The year 2020 will forever be marred by the global pandemic which spread around the world, locking us in our homes, hiding our faces behind masks and tragically taking hundreds of thousands of lives. As we enter 2021 the death toll continues to rise though the arrival of numerous vaccines has provided a much needed glimmer of hope. However, while a thin shard of light has begun to lift the seemingly unending darkness of last year, the ramifications of the pandemic will continue to be felt for years to come; not least the impending economic crisis set to grip the world economy. Yet, it has by no means been all bad news. In the face of such tragedy we have seen communities come together, neighbours and strangers helping one another and examples of heart-breaking sacrifice, love and hope.
2020 was also a year of anger with millions of people around the world hitting the streets to chant “I can’t breathe” in protest against the murder of George Floyd. Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in over 60 countries across all seven continents, including Antarctica, raised the issue of racism and systemic inequality up the political agenda. Statues fell, street names changed and national conversations about racism, imperial and colonial legacies filled column inches and TV screens. In Europe BLM protests have often taken on a domestic inflection, reflecting local issues such as the death of Adama Traoré which became a central element of protests in Paris. What started on the streets of Minneapolis in May birthed a global moment of protest.
Unsurprisingly, for the European far right both the global pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests were seen as opportunities. Though much of the European far-right has failed to exploit the pandemic as much as they hoped, it has ushered in a new age of conspiracy theories as people seek comfort in simple and monocausal explanations for a world seemingly out of control. Huge anti-lockdown and conspiracy theory demonstrations have been seen across Europe with especially large events in London and Berlin. The long-term effects of this are hard
to quantify but there is certainly a danger that conspiracy theory communities online are providing new trajectories of radicalization, especially towards more overtly antisemitic conspiracy theories. When it comes to BLM, the European far-right has erupted in conniptions, rejecting any discussion of racist societies and in some cases, pivoting towards increasingly overt racial politics, a tactic that is unlikely to pay dividends for them in the long term.
Amongst the chaos and tragedy however, there have been moments of genuinely good news. In October, after a trial lasting more than five years, the leadership of the Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn were found guiltily of running a criminal organisation. In 2012 shockwaves were felt across the continent as the party secured 18 MPs amidst the turmoil of the financial crisis. However, following the murder of an anti-fascist in 2013 a criminal enquiry began, though many held little hope it would have the huge ramifications it has. Golden Dawn’s leader Nikos Michaloliakos and six senior colleagues were convicted of heading a criminal organisation, Giorgos Roupakias was found guilty of murder and fifteen others were convicted of conspiracy. The trial has decimated one of the most dangerous neo-Nazi organisations on the continent, though the threat of extreme right violence in Greece remains.
November saw more good news as Donald Trump lost the Presidential election to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the highest-ranking female elected official in American history. The result was a major setback for the European far-right, much of which had closely aligned themselves to him, especially the far-right regimes in Poland and Hungary. However, now is not the time for complacency. Over seventy- four million American’s still voted for him in 2020. They voted for him after he called the neo-nazis and fascists at Charlottesville “very fine people”; after he imposed a Muslim travel ban; after he withdrew from the Paris Agreement on climate change; after he retweeted anti-Muslim videos from the deputy leader of Britain First and after he separated migrant children from their parents. Trump may have lost but there are millions of people in America and around the world that still agree with him. His defeat is a welcome setback and further proof that the rise of the right is not inevitable or undefeatable but across large parts of the globe societies are still moving away from liberal, progressive and democratic norms and towards fragmented, divided and anti-egalitarian societies. The pillars of liberal democracy continue to wobble.
The year came to an end with the United Kingdom finally fulfilling the promise of Brexit by leaving the Customs Union and the Single Market on 31 December 2020. The causes of Brexit were complex and by no means all far-right but anti-immigrant sentiment played a key role and it no doubt buoyed much of the European far-right. In the UK the far-right has already shifted its attention towards anti-migrant and anti-Chinese politics but for much of Europe the far-right will continue to wrestle with their own changing attitudes towards the European Union in the coming years.
AN INTERNATIONAL FAR-RIGHT
It is important to state from the outset that any overview of the European far right will necessarily talk in broad terms. This is especially important to understand when talking about the contemporary online far right. While it remains important to explore trends in traditional far right organisations such as political parties, the modern far-right is currently undergoing a broader and more fundamental shift; namely the emergence of a transnational and post-organisational threat. The European far-right scene today is a mixture of formalised far-right political parties, such as the Sweden Democrats, Vox in Spain, Lega in Italy and the AfD in Germany, and a series of looser, transnational far-right movements comprised of a disparate array of individuals collectively but not formally collaborating.
In the age of the internet we have seen the emergence of disparate movements such as the anti-Muslim ‘counter-jihad’ movement and the international alt-right. While all these groupings have formal organisations within them, they are often post-organisational. Thousands of individuals, all over the world, offer micro-donations of time and sometimes money to collaborate towards common political goals, completely outside traditional organisational structures. These movements lack formal leaders but rather have figureheads, often drawn from an increasing selection of far-right social media ‘influencers’. For most of the post-war period, ‘getting active’ required finding a party, joining, canvassing, knocking on doors, distributing leaflets and attending meetings. Now, from the comfort and safety of their own homes, far-right activists can engage in politics by watching YouTube videos, visiting far right websites, networking on forums, speaking on voice chat services like Discord and trying to convert ‘normies’ on mainstream social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. The fact that this can all be done anonymously greatly lowers the social cost of activism.
These new movements are best understood as a many-headed hydra. If one prominent activist or leader falls from grace, it is no longer a fatal hammer blow; others will simply emerge and the besmirched are discarded. Of fundamental importance is that these movements are genuinely transnational. While activists will generally be primarily preoccupied with local or national issues, they invariably contextualise them continentally or even globally. Often activists from all over the world come together for short periods to collaborate on certain issues and these loose networks act as synapses passing information around the globe. An Islamophobe in one country outraged by the serving of halal chicken in their
local fast-food restaurant can post on social media and the story will spread through the network. If picked up by a ‘supersharer’ (an especially influential activist with a large social media following) that local story will be picked up by likeminded Islamophobes all over the world and act as more ‘evidence’ and further convince them of the threat of ‘Islamification’.
If we are to truly understand the contemporary far right, we must therefore change our thinking. We live in a shrinking world: be it in our own community, our own country, continent or globe, we are interconnected like never before. Our ability to travel, communicate and cooperate across borders would have been inconceivable just a generation ago and while these opportunities are by no means distributed evenly, they have opened up previously impossible chances for progress and development. Yet greater interconnectivity has also produced new challenges. The tools at our disposal to build a better, fairer, more united and collaborative world are also in the hands of those who are using them to sow division and hatred around the world. If we want to understand the dangers posed by the politics of hatred and division we can no longer just look at our street, our community or even our country, we must think beyond political parties, formal organisations and even national borders. As such, all of the phenomenon discussed in this report should be understood as occurring to different extents in different parts of the European far-right, meaning both formal far-right organisations and post- organisational movements.