Is a new far-right on the rise in Europe?

Sunday 3 November, 16:0017:15, Cinema 2Political futures

In many European countries, alarm is rising about the threat posed by right-wing groups. In Germany, the politician Walter Lübke was murdered in June by a man with connections to the country’s neo-Nazi scene, and there have been revelations of far-right networks with links to the army and the police. In northern Italy in July, anti-terrorism police seized an air-to-air missile and other sophisticated weapons during raids on far-right extremist groups. And in Britain, the Observer recently revealed, the UK branch of the pan-European Identitarian Movement has been actively recruiting far-right supporters, including from within the Royal Navy, where one recruit was due to start work on a Trident nuclear submarine.

While there’s widespread agreement that the far-right is a serious problem, the nature of this threat is contested. Terrorism expert Bruce Hoffmann argues that the true extent and danger of new right-wing terrorism today is difficult to assess. But recent developments might not be as new as many assume. For example, right-wing groups in Europe have carried out sporadic attacks since the 1970s, such as the bombing of Bologna train station in 1980 that killed 84 people. German security experts point out that German neo-Nazis have also been trying to kill politicians for decades, as well as undertaking attacks such as the Munich Oktoberfest bombing, also in 1980, that killed 13 people and injured over 200.

While there are some suggestions of pan-European far-right movements – the air-to-air missile seized in Italy was said to have come from neo-Nazi groups operating in contested areas in Ukraine’s Donbass region – it is hard to establish whether these are just isolated examples that lack a wider social base. For example, Europe’s most famous far-right political party, Golden Dawn in Greece, recently suffered an electoral wipeout.

While it may be wrong to downplay the current rise in right-wing activities simply by pointing to past events, is there also a danger of overplaying the threat today? As with all terrorism, a balance needs to be struck between protecting citizens and politicians while guaranteeing civil rights and freedoms. However, at a time when a wide range of incidents or people are labelled as examples of the rise of a ‘fascist’ threat, some say this terminology makes it harder to assess who poses a genuine threat. Is there a danger that by focusing in bad faith on the allegedly widespread rise of fascism, we inadvertently downplay the risks posed by real neo-Nazis?

Some politicians and journalists have drawn a link between the rise of the new far-right and wider social problems and issues. Some claim that there is a connection between far-right murders and the growth of hate speech on the internet, or centre-right media groups playing up concern about immigration. Likewise, some point to the growth of a dangerous rise of white-identity politics.

Is it true that far-right fringe groups have been able to exploit social divisions and thereby gain much more influence? Or is there a risk that these fringe groups are being used by the political mainstream to push through an agenda directed more generally at unpleasant forms of politics? If we really are experiencing the rise of a new far-right extremism, how should a democratic and liberal society confront the problem?