Florian Greiner and Tobias Meßmer
Today, the united Europe of the EU is generally associated with principles of liberal democracy but, historically speaking, this was by no means always the case: until the second half of the twentieth century, many conceptions of Europe exhibited traits that were authoritarian, anti-democratic, racist, hegemonic, and nationalistic. While these came into disrepute after 1945, numerous concepts and notions about Europe that build on these older traditions can still be found on the extreme political right, especially in recent years. These range from straightforward criticism of the EU to more positive attitudes towards Europe, but also accommodate positions taken by so-called “patriotic Europeans”, who in some quarters believe themselves to be defending the occident. Recent studies argue that even these anti-liberal views on Europe can nevertheless be considered “European” (Gosewinkel 2015). Since such a phenomenon is of paramount importance for contemporary history, we will examine the attitudes towards the EU held by a German offshoot of the “New Right”, namely the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a political party which was founded in early 2013. Although untypical in some respects, it can still serve as an example of present-day right-wing populist thinking on Europe.
The AfD and European Integration
In its early phase, the AfD was primarily a political association of academics that consolidated the right-wing fringe of German conservatism and succeeded in scoring points chiefly with EU-critical positions, as evidenced by the 4.7% they polled in the German federal elections of September 2013, in the context of disputes about the Greek bailout and the euro crisis. As a party, the AfD rapidly developed into a heterogeneous collective movement of the “New Right” in Germany and also attracted people from German nationalist circles.
That being so, its views on Europe were diverse and occasionally contradictory, as shown by the party’s platform for the 2014 European elections. A central target of criticism was the EU’s common currency project – the euro. It claimed that the economic weakness of the Southern European countries, resulting in unequal taxpayer burdens, would lead “to an increasing rejection of this EU” (AfD 2014: 3). Like most other right-wing populist movements in Europe, the party spoke out in favour of preserving the principle of national self-determination and rejects Brussels’ attempts at standardization as well as further expansion of the EU and its “policies of centralism” (AfD 2014: 8). However, the European project per se was not fundamentally called into question. Accordingly, the goal named in the election platform of 2014 was to ultimately transform Europe into something it should have been long since: “A democratic, constitutional federation of free and sovereign states with a large, productive domestic market able to provide all its peoples with prosperity, employment and a social safety net” (AfD 2014: 24).
Although the party gained 7.1% of the votes with this programme in 2014, the established protagonists of the “New Right” were in doubt as to whether the AfD was a suitable parliamentary force for their political plans (Kostiza/Kubitschek 2015: 16). This soon led to inner-party conflicts between the völkisch-nationalistic wing and conservatives of a more liberal bent. In that same year, a large number of moderate delegates left the party after numerous connections between AfD politicians and neo-Nazi groups came to light, especially in the eastern part of Germany (Hafeneger et al.: 10-11). In the Erfurter Resolution of March 2015, the völkisch-nationalistic wing called on the AfD to move further to the right. In fact, the party’s right wing came out on top of the following power struggle that weakened the party only briefly, despite the loss of nearly 20% of its membership.
This inner-party radicalization went hand-in-hand with a homogenisation of views on Europe and a further escalation of criticism directed towards the EU. Even so, a great deal of ambivalence can still be found in the AfD platform for the EU elections of 2019, in which the party presents itself as standing for the idea “of a Europe of homelands, a European community of sovereign states” (AfD 2019: 7). Yet while expressly rejecting the current EU construct due to the “separate languages, cultures and historical experiences” of the European countries which possess no common cultural identity (AfD 2019: 7), the AfD simultaneously demands that “the identity of European cultural nations be preserved at all costs” (AfD 2019: 37), especially in connection with migration policy. The European peoples must not come into conflict with other civilisations – specifically those of Africa and the Near East – on European soil, since these outside influences would supplant the (common) culture of Europe.
Here, the AfD references a classic strain of anti-liberal European thought: the euro-centric notion of a ‘white Europe’. This concept also finds expression in other right-wing populist movements of the day, such as the German organization PEGIDA (“Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident”). In a 2015 speech given at the Institut für Staatspolitik, one of the central think tanks of the German “New Right”, the AfD politician Bernd Höcke ascribed a specific form of reproductive behavior to the nations of Europe. Whereas Europeans supposedly represent a “placeholder” type, African nations are “expansionist types” (Jobst 2016 : 8-9). This argument links the new-right ideas of Europe to one of their major political themes: migration policy. Thus, the AfD’s 2019 platform for the European elections warns that the African population will grow to 800 million by 2050, and that there are already “hundreds of millions of people in these regions eager to migrate” (AfD 2019: 37). Accordingly, a core element of right-wing populist ideas in regard to Europe is the demand for a “Fortress Europe”, which goes hand-in-hand with the concept of an ethnically and culturally homogenous populace – a mindset whose origins can be traced back at least as far as the Weimar Republic (Frei et al. 2019: 198-199).
A comparison with the party platform for the European elections of 2014 shows to what extent the departure of numerous neoliberal members following the Erfurter Resolution and the proclaimed “refugee crisis” of 2015 revolutionised the party’s image of Europe. For although there was already talk of combatting illegal migration by means of developmental aid in the countries of origin, the party still called for “minimal European standards of food and housing for asylum seekers” (AfD 2014: 16) and proposed overturning the work ban for refugees in order to expedite their integration. To all appearances, in the course of its radicalization the AfD moved from being a party that was merely sceptical towards the EU to one clearly opposed to it. Yet it is precisely its territorial demarcation that allows Europe to continue serving as a unifying element for the continent’s new-right parties. This holds true not only for the “refugee crisis” but also with regard to North America: the United States is commonly perceived as the epitome of “Western decadence” and seen as the source of many societal developments criticised by the “New Right” – gender mainstreaming, for example – which supposedly abet self-destruction of the European nations (Terkessidis 1995: 72-79). Consequently, the right-wing populist view calls on Europe to withdraw from its Western ties and reorient itself towards the East, particularly Russia (Polyakova/Shekhovtsov 2016: 79-80). The AfD openly rejects European sanctions against Moscow, and its representatives are not infrequently guests at conferences and forums in Russia (Fuchs/Middelhoff 2019: 227-237).
Right-wing Images of Europe and Their Origins
The above-mentioned inconsistencies in the right-wing populist image of Europe have several roots. For one thing, they reveal a fundamental problem of both the AfD and the “New Right”: despite all their criticism of European integration, the continent has long served them as a transnational identification sphere. The Right had to remodel their European conception after the defeat of the Nazi regime in 1945, without any longer openly pursuing the idea of a forcefully unified Europe (Hafeneger 1994). Indeed, a new differiantiation from Hitler and his power apparatus has been a core feature distinguishing the “New Right” since its formation during the 1950s from the “Old Right” that was actively involved in National Socialism (Zinell 2007: 101-147).
Furthermore, the “New Right” has a number of discussion platforms at its disposal which concern themselves with questions of Europe. Some examples worth mentioning are newspapers like Junge Freiheit (1986), Sezession (2003), and National-Zeitung (1950). In no small part, it is this variety that has allowed the “New Right” to embrace a thematically differentiated view of Europe, which comprises at least three different approaches that are partially overlapping or at odds with one another.
First, the concept of the European occident serves as an umbrella under which many opponents of the EU were able to shelter after the “refugee crisis.” Thus Alexander Gauland, a top AfD political leader, told the Junge Freiheit in 2016 that the victory over the Turks at Vienna in 1683 had defined the borders of the occident against the world of Islam.  Yet large segments of the “New Right” are unwilling to use the term in its intrinsically Christian connotation (Hürten: 1985). Instead, what resonates in right-wing populist references to the occident is a longing for security and ethnic homogeneity in the sense of a ‘white Europe’, especially without Jewish and Islamic influences. With good reason Volker Weiß has called this topos of the occident an all-purpose political slogan of the “New Right” because of its malleability (Weiß 2017: 186).
Second, the idea of a sovereign “third way”, originally to be taken by Europe between the liberal USA, which encourages decadence and uniformity, and the totalitarian USSR, has a long tradition. As with the idea of the Occident, Europe was envisioned as a bastion against harmful influences from the outside, in this case against either internationalist or socialist tendencies in politics and society. With the collapse of the Soviet Union the geographical focus of right-wing Europe correspondingly moved eastward. Increasingly, Russia seemed to epitomise the rejection of democratic, liberal, humanist and universalist values that lies at the bottom of the authoritarian concept of Europe of the “New Right”.
Third, the notion of a distinct European ‘middle way’ ties in closely with the idea of a European “heartland”. This concept is largely based on the reasoning of the philosopher Carl Schmitt, who postulated that following its defeat in the First World War Germany was the “heartland” of Europe. According to him, if Germany were kept intact as a nation and kept free from harmful outside influences (i.e. the transformation of the political system into a Western liberal democracy), then the German idea would automatically spread to the surrounding European states – a notion reflected in many plans for Central Europe (Mitteleuropa) since the mid-nineteenth century (Weiß 2017: 202-206). In this sense, the German “New Right” strives towards a hegemonic position for Germany in modern Europe and consequently rejects an entity like the EU, which wields supranational authority.
A very distinctive European experience of the “New Right” can be seen in the vigorous transnational networks established by its founders (Bar-On 2011). For example, Armin Mohler and his “Conservative Revolution” disciples actively corresponded with the French Nouvelle Droite surrounding Alain de Benoist, a former associate of Front National founder Jean-Marie Le Pen (Bar-On 2008). In the early 1950s, de Benoist already enjoyed good relations with the German Right and contributed regularly to their newspaper Nation Europa, whose establishment in 1951 was only made possible thanks to the financial support of the French Right. Yet the European networks of the “New Right,” which are so tight-knit intellectually, reach their limits in the parliamentary reality of the EU. Between 2015 and 2019, there were no fewer than three euro-sceptical factions of the European Far Right: the Italian Lega Nord, the Austrian FPÖ and the French Front National (Rassemblement National since 2018) gathered in Europe of Nations and Freedoms; the Polish PiS and the Sweden Democrats in European Conservatives and Reformists, and the British UKIP (later Brexit Party) with Nigel Farage headed the group Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy.
The attitudes held by the “New Right” in regard to Europe are the result of vigorous decades-long debates among right-wing intellectuals and often feed on older traditions of right-wing European thought. At the same time, this shows how adaptable, changeable and sometimes paradoxical these notions of Europe are. For while the ethnically homogenous nation-state (insofar as that is possible) is always central to their deliberations which naturally makes transnational collaboration more difficult, imaginings of European cooperation and cohesiveness do indeed exist. In light of the Europe-wide triumph of right-wing populism, it remains to be seen which concrete consequences and inconsistencies will result from these political ideas in practical terms. When we examine right-wing notions of Europe in past and present, it becomes clear that a unified EU-Europe under liberal and democratic auspices has never been inevitable in the course of history but was simply one option among many. In fact, in political terms, Europe could and can symbolise and embody different things at different times for its people.
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Europe, Right-wing Populism, New Right, Anti-liberal Ideas of Europe
Florian Greiner, University of Augsburg, email@example.com
Tobias Meßmer, University of Augsburg, TobiMessmer@gmx.de