Will Ukraine be a death blow for Europe's far right?

Pro-Russia, anti-immigrant populists are in a precarious position on the continent these days

Italy's Lega Nord party leader Matteo Salvini was embarrassed on a recent visit to Poland. EPA
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When the Italian right wing populist Matteo Salvini decided to show his concern for people fleeing Ukraine earlier this month, he failed to calculate that the trip would rebound on him.

Mr Salvini was giving a press conference with Wojciech Bakun, the mayor of Przemysl, a Polish town bordering Ukraine that has become a key entry point for Ukrainian refugees. Mr Bakun stood alongside Mr Salvini but chose to publicly criticise him for his past closeness to the Russian President Vladimir Putin. The mayor was blunt: “No respect for you,” he repeated in English.

Mr Salvini slunk away to jeers and hoots of derision from the crowd.

The supposedly hard men of the European Right and Left are having a difficult time and are certainly not used to open mockery – at least, not from live crowds. But the political calculus has swung against them. The ongoing rise in the number of people fleeing Ukraine, more than 3.5 million in less than four weeks, raises the stakes for the continent. So, too, does the enormous run up in fuel prices. As does the prospect of double-digit inflation for the rest of the year and beyond.

The contrast with the last generalised crisis could not be more stark. After the 2008 financial meltdown, which also saw prices rise and budgets squeezed, the populists on the fringes had a field day. Their growing popularity in Germany, France, Italy and elsewhere was only turbo charged by the events after 2014 when a human wave arrived on the continent as a result of the spread of ISIS in Syria.

The supposedly hard men of the European Right and Left are not used to open mockery

This time, there is a consolidation around the mainstream. There is a recognition that the politics of domestic escalation can have consequences both at home and abroad is suddenly dominating the political landscape.

Researchers are already revealing polling that shows there is united response around Europe, dispelling the kind of anti-EU moods that had dominated the narrative over the last decade. Sara Hobolt, from the London School of Economics, says there is a popular spillover effect stemming from the EU countries imposition of tough sanctions in response to the conflict.

The threat to Ukraine has acted to underline the threat to all countries in Europe and made not only governments but the populations focus on the need to come together to be stronger and more resilient. In line with the social identity theory of them and us, the crisis has provided a single focal point for the public to attribute stresses and anxieties. That again helps forge support for the established political system and nation.

A third point is that those countries that were pushing back from the European mainstream, particularly in central and eastern Europe are now finding that the solidarity and support of the 27 nations is a pillar of their own security. The combined wealth of the bloc and the rush to increase defence spending creates a sense of momentum for coming together to face the crisis. The kind of disarray and finger pointing from the populists has become a distraction in front of the public mood.

Anti-immigration sentiment and admiration for strongman politics were the prime movers of hostility to the EU. That is now a distinctly minority impulse because of the plight of the Ukrainians.

If this moment is to be a real turning point the next step must be to build sentiment into real gains for people. In the weeks ahead there willlikely be food shortages, even in Europe, since Russia and Ukraine export one quarter of all the traded wheat globally and three-quarters of sunflower oil used in cooking. These kitchen-based issues are going to test the leaderships of all European countries. Showing an effective and coherent plan for coping with the problems will be a real test for mainstream politicians. According to the think tank Chatham House, a financial crisis cannot be ruled out either. Its research note not only cited the energy and food crisis issues but also financial outflows. This not only stems from sanctions but also from insurance claims and any post-conflict infrastructure reconstruction. Among other reasons a rapid rebuild is needed because of the commodities that come from Ukraine and Russia.

The populists are on their heels. In France, Emmanuel Macron is coasting to victory in the presidential election because Eric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen are not only tarred with Russian links but unable to find traction on their anti-EU platforming.

As the costs of the crisis endures, including the loss of cheap energy and the end of the Cold War peace divide, there will be opportunists who cry a strong stance is a form of self harm.

The cycle has turned but a very rough period lies ahead in which the mainstream European leadership must demonstrate the region is led with both wisdom and vital resolve.

Published: March 21, 2022, 4:00 AM