Study by Demos thinktank reveals thousands of self-declared followers of hardline nationalist parties and groups
The far right is on the rise across Europe as a new generation of young, web-based supporters embrace hardline nationalist and anti-immigrant groups, a study has revealed ahead of a meeting of politicians and academics in Brussels to examine the phenomenon.
Research by the British thinktank Demos for the first time examines attitudes among supporters of the far right online. Using advertisements on Facebook group pages, they persuaded more than 10,000 followers of 14 parties and street organisations in 11 countries to fill in detailed questionnaires.
The study reveals a continent-wide spread of hardline nationalist sentiment among the young, mainly men. Deeply cynical about their own governments and the EU, their generalised fear about the future is focused on cultural identity, with immigration – particularly a perceived spread of Islamic influence – a concern.
"We're at a crossroads in European history," said Emine Bozkurt, a Dutch MEP who heads the anti-racism lobby at the European parliament. "In five years' time we will either see an increase in the forces of hatred and division in society, including ultra-nationalism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and antisemitism, or we will be able to fight this horrific tendency."
The report comes just over three months after Anders Breivik, a supporter of hard right groups, shot dead 69 people at youth camp near Oslo. While he was disowned by the parties, police examination of his contacts highlighted the Europe-wide online discussion of anti-immigrant and nationalist ideas.
Data in the study was mainly collected in July and August, before the worsening of the eurozone crisis. The report highlights the prevalence of anti-immigrant feeling, especially suspicion of Muslims. "As antisemitism was a unifying factor for far-right parties in the 1910s, 20s and 30s, Islamophobia has become the unifying factor in the early decades of the 21st century," said Thomas Klau from the European Council on Foreign Relations, who will speak at Monday's conference.
Parties touting anti-immigrant and Islamophobic ideas have spread beyond established strongholds in France, Italy and Austria to the traditionally liberal Netherlands and Scandinavia, and now have significant parliamentary blocs in eight countries. Other nations have seen the rise of nationalist street movements like the English Defence League (EDL). But, experts say, polling booths and demos are only part of the picture: online, a new generation is following these organisations and swapping ideas, particularly through Facebook. For most parties the numbers online are significantly bigger than their formal membership.
The phenomenon is sometimes difficult to pin down given the guises under which such groups operate. At one end are parties like France's National Front, a significant force in the country's politics for 25 years and seen as a realistic challenger in next year's presidential election. At the other are semi-organised street movements like the EDL, which struggles to muster more than a few hundred supporters for occasional demonstrations, or France's Muslim-baiting Bloc Indentitaire, best known for serving a pork-based "identity soup" to homeless people.
Others still take an almost pick-and-mix approach to ideology; a number of the Scandinavian parties which have flourished in recent years combine decidedly left-leaning views on welfare with vehement opposition to all forms of multiculturalism.
Youth, Demos found, was a common factor. Facebook's own advertising tool let Demos crunch data from almost 450,000 supporters of the 14 organisations. Almost two-thirds were aged under 30, against half of Facebook users overall. Threequarters were male, and more likely than average to be unemployed.
The separate anonymous surveys showed a repeated focus on immigration, specifically a perceived threat from Muslim populations. This rose with younger supporters, contrary to most previous surveys which found greater opposition to immigration among older people. An open-ended question about what first drew respondents to the parties saw Islam and immigration listed far more often than economic worries. Answers were sometimes crude – "The foreigners are slowly suffocating our lovely country. They have all these children and raise them so badly," went one from a supporter of the Danish People's Party. Others argued that Islam is simply antithetical to a liberal democracy, a view espoused most vocally by Geert Wilders, the Dutch leader of the Party for Freedom, which only six years after it was founded is the third-biggest force in the country's parliament.
This is a "key point" for the new populist-nationalists, said Matthew Goodwin from Nottingham University, an expert on the far right. "As an appeal to voters, it marks a very significant departure from the old, toxic far-right like the BNP. What some parties are trying to do is frame opposition to immigration in a way that is acceptable to large numbers of people. Voters now are turned off by crude, blatant racism – we know that from a series of surveys and polls.
"[These groups are] saying to voters: it's not racist to oppose these groups if you're doing it from the point of view of defending your domestic traditions. This is the reason why people like Geert Wilders have not only attracted a lot of support but have generated allies in the mainstream political establishment and the media."
While the poll shows economics playing a minimal role, analysts believe the eurozone crisis is likely to boost recruitment to anti-EU populist parties which are keen to play up national divisions. "Why do the Austrians, as well as the Germans or the Dutch, constantly have to pay for the bottomless pit of the southern European countries?" asked Heinz-Christian Strache, head of the Freedom Party of Austria, once led by the late Jörg Haider. Such parties have well over doubled their MPs around western Europe in a decade. "What we have seen over the past five years is the emergence of parties in countries which were traditionally seen as immune to the trend – the Sweden Democrats, the True Finns, the resurgence of support for the radical right in the Netherlands, and our own experience with the EDL," said Goodwin.
The phenomenon was now far beyond a mere protest vote, he said, with many supporters expressing worries about national identity thus far largely ignored by mainstream parties.
Gavan Titley, an expert on the politics of racism in Europe and co-author of the recent book The Crises of Multiculturalism, said these mainstream politicians had another responsibility for the rise of the new groups, by too readily adopting casual Islamophobia.
"The language and attitudes of many mainstream parties across Europe during the 'war on terror', especially in its early years, laid the groundwork for much of the language and justifications that these groups are now using around the whole idea of defending liberal values – from gender to freedom of speech," he said.
"Racist strategies constantly adapt to political conditions, and seek new sets of values, language and arguments to make claims to political legitimacy. Over the past decade, Muslim populations around Europe, whatever their backgrounds, have been represented as the enemy within or at least as legitimately under suspicion. It is this very mainstream political repertoire that newer movements have appropriated."
Jamie Bartlett of Demos, the principal author of the report, said it was vital to track the spread of such attitudes among the new generation of online activists far more numerous than formal membership of such parties. "There are hundreds of thousands of them across Europe. They are disillusioned with mainstream politics and European political institutions and worried about the erosion of their cultural and national identity, and are turning to populist movements, who they feel speak to these concerns.
"These activists are largely out of sight of mainstream politicians, but they are motivated, active, and growing in size. Politicians across the continent need to sit up, listen and respond."
As a political party, having tens of thousands of online supporters is one thing but translating these into actual votes can be quite another. However, the Demos survey found that 67% of the Facebook fans of the nationalist-populist groups which put up candidates – some are street movements only – said they had voted for them at the most recent election.
Further analysis found that female supporters were more likely to turn support into a vote, as were those who were employed.