a military man, managed to influence politics in the interwar years, and the colonels in 1967 abruptly halted the democratic process.

The rise of far-right parties like Golden Dawn in Greece is not reminiscent of those military interventions. Golden Dawn, which gained prominence during the severe economic crisis in Greece, is also a criminal organization and most of its members are now imprisoned, rendering it unable to operate as a political party. Other nationalistic and far-right parties, such as the Greek Solution, exist but are often not sustainable. Over the past three decades, we have seen how some far-right parties have managed to raise their percentages. For instance, the Orthodox Popular Rally led by Georgios Karatzaferis in the 1990s and early 2000s, and the Independent Greeks, who cooperated with Syriza during the mid-2010s crisis. These far-right parties experienced a rise but eventually descended, demonstrating a pattern of emergence and decline.

These parties tend to be disruptive, reactionary and extremely nationalistic. They often gain support during times of political crisis or when mainstream parties struggle to address issues. This pattern of rise and fall is evident in the Greek Solution and two other extreme nationalist parties that secured seats in recent elections. The fact that these three far-right parties collectively garnered around 18-19% of the vote is concerning, indicating a particular situation in the Greek political context.

Populism and Populist Leaders Will Continue to Exist

In your research on authoritarian regimes in Greece, what historical patterns do you see re-emerging in contemporary European politics? What impact do you think, as an historian, the resurgence of far-right populism will have on the future of European integration and the EU’s democratic values? Are we witnessing a cyclical pattern of populist surges similar to previous historical periods?

Dr. Othon Anastasakis: Populism and populist leaders will continue to exist, whether they are on the far-right, far-left or somewhere in between. Populism, as a broad umbrella term, encompasses various parties and movements, making it an enduring feature of the political landscape. A specific example of this is Brexit, which was a significant populist moment in Europe. Brexit challenged the European edifice as the UK, driven by populist sentiments, decided to leave the EU. This move was representative of both Euroscepticism and Europhobia.

Brexit demonstrates both the potential and the drawbacks of populism. On one hand, it successfully led a country out of the EU, showcasing populism‘s power. On the other hand, it highlighted the immense challenges and turbulence associated with such a move. This experience serves as a lesson to other Eurosceptic parties that exiting the EU is not a straightforward endeavor.

Today’s far-right parties, which are often very Eurosceptic and reactionary, face a dual challenge. They must navigate their national political landscapes, creating an environment of opposition to their own elites while also dealing with the supranational context of Europe. They are limited in how reactionary they can be because pushing too hard against the EU could lead to their countries leaving the union, something that most populations do not desire. This tension makes it difficult for far-right parties to fully adopt their reactionary, nationalistic and racist rhetoric.

From a historical perspective, how concerned are you about the rise of far-right parties in the European elections? Many pundits argue that the center-right and center-left have held strong, and there is not much to worry about. Do you agree with these pundits?

Dr. Othon Anastasakis: I agree that this is not a significant rupture from the past. We haven’t seen a massive surge that could radically change the landscape. The mainstream context still dominates European politics, which is reassuring. However, I see two risks for the future.

The first risk is whether far-right parties in Europe will decide to unite within the European Parliament to create obstacles on issues such as migration or climate change. While it’s challenging for them to achieve unity, it is not entirely out of the question.

The second risk involves the extent to which center-right parties, particularly those in the Christian Democrat bloc, might be tempted to ally with far-right parties on certain issues or adopt parts of their discourse. This could lead to the mainstreaming of far-right rhetoric. We have already seen this in the field of migration, where mainstream parties are often influenced by far-right narratives.

A notable example is the European People’s Party (EPP), which for many years included Hungary’s Fidesz party. Although they eventually decided to expel Viktor Orbán’s party, they tolerated his presence for some time to maintain their numbers and votes. This indicates a potential risk where center-right parties might seek alliances with far-right parties to further their own interests.

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