Although Europe’s right-wing populists have been at pains to distance themselves from Putinism, they keep shaping important debates on identity, migration and culture.
When Matteo Salvini, as part of his “goodwill” mission, went to meet the mayor of Przemysl (a Polish town at the border with Ukraine, which has become a major /ravel hub for Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion), Wojciech Bkun, he probably did not expect that he was walking into one of his worst possible debacles to date.
Bakun shamed Salvini and his entourage, in front of the journalists that were present, by presenting the League leader with a t-shirt with the face of Vladimir Putin and the words “Army of Russia” a t-shirt identical to the ones that Salvini wore, with a fanboy spirit in Moscow’s Red Square, as well as at the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
There are two elements to consider about Bakun’s display of his contempt for Salvini, and the first one has to do with the fact that due to his excessive sympathy for Putin, he was never too popular within the Polish right-wing arena and the second one has to do with the fact that Salvini has lost his national and international appeal progressively, following a constant series of failures mostly of his own making.
Bakun is a member of Kukiz 15’, the populist right-wing party led, and founded by the actor and singer Pawel Kukiz, and therefore cannot be blasted by Salvini and his supporters as a “radical chic, do-gooder leftist”.
Salvini’s decline seems unstoppable, from when he was leading the European far-right three years ago; however, the idea that the populist far-right is finished is nothing more than naive liberal wishful thinking, as the electoral campaign in France and the EU’s open borders policy for Ukrainian refugees only both prove.
The first round of the French Presidential elections will be held on April, the 10th, and, regardless of the outcome, this can be already seen as one of the most right-wing oriented electoral campaigns in recent French history.
There is, of course, Marine Le Pen with her Rassemblement National, but differently from 2017, she has competition, with Eric Zèmmour, far-right politician, journalist, and writer, as well as by Valérie Pécresse, the candidate of the centre-right Rèpublicains (formerly UMP), a candidate who has shifted her party’s narrative more and more to the Right, promising to crack down on immigration.
While Le Pen and Zèmmour’s proximity and admiration of Putin are proving to be troubling for them since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine they still poll at 17% and 12% of the voting intentions respectively ( the voting intentions for the latter are the same as the ones for Pécresse) President Macron’s intention of “reshaping Islam” in France, through the Forum of Islam may also be seen as a victory of culture wars rhetoric, far-right and right-wing Islamophobic arguments, as well as something which feeds into the troubling French assimilationist model.
Part of the essence of the far-right rhetoric is the ability to always enhance or create scapegoating attitudes within the public, the easiest possible exercise when it comes to building consensus; in this way, debacles do not matter as there will always be an opportunity to rebuild when a new “refugee crisis” will generate apprehension within society.
Additionally, as the declarations or silence of these days is proving, far-right leaders can pretend that their allegiances or sympathies are shifting if these prove to be unpopular as in Putin’s case ( who is the absolute idol of the European far-right, and not only, despite the utter nonsense of his “denazification” rhetoric) and in this way, different far-right voices, from Salvini to Meloni, Le Pen and Zèmmour and Nigel Farage have somehow, magically forgotten their admiration for Putin.
If we consider the Leave campaign of 2016 and how that rhetoric on refugees (but also the one against EU citizens, and especially Eastern Europeans) is still affecting the closed-doors policy of the British government also for Ukrainians who are fleeing the conflict, the Danish government and its offshore asylum centres, the hostile policies to migration of the Spanish, Greek and Italian governments and the deals with Lybia and Turkey, we can see a clear picture of how the far-right might not be in government but is anyhow leading the conversation of ideas, even when it is not part of a government coalition.
If we consider the Italian context, where elections will take place next year, Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy is looking positively at its prospects.
In a way, this could be simplified by saying that the Right and the far-right especially has read and assimilated Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony in a way that the Left never could, as the far-right especially, by establishing itself as a “representative” of the “people” against the “elites” in a right-wing prospect, naturally.
Identity politics is, or can be also an element of the mix, as we can see in the cases of British Home Secretary Priti Patel and Danish’s Minister for Immigration and Integration Mattias Tesfaye; the same right-wing arguments against migration that would be seen, by many, as racist and hateful if used by white males, tend to be seen by some, or many, as more acceptable if pronounced by non-white politicians; we could label this as identity politics for dummies.
The reports of racist abuse experienced by African and Asian students at the Ukrainian-Polish border, which was brushed off by many as “Russian propaganda” ( but were acknowledged also by the UNHCR and its Commissioner Filippo Grandi, also thanks to the coverage of journalists like the Independent’s Nadine White) represent the ultimate case in terms of the success of far-right arguments.
The borders of European countries should be open for Ukrainians fleeing from the Russian invasion, and the display of solidarity in Poland is laudable; however those borders were sealed off for Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, and others, and the calls for solidarity for White and Christians only, sometimes not explicit, that we heard in 2015 are now also being repeated by politicians like Zèmmour and Santiago Ascabal, leader of the Spanish far-right party VOX.
As Nigerian writer Dr. Ayo Segunro eloquently tweeted, Europe never had a ‘migrant crisis’ as the settlement of 2 million Ukrainians in days prove, but it does have instead a racism crisis, and, in that crisis, the far-right will never go hungry.
Angelo Boccato is a London-based freelance journalist and co-host of the podcast Post Brexit News Explosion. He tweets @Ang_Bok.