Jonas Elvander: A far-right EU is no contradiction – and it has a history

The EU is commonly seen as a cosmopolitan bulwark against reactionary nationalism. But ideas of a united Europe have a long tradition within the far right.

Jonas Elvander is the editor of foreign affairs at the Swedish socialist magazine Flamman and a PhD researcher in history at the European University Institute in Florence


In 2019, before the European elections, the leader of the post-fascist party Brothers of Italy, Giorgia Meloni, gave a speech in Rome. She lambasted the European Union and claimed that the capital of the union should not be in the place where it is most convenient to have the institutions. ”It should be the one that best represents its millenarian identity!” she clamored.

Such intertwining of national and European identity is easier to do in countries like Italy, which sees itself as the descendants of the ancient rulers of the European continent, than in others. But Meloni’s claim that the heritage of her country and Europe are one and the same is representative of a broader tendency within the European far right.

According to a commonly held view, the EU stands for openness, tolerance, and multiculturalism, that is, the opposite of the inward-looking reactionary nationalism that preceded the founding of the European Community. This is true in so far as the EU can pride itself on its open borders and the free movement of people – except for non-European migrants, of course.

But the understanding of the EU as the negation of nationalist chauvinism, as purported by the likes of Jürgen Habermas, is dangerous, since it obfuscates the ways in which Europe itself can become the basis for an exclusionary and reactionary identity. Such politics has a long history. In its official historiography, the EU likes to trace its roots back to liberal or left-wing figures in the federalist wing of the resistance movements against the Axis powers, such as the Trotskyist Altiero Spinelli. That story often ignores the attempts to unite Europe under other ideological flags.

Eurofascism and euronazism

In the autumn of 1941, after the German invasion of France, a French newspaper declared that a united Europe had finally emerged: ”[B]orn out of discord, struggle and misery the United States of Europe has at last become reality.” The Vichy regime issued postcards showing European nations – including Nazi Germany – flocking to ”Mother Europe”, while the invasion of the Soviet Union was labelled a ”crusade for Europe” in Germany, where radio listeners could listen to a new ”Song for Europe”.

Hitler’s Neuordnung is one of several examples of how Europe has been used as the banner around which the far right has rallied. As the historian Mark Mazower has put it, “Hitler was in some ways the most European of the leading statesmen of the Second World War; unlike Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, after all, he did have a conception of Europe as a single entity, pitted against the USSR on the one hand, and the USA on the other.

In interwar France, many liberal intellectuals such as Bertrand de Jouvenel and Francis Delaisi conceived of plans for a united Europe based on economic planning, before turning towards fascism or collaboration. Anti-Marxist socialists – so-called ”neosocialists” – like Marcel Déat and the Belgian Hendrik de Man put forward ideas for how to plan a united European economy based on federated nation states. These designs for a European union often included Africa as a natural source of resources and manpower at Europe’s disposal, and ended up fusing with the euronazi project, with Delaisi, Déat, and De Man collaborating with the Germans.

In Italy, Mussolini’s regime naturally nurtured pan-European ambitions as well. Journals like Antieuropa and Ottobre argued that the end goal of fascism was to help Europe restore its ”spiritual equilibrium” by transcending democracy and liberalism. Since fascism saw itself as the universalistic opposite of socialism, it could present itself as a unifying force, with local support in each country and culture. The pan-European side of fascism was promoted by organisations like Istituto Europa Giovane, Comitato d’Azione per l’Universalità di Roma (CAUR) – a sort of fascist version of the Komintern – and the International center for fascist studies, which was founded in Lausanne in 1927 by the British director James Strachey Barnes. Other famous supporters of this authoritarian Europeanism were Winston Churchill, Julius Evola, Mircea Eliade, as well as the Scandinavians Rütger Essén and the future collaborator Vidkun Quisling.

Because of their different roots, Mussolini and Hitler’s projects eventually came into conflict. Whereas eurofascists saw their corporatist and totalitarian model as universally applicable, euronazism was essentially nothing more than a racial hierarchy. Hitler’s united Europe consisted of a vertical order of races, with the German and Nordic ones at the top and Slavic and other Untermenschen on the bottom. At the Volta conference in Rome in 1932, where Mussolini’s vision for a fascist Europe was debated, the conflict erupted into a fight, when the nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg criticized the emphasis on ethnic diversity.

According to the historian Patrick Pasture, Hitler had initially even been skeptical of the ”Third Reich” as name of the new regime, as it did not immediately connote German racial superiority. This obsession with racial differences eventually alienated peoples and collaborating elites in the conquered territories from the Germans, even though many had welcomed them. For Vichy officials like Pierre Laval and Philippe Pétain ”collaboration” had meant partnership between equal powers, but they soon came to find out they were subordinates in Hitler’s racial empire.

Postwar adaptations

Just like nazism and fascism in general, the eurofascist project survived the war better than euronazism. In 1951 the European Social Movement (ESM) was founded in Malmö, under the auspices of the Swedish fascist Per Engdahl. One member of this new alliance was the Italian Social Movement; the successor to Mussolini’s party and the predecessor of today’s Brothers of Italy. Another member organization was the French Nouvel ordre européen (NOE), founded by the former Trotskyist René Binet. The NOE demanded a European empire ”from Brest to Vladivostok”, and Binet’s newspaper Le Combattant européen urged former communist resistance fighters and Waffen SS members to join in the construction of the ”the European nation”.

Binet’s idea was that the white nations needed to unite in transnational federations in order to fight for the survival of the white race. His ”national-progressive” concept inspired the French ”New right” to found the Mouvement Nationaliste du Progrès in 1966, and three years later, the Research and Study Group for European Civilization (GRECE). This group was one of the key institutions within the far right for the development of the idea of Europe as a common civilization.

This Europeanist wing of the far right did not try to influence the newly founded European Community, but rather sought to replace it with its own European project. Similarly, the EC largely steered clear of far-right influences during the postwar period, although it could have been otherwise. When General Franco’s Spain applied for membership in 1961 member states like France and West Germany cautiously welcomed it, as did the European Commission. On a visit to Madrid the following year, a West German minister declared that Spain belonged in Europe because of its history, faith and honor. In the end it took resistance from the European Parliamentary Assembly and a number of NGOs to stop Spain from joining.

But if the EC and the subsequent EU was largely permeated by a civic and cosmopolitan vision of European unity, the civilizational ideal that underpinned the far-right projects never went away. This is perhaps most visible in the anti-islamic organization PEGIDA in Germany, which posits not Germany but Europe at the center of a cultural struggle against Islam, and the ”identitarian” movement which is particularly strong in the German and French speaking countries. So far such movements have mainly tended to organize themselves against or at least outside of the confines of the EU. But that could change faster than many Europeans might expect.

The EU:s civilizational turn

The EU’s self-understanding as a negation of the violence and crimes of centuries past is based on a selective reading of history. The focus on overcoming the divisions that culminated in the Second World War, while ignoring the violence committed by European empires elsewhere in the world – even though fascism has been identified as the application of colonial methods in the imperial metropole by the likes of Aimé Césaire and Hannah Arendt – has led to a one-sided understanding of European history. This distortion is especially egregious since the EU was largely founded on an imperial basis, with the Common Market initially stretching over a colonial territory from the Baltic to Madagascar.

As Hans Kundnani argues in the book Eurowhiteness: Culture, Empire and Race in the European Project, this asymmetrical treatment of history has effects on how the EU is perceived from the outside. The imperial amnesia, in combination with the one-sided enlargement to Eastern Europe but not to southern countries such as Turkey on religious and cultural grounds, means that the EU is often seen as a white civilizational project based on a narrow understanding of who is European. This identity, which many Europeans would abhor, Kundnani calls ”Eurowhiteness”.

Since the euro crisis of the 2010s, the EU has gone from projecting its soft-power outward to becoming more defensive and inward-looking, according to Kundnani. The union’s leadership today sees it as being encircled by threats, which since the migration crisis have increasingly become synonymous with non-white migrants and political instability in the neighboring regions. This point was illustrated two years ago by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borell, when he described the EU as a ”garden” surrounded by a ”jungle”.

This new rhetoric is indicative of what Kundnani calls the EU’s ”civilizational turn”; the civic and cosmopolitan elements of European identity are increasingly being replaced by an emphasis on Europe’s common cultural and civilizational heritage, that is, a more exclusionary understanding of what it means to be European.

When Ursula von der Leyen was picked as new President of the European Commission in 2019, she decided to show that she had heard the voice of the European peoples, which had just given the far right a large increase in seats in the European Parliament. This was translated into a focus on issues like migration and security, as well as the creation of the new Commission portfolio ”Promoting our European Way of Life”, a phrase first used in the early 2000s by the French socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to describe the West European welfare states. What this new position entailed was not very clear; policy areas included migration, security, education, religious dialogue, and the fight against antisemitism (but not islamophobia). Symbolically, however, the move was significant.

In March 2020 a crisis erupted on the border between Turkey and Greece, with migrants trying to enter the EU before being violently pushed back by Greek border security. Even though the violence broke against the rules of conduct of the European border agency Frontex, Von der Leyen hailed the Greek police as Europe’s aspida – Greek for ”shield”.

Such incidents illustrate the ongoing shift in values that the Commission emphasizes, from openness and tolerance to security and cohesiveness. This turn has made it possible for the far right to rediscover the civilizational aspects of the EU and embrace it in the name of the defense of a common European heritage.

A far-right EU?

When Giorgia Meloni formed a government in Italy last fall, the expectation of many was that it would immediately come into conflict with Brussels. The opposite was the case. Meloni had been taking advice from the former ECB chief Mario Draghi even before winning the election, and her debut on the European stage went as smoothly as for any neoliberal centrist.

The prerequisite for that consisted of two gestures: upon taking office Meloni immediately signalled that she would not obstruct the policy governing the eurozone, and that she wholeheartedly backed Ukraine and NATO against Russia. These guarantees were enough for her to become a respected member of the EU establishment, with the Christian Democratic parliamentary group EPP reaching out to form an official alliance with her party. No points of contention remained, since the Commission was already aboard with Meloni’s policies on the key issue of migration. Since then Meloni and Von der Leyen form an unlikely power couple on the international stage, smilingly concluding migration deals in Tunisia together and sometimes even going so far as dressing alike.

This development shows how easily the EU can become a vehicle for far-right politics: A Commission that gradually lurches ever further to the right, in order to better ”represent” the make-up of the European Parliament, until it becomes indistinguishable from the far right politicians like Von der Leyen claim to combat is a more plausible future than a progressive, let alone socialist EU. Not least since a left-wing reform of the union’s economic policy framework would require treaty changes.

Meanwhile the far right, who often have few or no problems with the EU’s neoliberal rules, can calmly focus on restricting migration further and curbing the rights of people they deem undeserving with the help of the EU, as long as they tow the Commission’s geopolitical line. It is against this background one has to understand Von der Leyen’s recent attack on the parties in the Identity and Democracy group in the European Parliament – from which the German AfD was recently expelled after their top candidate relativized nazism – which she described as ”Putin’s proxies”; it is not because they are far-right that they must be opposed, but because they are still against the euro and pro-Russia. Should these parties change position on those two issues, one could expect them to be invited to the main table of European affairs, should they come to power, just like Meloni was.

The new alliance between the center right and the far right is also self-sustaining. As the former editor of Le Monde diplomatique, Serge Halimi, has pointed out, the normalization of a post-fascist like Meloni on the European level could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back in France and finally leads to a victory for Marine Le Pen, since French voters see that a far-right government does not make a country into a pariah internationally.

For progressives and socialists who have little or no enthusiasm for the EU, this development should be reason enough to take EU politics and the upcoming elections seriously.

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