It was reported on 5 April that Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s League Party (formerly the Northern League) and the country’s controversial deputy prime minister, has invited leaders of other European radical right parties to a conference in Milan, scheduled for 8 April. Salvini’s aim, according to the Guardian, is to create a bloc of right-wing populists which extends beyond the Europe of Nations and Freedom group in the European Parliament. With 36 seats, ENF is the smallest grouping in the parliament and Salvini is clearly aiming to create something grander.
Perhaps his biggest prize would be to attract Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s far-right prime minister, who has (still) not been ejected from the centre-right European People’s Party grouping.
What are his chances of success? Perhaps his biggest prize would be to attract Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s far-right prime minister, who has (still) not been ejected from the centre-right European People’s Party grouping in the European Parliament, despite having been censored for his attempts to push Hungary in an authoritarian direction (or as he styles it, ‘illiberal democracy’).
Although Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has confirmed it is sending a representative, Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front has said she will not be attending. Le Pen herself hosted a similar meeting in Nice in 2018, at which Geert Wilders from the Dutch Party for Freedom and several other influential radical right speakers were present, an event which indicated how hard it has been to create a pan-European radical right bloc.
Glorifying the nation
This should not surprise us. At the root of radical right ideology is a glorification of the nation, a narrative of exceptionalism and superiority that inevitably puts like-minded nationalists from different countries at odds with one another. It is one thing to drive across a European border to a secret location to attend a blood and honour gig; creating a fully collaborative pan-European radical right quite another challenge.
As David Barnes recently wrote here, narratives of European civilization have been both common and hard to sustain; Oswald Mosley’s post-World War II argument in favour of ‘Europe – A Nation’, which shares many similarities with today’s anti-immigrant discourses promoted by the likes of Salvini, found few takers, despite the fact that a notion of Europe having a homogeneous racial and cultural background was widely held across the continent’s radical right movements.
Oswald Mosley’s post-World War II argument in favour of ‘Europe – A Nation’… found few takers.
Besides, in today’s Europe, when some radical right leaders such as Salvini praise the Russians and share the Kremlin’s desire to destabilise the European Union, others, such as Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński and the Law and Justice Party – despite sharing Salvini’s aim to break the ‘Germany-France axis’ in Europe – come from a very different perspective, that of Poland’s traditional suspicion of Russia.
And where some, such as Geert Wilders and, to some extent, his new rival Thierry Baudet of the Forum for Democracy – whose penchant for highfalutin verbiage has already become notorious – talk of defending European freedom in the face of a supposed Islamist advance, others, such as Orbán and Le Pen, are more socially conservative.
Even if Europe’s radical right leaders share certain fundamental ideas, however, such as a belief in the need to defend the ‘white race’, a hatred of Islam, a desire to stop immigration, and a basic ultra-nationalist position, it is hard to see how the clash of nationalisms that conferences such as Salvini’s will expose can survive the experience.
Indeed, we have been here before. During the interwar period, attempts to create a ‘fascist international’ were set in motion on several occasions. Historians who have recently conducted research into ‘transnational fascism’ – such as Federico Finchelstein, Aristotle Kallis or Arnd Bauerkämper – have shown the extent to which fascist ideas and personnel criss-crossed the continent of Europe and beyond (to the Americas, for example), so that fascist ideology and practice were often shared.
Examples might be fascist aesthetics, racial ideology, or training camps. Fascist leaders such as Mosley or Coreneliu Codreanu were inspired by and devoted to Mussolini. And Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany established an uneasy alliance. But the analysis can only take us so far, before it becomes clear that such collaborations might have been set in motion but could not be sustained, as the different groups with their rival nationalisms ran aground on the rocks of mutual suspicion.
Where some, such as Geert Wilders… talk of defending European freedom in the face of a supposed Islamist advance, others, such as Orbán and Le Pen, are more socially conservative.
There may have been a sharing of ideas – a transnational fascism – but there was really no ‘fascist international’. Attempts to appeal to a basic ‘Europeanism’, centred on racial belonging and conspiratorial antisemitism, have historically proved insufficient to mobilise and maintain coherence across the continent, with nationalism proving far more powerful as an identity-building cohesive force. Perhaps the National Socialists came closest with their transnational membership of the SS (although this was not huge) and a racial ideology which found supporters in all European countries. Yet ultimately, as Bauerkämper and Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe write, ‘the vision of a fascist Europe proved to be a chimera. Fascists clearly espoused different versions of European unity.’
Today’s watchers of the radical right can but hope that things will be no different when the heirs of ‘classic fascism’ meet in Milan next week.