The fear and loathing of Europe’s right wing populism

In France’s first round of presidential elections last week, more than seven million voters chose Marine Le Pen, who promises to suspend all immigration and ban Muslim headscarves. The tactics of Le Pen are not only influential in France. Skillful appeals to a fear of foreigners and a loathing of elites are commonplace throughout Europe, with fierce anti-Islam sentiment the common denominator for the continent’s new far right parties and a growing fear of immigrants among their voters.

In Denmark, where elections aren’t scheduled until 2019, the Danish People’s Party has been the dominant right wing party for years, but a recent arrival, The New Conservatives, is gaining ground. They are taking a leaf from Le Pen, Geert Wilders of the Dutch right-wing Freedom Party who was convicted of incitement in December 2016, and Frauke Petry of the right-wing party Alternative for Germany who drew criticism in October 2016 for comparing migrants to compost.

Referring to immigrants as lazy, disloyal, ungrateful and criminal and not shying away from radical warnings of civil war, treason, rape, and persecution, Denmark’s New Conservative party leader Pernille Vermund regularly lashes out at those who are sympathetic to immigrants because they allegedly “accept (…) the subjugation of women, children, homosexuals and non-Muslims.” Vermund also compares “the financing of ‘Muslim parallel societies’ through Danish public welfare benefits”, to “nurturing the snake from one’s breast.”

Like Le Pen in France and Wilders in The Netherlands, Vermund objects to ‘established politics’. She levels harsh criticism at her political rivals for being “too soft” on immigration and for doing “too much talking”. Vermund’s anti-Islam sentiment and the rhetoric she uses to illustrate the gap between “the people” and “the elites”, resonate with Danish voters. Like many Americans who voted for Donald Trump, they commend her for her “straight talk” and ability to “get things done”.

Her party polled at 4.8% in late February – impressive for a party founded less than two years ago.

Similar to its European peers, Vermund’s party refrains from the homophobia, anti-Semitism and religious conservatism expressed by traditional far-right groups, claiming instead to defend liberal values against a new enemy: Islam. This is not unlike how Marine Le Pen has succeeded in “de-demonising” and “normalising” her National Front party by ousting her father, the party’s long-time leader as well as by promoting a shift from antisemitism to an anti-immigrant, islamophobic position. In the UK, the United Kingdom Independence Party has also managed to distance itself from the extremist British National Party by emphasising its economic libertarianism, even if they are still seen as radical right-wing by some.

Through appeals to individual freedoms, calls for Denmark to leave the EU, and ultra-liberal economic policies, Vermund draws in voters who traditionally would have avoided fringe groups like her party. This helps explain how seven out of 10 of her potential voters are not only male, white and middle-aged, but also reasonably wealthy and in possession of a university degree.

Vermund’s chances of leading the country any time soon are very slim. This is due in part to the system of proportional representation and Denmark’s tendency to form minority coalition governments, but it does not mean that she cannot still gain significant influence.

Not yet in Parliament, and a relative newcomer on the political scene, Ms Vermund is a talented communicator who comes across calm, accessible and to-the-point even when pressed on issues on which she does not seem particularly knowledgeable.

A regular participant in mainstream political TV talk shows, and with a column in one of the most widely read tabloid newspapers in Denmark, she is both widely known and a frequent object of derision by much of the liberal left and mainstream media. Her controversial statements are criticized in the most emphatic of terms, but scornful or fierce criticism is unlikely to win over any of her sympathizers. They are seldom offered the sort of attractive counter-narratives that might convince them.

Though ranked the happiest country on earth for several years in a row, Denmark has in recent years introduced legislation and initiatives labelled draconian by both national and international media. This includes most notably the passing of a law in 2016 which permits authorities to confiscate the personal possessions of asylum-seekers, and the government taking out advertisements in a Lebanese newspaper to dissuade refugees from coming to Denmark. More recently, the Danish Parliament in February issued a non-binding statement suggesting that to be considered “Danish” both of your parents must be “Western”, without clarifying what that means.

Coming across as controversially anti-immigrant in an environment which has turned so hostile towards immigration might seem like a real challenge. But Vermund and her party seem to be achieving it, with their unusually harsh language, comparing for example the 1951 Refugee Convention to “sharia law” because it – like sharia law, Vermund contends – is “out of touch with reality” and “a remnant of the past”.

A charismatic woman in her early forties, she comes across as determined with strong opinions, a strong character and, to some, as a charming person. More importantly, she is a political outsider, much like Geert Wilders and Donald Trump were. This is a quality that none of Denmark’s other political parties have, and one that appeals to voters who feel disenfranchised and ignored by the political system.

Scratching beneath the surface of their political promises, Vermund and her European peers are an uneven bunch when it comes to actual policies. But their fervent appeals to freedom and independence, and their ability to strike fear in people’s hearts through fierce anti-Islam sentiment, make them stand out. And successfully so. Whether in Denmark, Germany, France or The Netherlands, the new far right parties are steadily filling a vacuum left open by social democratic and centre-right parties that have ignored or waited too long to address voters’ growing anger and fear over immigration.

By responding to the economic anxiety and fear of terrorism with nativist economic policy and tough anti-immigration and border security measures, these new far-right politicians have won over people who have become fearful after years of anxiety-inducing rhetoric and who loathe the liberal elites who they are convinced no longer listen. In Denmark, Ms Vermund promises to listen. And unless the country’s perceived political elites come up with effective counter-narratives and start to find common ground with the people who have become so fearful, Europe is likely to grow increasingly polarised and antagonistic.

Andreas Reventlow, Programme Development & Digital Freedom Advisor at International Media Support, works to advance professional journalism and internet freedom with media and human rights defenders globally. He works with the Dangerous Speech Project to research cases of harmful speech in his native Denmark. He tweets at @andreasr.