The politics of distrust and divisiveness is in the ascendant throughout Europe

Right-wing parties with anti-immigrant messaging are predicted to do well in this year's elections

A member of the Carabinieri gestures towards migrants outside the hotspot, on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, Italy, in September. Reuters
Powered by automated translation

Amid the profound uncertainty, hopes and fears that dominate thoughts as Europe enters 2024, some predictions can be made with confidence and have the power to impose radical change on the continent and its way of life.

Beyond reasonable doubt, the terrible suffering of Gaza itself, following the horrendous attack of October 7, will continue to cause not only deep shock but deep division across Europe. While there remains great sympathy for Israelis killed, maimed or bereaved by Hamas, millions are also appalled at a military response that seems as indiscriminate and frankly inhuman as terrorist atrocities. These divisions are sure to assume increasing prominence.

In another inevitable feature of the coming year, some of the elections taking place within the 27-nation EU, and in several individual countries, may well produce outcomes uncomfortable for liberal, anti-extremist sensibilities.

Just as a mighty chunk of the US electorate appears ready to overlook Donald Trump’s fairly obvious failings and restore him to the White House in the November presidential race, a significant number of Europeans are ignoring conventional wisdom and embracing politicians of the far right when the rhetoric offers answers – however simplistic – to their worries about immigration, crime and the cost of living.

If these are areas in which it is possible to envisage with relative ease what will actually happen, the new year would be unusual if it did not also bring plenty of surprise, predominantly unwelcome.

Who, for example, can truly tell how the Ukraine war, its place in the international news agenda diminished by harrowing coverage of death and destruction in Gaza, will develop and how strongly Europe’s patchily united front against Russia’s aggression will hold? Between them, Hamas and the Israeli military have succeeded in easing pressure on Russia, not that western condemnation seems to trouble it greatly in any case. There is much apprehension in the Baltics and former Eastern Europe about what Moscow might feel emboldened to do next if Ukraine’s two-year resistance crumbles.

From early in the new year, Europe’s coming series of elections will begin to put flesh on the bones of political prediction. Finland, where far-right advances have already put the Finns Party in a coalition government, goes first, with presidential elections starting on January 28.

This will be followed by Portuguese legislative polling in March in an election called after corruption allegations forced the socialist prime minister, Antonio Costa, to resign in November. He continues to serve as caretaker premier pending the election, which could show disturbing levels of support for the far-right Chega (Enough!) party led by Andre Ventura, a former football commentator who has gone from attacking “criminal populism” in a thesis for his law PhD to whipping up hatred of foreigners, Muslims, Roma and sexual minorities.

Recent polls put Chega just 10 points behind the neck-and-neck conventional right and left parties, leading to speculation that Mr Ventura could have an influential voice in a coalition, despite previous assertions that the centre-right Social Democrats would agree to no such deal.

Britain is also approaching a general election, which the beleaguered Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has confirmed will take place this year.

The widely expected humiliation of the Tories, as the Conservatives are also known, would throw the party out of power after 14 years of troubled government and increasing unpopularity that repeated changes of prime minister – Mr Sunak is the fifth in that period – have failed to remedy. Every move he makes in the run-up to the election, starting early with hints that inheritance tax will be abolished, will be portrayed by opponents as a desperate attempt to entice disgruntled past supporters back into the fold.

But there is broad acknowledgement, even among many Tory members of Parliament, that only serious miscalculations of public mood can now keep Mr Sunak’s Labour opponent Keir Starmer out of the official prime ministerial residence, 10 Downing Street. More than 50 Conservative MPs have already announced they will not stand, in some cases anxious to avoid the likelihood of crushing defeat.

Mr Starmer’s natural caution occasionally makes him appear timid in policy announcements. Formerly a committed European, he has resolutely ruled out rejoining the EU’s single market or customs union despite compelling evidence that the country now regrets voting Leave in 2016. So discredited is Brexit that it seems beyond belief that voters in other countries would contemplate making the same mistake.

Yet Euroscepticism is rife among the far-right parties hoping for success in elections to the European parliament in June. If turnout is low, as is common, their chances will be greater, handing the so-called Identity and Democracy grouping of right-wing European populists a pivotal role as the third-biggest alliance. The trend is EU-wide, with the far right having made significant gains in Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Finland as well as France.

Even a French scandal that has led to Marine Le Pen and National Rally colleagues facing criminal charges for allegedly using EU money to fund their party machine has had little impact among voters drawn to her “let’s give power to the people” slogan.

Her message appeals especially to country dwellers feeling the economic pinch in areas far from Paris and other big cities, and to those inclined to demonise migrants and blame them for assorted social ills. Gone is the assumption that voters can be trusted to form a “republican front” to keep the far right out of power. To the horror of socialists, centrists and some on the moderate right, Ms Le Pen’s cleansing of her party’s image has been a resounding success.

The far right is also tipped to do well in this year’s Belgian and Austrian elections. And in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party, driven by rampant Islamophobia, is the most glaring example outside France of the far right’s surge. His party won the largest number of seats in November’s general election, and he is now searching for partners to join him in forming a coalition. With most mainstream politicians repelled by a programme that has included a referendum on leaving the EU and threats to ban mosques, Islamic schools and the Quran, he has been forced to promise to moderate his policies to keep alive hopes of becoming prime minister.

Throughout Europe, the politics of distrust and divisiveness is in the ascendancy.

All these developments make for a gloomy start to 2024. With glass half full, we can hope that one year from now, the apparently foregone conclusions will not have proved so foregone after all. With the same glass half empty, we have cause for concern.

Published: January 01, 2024, 7:00 AM
Updated: January 02, 2024, 11:15 AM