Radical Right Wing Mobilization and Discourses on Europe in Time of Crisis

Radical Right Wing Mobilization and Discourses on Europe in Time of Crisis

Radical Right Wing Mobilization and Discourses on Europe in Time of Crisis

By Manuela Caiani


Although left wing opposition to Europe is very well known and studied, there has been scarce scientific attention so far on extreme right mobilization and criticism against the EU. However, there are good reasons to explore how the extreme right-either political parties and movements- respond to European integration processes, not least since transnationalization of politics (and European economic crisis) are indicated by several scholars as important explanations of the recent rise of right wing extremism in many European democracies. In this analysis, focusing on seven European countries (IT, FR, DE, ES, AT, UK) and the USA, we will analyze the various forms of protest (including violence) and the frames used by extreme right organizations (either political parties and non-party groups) to address European integration (their targets, contacts and issues), exploring the ways in which available resources of the actors and political opportunities influence their choices. The study is based on a protest event analysis of extreme right recent mobilization from 2005 to 2009 (for a total of 1600 events) and on 54 semi structured interviews with representatives of the main important extreme right organizations in the selected countries. The differences in the framing and mobilization strategies of different types of groups will be showed, as well as the novelty, but also the non-novelty of the way in which the extreme right addresses the discourse on Europe, with the construction of a complex (and sometimes contradictory) identity where traditional nationalistic values and innovative transnational elements coexist.


Although left wing opposition to Europe is very well known and studied (e.g. della Porta and Caiani 2009), there has so far been scarce scientific attention paid to extreme right criticism (for important exceptions see Mudde 2004, 2011, Simmons 2003).[2] However, there are good reasons to explore how the extreme right responds to the challenge of European integration, especially since internationalization processes are indicated by several scholars as one of the main reasons behind the recent mobilization of right-wing extremism in many Western democracies. Reacting to the structural and economic changes by which modernity is characterized (Hermet, 2001; Mény and Surel, 2000) along with displaying anti-Europeism and nationalism are considered to be crucial elements of the new right-wing populism (Mudde, 2007). The extreme right is on the rise all across Europe (Minkenberg, 2011, 2013). This concerns either the institutional arena, as also the last 2014 European elections have confirmed, and (violent and not-violent) protest incidents initiated by radical right groups, movements and single activists. In Europe, the dynamics of globalization and economic expansion have led to a growth in unemployment and anti-immigration sentiment as well as “an increase in the number of racial-nationalist parties and organizations and a rise in anti-Semitism”(Wright, 2009, 189). As noted, “racial-nationalist leaders in both North America and Europe are able to exploit the new political conditions and widespread fears to their advantage (…). By advocating white-European privilege and heritage, racial-nationalists can effectively formulate a troubling but potent transnational message”(Ibid., 190).

However, the relationship between extremist right-wing groups and transnational politics is ambiguous. Despite opposing a supranational system, many extreme right movements consider it necessary to engage in politics on a transnational level. In recent years, we can observe the emergence of an extreme right network that extends beyond national borders and is made up of “close contacts throughout the EU”and supported by the participation of “like-minded nationals from all around the states at right-wing events, such as White Power Music concerts”(Europol, 2011, 29). Indeed, as argued, “(t)ransnational processes of exchange and learning play an important role in the success of right-wing extremism and right-wing populism in Europe”(Langenbacher and Schellenberg, 2011, 22). Confronted with the ‘global challenges’of the 21st century, right-wing extremists seek to create a transnational network based on a ‘global white identity’(Daniels, 2009).

Therefore, what do radical right wing parties and movements say and actually do about Europe? Is it possible to imagine the emergence of a new cleavage around EU issues able to unite these nationalist formations?

In this paper, focusing on seven European countries (IT, FR, DE, ES, AT, UK) and the USA, we will try to address these issues, by analyzing the various forms of protest (including violence) and discourses used by extreme right organizations[3] to address European integration (their targets, contacts and issues). By looking at different types of extreme right groups (political party and non-party organizations) in different countries, we will explore the ways in which the available resources and political opportunities of the actors (e.g. Kriesi 2004) influence their choices, as well as attitudes towards Europe. Indeed, the differences in the groups’framing and mobilization strategies in Europe will be shown, as well as the novelty, but also the non-novelty of the way in which the extreme right addresses the discourse on Europe, with the construction of a complex (and sometimes contradictory) identity where traditional nationalistic values and innovative transnational elements coexist. The study is based on a protest event analysis of recent mobilization by the extreme right (2005-2009, for a total of about 1600 events identified) and on 54 interviews with representatives of the important extreme right organizations in the selected countries. These data will be integrated with a comparative case study (only for Italy, Germany and the USA) based on a frame analysis of right wing documents from 2000 to 2006 (for details of the frame analysis and the codebook used, see Caiani et al. 2012). From the theoretical point of view, the aim of this study is to test the applicability of concepts and hypotheses developed in the research on progressive, left-libertarian movements to their (very different) counterpart (see also della Porta 2012), to which they rarely are applied (for exception see Rydgren 2005), exploring the entire milieu of the plural radical right family (Caldiron 2001).

2. Methods and data

First of all, we have conducted a protest event analysis (PEA) based on newspapers (between 2005 and 2009, for a total amount of 1565 identified events), looking at the degree and forms of mobilization of right wing extremist organizations, as well as at their strategies of action. PEA is a technique of quantitative content analysis, that allows for the quantification of many properties of protest, such as frequency, timing and duration, location, claims, size, forms, carriers, and targets, as well as immediate consequences and reactions (e.g. police intervention, damage, counter-protests, etc.) (Koopmans and Rucht 2002). This technique was adopted for our analysis following a long-standing tradition of research on social movements and contentious politics (Tilly 1978, Tarrow 1989). In order to conduct the protest event analysis we used a formalized codebook. Our unit of analysis (the ‘protest event’) consists of the following elements (variables for the coding): an actor who initiates the protest event; the form of action; the target at which the action is directed; an object actor whose interests are affected by the event; and finally the substantive content of the event, which states what is to be done (issue). Each protest event concerning the right wing actor and action, taking place in our selected countries, has been coded.[4]We have drawn on newspaper articles published in the major quality national newspapers in each country analyzed. In particular: La Repubblica for Italy; Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) for Germany; the Guardian for the United Kingdom, Le Monde for France; El País for Spain; the ‘US Newspapers and Wires’included in the LexisNexis database for the USA.[5] In order to retrieve relevant articles we conducted a keyword search of the electronic editions in each case.[6]

The PEA was integrated, by means of a common research design, with (54) interviews with leaders of extreme right organizations (chosen in each country as the most representative from our PEA results). In terms of sampling the interview partners, we identified three to four organizations in each of the three main categories of extreme right groups (political parties, political movements,[7] and sub-cultural youth groups[8]), for a total of nine/twelve ideal interviews per country, in order to offer a representative description of the entire right-wing sector. The interviews, conducted by telephone, were held between 2010 and 2011. Establishing contacts and obtaining a positive response from these organizations was particularly complex and time consuming. Our response rate was less than 40%. In addition, many interview partners requested anonymity (see the list of organizations interviewed in the appendix). The semi-structured questionnaire, containing both closed and open questions, focused on the transnationalization of communication and mobilization strategies of extreme right organizations (their actions, targets, national and cross-national contacts), including their judgment of the impact of the EU on them, as well as the general position of extreme right groups towards the processes of globalization/European integration.[9]

Finally, in order to shed light on the social and political construction of the external reality by extreme right groups, as well as on the construction of their collective identity and main enemies (the ‘us’and ‘them’), we conducted three case studies (on Italy, Germany and the USA, for details see Caiani et al.2012) on right wing discourses based on a frame analysis (Snow and Benford 1988) applied to documents from 2000 to 2006 (such as newspapers, magazines, leaflets) of different types of radical right organizations-political parties, political movements, cultural groups. The total number of frames coded is 5192: 1353 for Germany, 2460 for Italy and 1379 for the USA.

In the following, we shall therefore investigate the mobilization and discourses of the extreme right vis-a-vis the European integration process, illustrating (the degree and forms of) its transnationalization in terms of: issues and discourses (section 2); the scope of mobilization (section 3); targets, organizational contacts (section 4), and action strategies (section 5). In the conclusion we will reflect on the potential impact (on the extreme right milieu itself and on Europe) of the transnationalization of extreme right organizations.

3. Visions of Europe (desired and criticized)

An important indicator of the transnationalization of right-wing organizations is the scope of the issues that they mobilize: How much (and how) do they mobilize European issues? Our interviews confirm that European issues represent a significantly debated topic in their political discourse (see tab. A in appendix), which however takes the form of euro-sceptic sentiments (53% of them are strongly against the EU and another 23% rather against) (Fig. 1).[10] This anti European criticism not only affects political parties but is also shared by less formalized extreme right groups such as political movements and youth subcultural organizations.[11] For example, the representative of the Spanish far right union, Unión Nacional de Trabajadores, stresses that his organization is “against European integration primarily when it comes to political and especially economic integration”(ID. 33), and the Junge Nationaldemokraten (JN), the youth organization of the German NPD (Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands), especially disapproves the “abolishment of national sovereignties”(ID. 10). Indeed, the European institutions, are often referred to as the ‘technocratic Europe of Maastricht,' the ‘bureaucratic-financial oligarchy eager of power,' and (especially in Italy) the ‘Freemason and relativistic’Europe. They are said to be under the control of international financial powers and the US, and support, through their policies, the masters of globalization in destroying the specificities of the European nations[12] (only in the Italian case does ‘Europe’appear among the twelve most frequently recurring actors in the extreme right discourse, in 3 per cent of EU statements).

Figure 1. Position of right wing organizations toward European integration (all countries; %).

Note. N = 45; Source: data from our interviews.A cross-national comparison, however, highlights some national specificities[13]. When asked about their position towards European integration, the totality of the Spanish, German, British and Austrian extreme right organizations stress that they are (‘rather’or ‘strongly’) against it. The European Union in its current form is referred to as “European misfortune”(ID. 03) or “European nonsense”(ID. 01) by these groups. For example, the representative of the German media network MUPINFO considers that “The EU Parliament in Brussels today takes more or less the same position as the Kremlin for the whole Eastern bloc in the Cold War time”(ID. 13) and many groups (German and Austrian particularly) explain that they would prefer a “Europe of the Fatherlands”(ID. 05, 06, 08, 09) with “strong individual states”(ID. 02), to the current form of the European Union “which interferes with national laws and budgets”(ID. 12).

On the contrary, many Italian and French right-wing organizations also consider European integration as a ‘partly’positive development and they claim to be ‘rather or strongly’in favor of the process (60% the former, 44% the latter). This is the case, for example, with the Italian youth movement GioventùItaliana, whose leader complains about the lack of “a true European people, at the social and cultural level”(ID. 25) or with the French Nouvelle Droite Populaire (NDP) whose representative stresses that “France cannot do it alone in spite of what is stated by our political partners”(ID. 44). In fact, when asked about the impact of European integration on their organization, some extreme right groups admit that not everything stemming from the EU is harmful to them and that the EU can also be perceived as an opportunity vis àvis the nation state. For example, according to the spokesperson of the German regional media MUPINFO “the European legislation is in some areas less repressive than the German one”(ID. 13). Other organizations, referring to the attempt of the German government to ban the NPD party, consider the EU institutions more open to them than the national context (“if banned, the NPD can go to the European Court of Justice, where the chances of winning are probably much higher”, ID. 14). Similarly, the chairman of the Austrian political party, Die Bunten, points out that “one has the possibility to appeal to the European Court of Justice and sometimes the Austrian state is forced by the EU to be more flexible”(ID.01). However, most of the organizations believe that the negative effects of the EU outweigh the positive effects, as for instance, the spokesperson of the English Democrats stresses “the EU costs money and is a negative consequence for all taxpayers in his country”(ID. 16).

In particular, our study of right wing documents reveals that the issue of European integration (and globalization, which often is related to the former in extreme right frames) is prominent in extreme right discourse (accounting for 26 per cent of statements in Italy and about 10 per cent in Germany) (see tab. A in appendix). The political aspects of the European integration process (i.e the relations between the member states and the EU) and the domestic (negative) economic effects of the European Integration process, emerge as a special concern of extreme right groups (fig. 2) the former especially for the German extreme right (where they are treated in 8.6 per cent of statements concerning political globalization), while the Italian extreme right groups refer mainly to the latter socio- economic issues and the EU which also include moral and ethical concerns related to European integration.

Figure 2. Specific Issues in the discourse of radical right organizations against the EU in Germany and Italy (N frames analyzed 2460+1353 , 100%)

Figure 2. Specific Issues in the discourse of radical right organizations against the EU in Germany and Italy (N frames analyzed 2460+1353, 100%)

Note: Unit of analysis= the frame, data from frame analysis of right German and Italian wing documents (Caiani et al.2012).

Indeed, according to the extreme right, globalization not only leads to the ‘loss of identities of the peoples,' but also brings about ‘limitations to the sovereignty of the national states’(Forza Nuova May 2002). Europe is considered a ‘totalitarian super state,' a sort of ‘dictatorship,' an ‘intrusive body,' a ‘distant and oppressing power’(very often mentioned in opposition to ‘the European peoples’), and a ‘centralizing state.’More specific references to the European policies describe a ‘market oriented’EU that conditions national political and economic choices, serving the interests of international finance rather than the real interests of the nations. For instance, according to the extreme right, at the national level, the EU ‘increases unemployment,’‘damages the competitiveness of small businesses,’will ‘lead to the closure of many domestic businesses,’‘to the invasion of foreign goods’and ‘provoke the development of financial crimes.’

In Italy, the topic of European integration is completely monopolized by political party discourse (22.4 per cent of all party statements on EU, versus about 2–4 per cent of cases in the political movement and skinhead discourses), while in Germany it is equally important for the political party and skinhead groups (treated in respectively 5.5 and 4.2 per cent of their statements), although not treated at all in the political movement sources. Frames on European integration were not found in the discourse of the American extreme right, regardless the type of group under analysis.

Nevertheless, in spite of its opposition to the European Union, the current extreme right does not reject the idea of Europe, according to a position that (at least for the Italian extreme right) goes back to post-World War II neofascist parties (Tarchi 2009). Quite to the contrary, in their motivational frames, our organizations call for the rebuilding of a ‘new Europe,' ‘based on its traditional glorious history’(i.e. the Roman imperium in the Italian right discourse, while in Germany there are frequent references to ‘the nations of the past’). They idealize a Europe that is ‘big and strong, independent from the USA,’‘with a single own European army’–which could itself become a force of defense against globalization and the American enemy (Veneto Skinhead May-June 2004). This reflects an abstract and mythical idea of Europe as the center of civilization and a third power between the two materialist empires, USA and URSS (Tarchi 2009). Building upon this tradition, the ‘post-1989 scenario has, for these political groups, strengthened the aspiration to embody an autochthonous and “authentic”Europe, in contrast with the cosmopolitan tendencies of globalization’(ibid., 1). However, again, this new Europe is framed through the lens of national identity. In this sense, the Italian and German extreme right groups seek a ‘Europe of the European peoples,' a ‘Europe of sovereign states,’a Europe ‘new and different from the EU, which unites nations only economically with free trade and a stateless coin!’(Forza Nuova September 2003). The general call for action is to ‘save, by any means, the millennial history, culture, and tradition of Europe against foreign interferences.’