The Ghosts of Fascism Haunt Europe Again

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The rising tide of extremist parties across Europe has presented mainstream political forces with a dilemma: Should they reject any alliance in the name of decency? Or should they succumb to pragmatism, in the hope of taming their opponents?

Look around the continent, and you will see that this second route is becoming increasingly acceptable. Last week in Spain, the center-right Popular Party and the liberal Ciudadanos formed a coalition government in Andalusia thanks to the votes of Vox, an anti-immigrant, anti-feminist organization. The unlikely trio ended 36 years of socialist control of the region. The political price was to bring back from the cold the extreme right in Spain for the first time since the death of the military dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.

The two mainstream parties will no doubt say that it was Vox compromising with them — and not the other way round. Ciudadanos refused to negotiate with Vox, leaving the dirty work to the PP. The hard right party had to climb down from an initial list of proposals, which included expelling 52,000 undocumented migrants. The final deal includes a much vaguer commitment to “prevent the threat of Islamic fundamentalism,” as well as measures to promote local traditions, including flamenco.

For their part, Ciudadanos and the PP are insisting that they will focus chiefly on a revamped economic agenda, eliminating corruption, redirecting wasteful spending and slashing taxes. Andalusia is the one of the least competitive regions in Europe, according to some EU rankings, and could do with some fresh thinking.

However, the toxic support from Vox puts Spain’s mainstream parties much closer to the path trailed by Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian chancellor, who chose to strike a government deal with the far-right Freedom Party. Austria has since taken a much stricter line on immigration, rejecting the open border approach championed by German chancellor Angela Merkel, toughening border controls and cracking down on benefits for foreigners. This move attracted criticism but appears to have paid off electorally: Kurz’s People Party (the OVP) has risen in the polls at the expense of its more extremist ally. Other politicians have gone in a different direction. In the Netherlands, after the 2017 general election, all parties chose to place a cordon sanitaire around Geert Wilders’ Party of Freedom. 

The two Spanish parties start from opposite positions to each other. Part of the PP’s electoral base shares concerns about immigration with the far right. For Ciudadanos, the deal is harder to explain to its voters. The recently formed Spanish party is considering an alliance for the forthcoming European Parliament elections with En Marche!, the centrist movement that swept Emmanuel Macron to power in France. Macron sees himself as the nemesis of euroskeptic, anti-immigrant forces. If his potential allies start making deals (if only indirectly) with the very forces they claim to oppose, how can Europe’s more moderate political parties maintain a coherent identity?

These questions will possibly intensify after May’s European elections. The vote will probably produce a clamor of different voices in parliament, making it impossible for the center-right and the socialists to govern together as they have done traditionally. Reaching out to the hard right in an effort to draw some of its sting may look like an answer, but it’s an incredibly risky strategy for a continent that has tried to keep extremists out of power since the traumas of the 1920s and 1930s. After nearly a century, the ghosts of the past are back to haunt Europe.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ferdinando Giugliano writes columns and editorials on European economics for Bloomberg Opinion. He is also an economics columnist for La Repubblica and was a member of the editorial board of the Financial Times.

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