The security implications of the far-right’s rise in Europe

The security implications of the far-right’s rise in Europe

“The far-right’s most recent electoral emergence in Europe raises concerns about the possible securitization of multiculturalism, the inspiration of radical right terrorism and the destabilization of liberal democracies. Understanding its rise and tactics can help liberalism address the far-right’s challenge.”

by Javier Martínez Mendoza

In the last five years, instability in the Middle East and Islamist terrorism have been perceived as two of the main threats to Western societies’ everyday life. However, an inward look at the structure of these societies begins to indicate a new perspective of an ever-present but exacerbated threat. The phantom of the radical right is becoming an increased security challenge for many western societies and consequently, mainstream policy-making is dangerously overlooking the threats posed by far-right movements.

In 2016, the electoral emergence of far-right politics was made evident by Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory. Both cases illustrate the influence of heightened Euroscepticism and an anti-immigration agenda, respectively, in order to achieve ground-breaking electoral gains. In the following years, radical right parties would start disrupting the political landscape of other Western countries.

In  Europe, Alternative for Germany’s (AfD) success in federal and state elections precipitated a break-up of the country’s twelve-year-long period of political stability under Angela Merkel. This led her to step down as leader of the centre-right [1]. In Southern Europe, the Italian right-wing political party Lega Nord have managed to take control of the public agenda through the Ministry of Interior and its recent immigration policy.  This left the majority coalition partner Five Star Movement without political initiative. Similarly, Vox’s victory in Andalucia has put an end to Spain’s exceptional status as the single major European country without a significant far-right party [2].

Regardless of the far-right’s latest boom after the 2015 refugee crisis, its current emergence in Western liberal democracies can be traced back to the 2008 financial crisis. Consequently, the economic and social struggles exacerbated by the crisis amongst European and North American societies,  raised the appeal of the radical right. Arguably, the political platform with which the far-right has addressed people’s grievances can be viewed as an antagonistic response to the cultural, social and political changes caused by globalization in the last 40 years and accelerated in the last decade.

Securitizing immigration and beyond

The radical right has built and benefited from a narrative that warns societies of the perils of immigration and multiculturalism. Following their logic, prominent features of globalization threaten the cohesion of national identities and traditional values they view as essential. Thus,  nativism, a radical and exclusionary form of nationalism, has risen as a challenge for the liberal democratic order and domestic security due to processes of politicization and securitization that lead to extraordinary policies and the normalisation of antagonistic attitudes against “securitized” groups or institutions within societies [3].

In the last four decades, economic integration, a push towards progressive social rights and immigration have transformed Western societies, therefore, changing the social and demographic landscape and gradually expanding into multiculturalism. Reactions to these social transformations have been mixed. However, animosity towards cultural diversity and migration fluxes increased after the 2008 financial crisis and, most recently, by the 2015 refugee crisis [4].

Consequently the far-right have often argued that across Europe the waves of refugees entering the continent are terrorist cells planning to carry out attacks there. Despite the ambiguity of their argument, this narrative has gained momentum, especially after terror attacks such as the attack in Paris on November 13th, 2015 [5].

Recently, this rhetoric has earned far-right parties electoral successes, granting them access to an increased presence in national parliaments, and consequently the political weight to form coalitions in some governments. But most importantly, they seem to have seized control of the political discourse in Western societies by making immigration policy a key electoral issue. Mainstream parties now feel inclined to embrace an essence of the far-right’s proposals to avoid losing voters to the far-right, or compelling majority coalition partners to implement tougher immigration controls [6, 7].

Even if these measures have allowed centre-right parties to hinder the electoral advance of far-right formations they are consequently practising the normalisation of ultra-nationalist discourse. This creates a dangerous environment for minorities in Europe through the politicization of cultural diversity and immigration  [8, 9].

Furthermore, far-right parties and leaders are often characterised as authoritarian and in contrast with liberal democracy and progressive social values. Once in power, far-right governments –like Viktor Orbán’s in Hungary and Law and Justice majority regime in Poland, have expressed this perceived authoritarianism targeting and hampering free media, autonomous judiciary systems and liberal democratic institutions. Despite seeking political representation through democratic means and claiming to defend Western liberal values from terrorism and crime through their migration policies–they refer to the incompatibility of Muslim immigrants with liberal democratic values [10, 11, 12].

Far-right violence and terrorism

The terror attacks carried out in recent years by Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have instigated Western governments to pay close attention and employ concerted efforts to tackle Islamist terrorism. However, far-right terrorism has been present in the West for decades and remains worryingly overlooked by decision-makers and security forces [13].

Radical right terrorism refers to the instances when far-right extremists answer violently to contemporary social changes, such as their countries’ openness to different cultures or social progressive values. Their disenchantment with liberal democracy and their personal and social grievances could lead radicalized groups or individuals to take matters into their own hands rather than relying on mainstream politics. Hence, there is a risk members of far-right groups might address their perceived security threat through vigilantism and attacks carried out by clandestine cells, challenging the state’s monopoly on the use of force and threatening the lives of minorities and other groups in Western societies. Radicalized individuals may also be inspired by far-right politicians rhetoric against immigration and multiculturalism [14, 15, 16].

Right-wing extremism, similar to its Islamist counterpart, has benefited from social media and internet communications. Extremists have utilised technology to establish networks that cross borders and build connections with like-minded groups and political formations. Furthermore, social media has allowed them to improve their training, recruitment, fundraising methods, while spreading propaganda and radical content in such a way that they reach a broader audience while remaining clandestine. Thus, violent far-right cells and individuals have become an internationalised phenomenon that has increased violent attacks in the last four years and should not be overlooked by government authorities [17, 18, 19].

Instability and inattention to other issues

Western allies consider themselves threatened by Russian hostilities and therefore political instability in the West represents a strategic gain for Russia. As previously mentioned, far-right parties have aimed to disrupt liberal democracies’ political stability profiting from an increasing social polarization and breaking the traditional left-right political divide in favour of identity politics. They have also questioned economic cooperation, such as the European integration project. Even if far-right political parties are not directly influenced by Russia, the turmoil caused by their disruption in European liberal democracies undoubtedly profits Russia’s foreign policy  [20].

On the other hand, the securitization of immigration and multiculturalism arguably aims to divert policy-makers from comprehensively addressing actual security issues. For instance, terrorism will continue to fester if the targeting of Muslim minorities by the far-right contributes to Islamist radicalization within the West. Likewise, climate change, economic turmoil and social justice vindications cannot be addressed if the far-right shifts attention to immigration and promotes an environment of political instability that hinders the process of policy-making [21].


Western liberal democracies need to acknowledge the security risks posed by the far-right. It is a threat to their democratic processes and has arguably shifted the political and electoral discussions towards the far-right’s agenda. Radical right politics have emerged from within liberal democratic societies and have already crossed borders by establishing networks of like-minded groups; consequently becoming an international security concern.

Mainstream parties embracing policies from the far-right hoping to halt far-right parties from attaining further electoral success are helping them galvanize political momentum. Even without winning a majority in parliaments, the politicization and eventual securitization of immigration and multiculturalism have helped far-right groups advance their goals and get closer to broader parliamentary representation or even governmental positions.

In order to address the far-right’s challenge, it is necessary to understand the root causes of their emergence, the issues that have contributed to increasing their public appeal and learn from their rhetoric and networks. This is not to adopt the far-right’s ideas rather to learn from their communication methods in order to promote liberal values in a compelling way for disenfranchised and grieving populations.

Understanding the risks to security and liberal democracy posed by the far-right –namely, the securitization of immigration and multiculturalism, the inspiration of far-right violence and the overlooking of other security threats and their relation with the far-right– will allow mainstream policy-makers to renovate liberal democratic processes in order to alleviate people’s grievances without them needing to resort to far-right stances. The far-right will remain as a key and challenging feature in liberal democracies for the upcoming years, but its footprint in democratic institutions and social cohesion is still in the making; liberal elites and individuals can still make a difference.

[1]Katrin Bennhold & Melissa Eddy (2018). Germany Without Angela Merkel: Unthinkable? Think Again, She Says. The New York Times.
[2]Christoph Hasselbach (2018). Opinion: Right-wing populism is EU’s elephant in the room. Deutsche Welle.
[3]Martin A. Schain (2018). Shifting Tides: Radical-Right Populism and Immigration Policy in Europe and the United States. Migration Policy Institute.
[4]Pankaj Mishra (2016). The Globalization of Rage: Why Today’s Extremism Looks Familiar. Foreign Affairs.
[5]Martin A. Schain (2018). Op. Cit.
[6]Aristotle Kallis, Sara Zeiger & Bilgehan Öztürk (2018). Introduction. In Kallis, Zeiger &Öztürk (eds.), Violent Radicalisation & Far-Right Extremism in Europe. SETA Publications.
[7]James F. Downes, Matthew Loveless & Andrew Lam (2018). Opening up Pandora’s box? How centre-right parties can outperform the radical right on immigration. LSE.
[8]Aristotle Kallis, Sara Zeiger & Bilgehan Öztürk (2018). Op. Cit.  
[9]Tamáz Berecz & Kristóf Domina (2012). Domestic Extremism in Europe: Threat Landscape. Athena Institute.
[10]Ben Margulies (2018). Nativists are Populists, Not Liberals. Journal of Democracy, 29:1.
[11]Zsolt Eyedi, Chantal Mouffe, Yannis Stavrakakis, Ruth Wodak & John Fitzgibbon (2017). Five views: is populism really a threat to democracy? LSE.
[12]Max Bergmann, Carolyn Kenney & Trevor Sutton (2018). The Rise of Far-Right Populism Threatens Global Security and Democracy. Center for American Progress.
[13]In the US, extreme right violent incidents rose from five or less per year between 2007 to 2011, to 31 in 2017. Similarly, in Europe these attacks rose from 0 in 2012 to 30 in 2017. Seth G. Jones (2018). The Rise of Far-Right Extremism in the United States. CSIS.
[15]Daniel Koehler (2016). Right-Wing Extremism and Terrorism in Europe Current Developments and Issues for the Future. PRISM, 6:2.
[16]Aristotle Kallis, Sara Zeiger & Bilgehan Öztürk (2018). Op. Cit.
[17]Seth G. Jones (2018). Op. Cit.
[19]Daniel Koehler (2016). Op. Cit.
[20]Alina Polyakova (2016). Why Europe Is Right to Fear Putin’s Useful Idiots. Foreign Policy.
[21]Sean Illing (2018). Reciprocal rage: Why islamist extremists and the far right need each other. Vox.

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