European Political Parties and the European Union: Some Disintegrating Trends of Integration

Article excerpt

One of the more disturbing events in West European politics recently has been the rise of right-wing extremism. Because of the advocacy of racist positions and the use of violence, the rise of extremism poses a danger to the political and social stability that the countries of Western Europe seemed to have so successfully achieved during the post-war era. In particular, the popularity and electoral success of far-right parties seem an especially dangerous element, as their success indicates the institutionalization of extremism within the political system itself. Scholars have taken a number of approaches in explaining the popularity and proliferation of extremist groups and parties. These have been based on analyses of domestic political and social conditions within the separate states where right-wing parties have emerged. Absent from the majority of these studies, however, is an attempt to link the individual occurrences of right wing extremism in countries like France, Germany, and Italy, to systemic explanations at a regional level. Yet right-wing extremism is becoming a common feature of the European landscape.

This article seeks to fill that gap by demonstrating the influence of European integration on the rise and expansion of right-wing extremism. Integration has both created an opportunity for dissent that has legitimated the claims of extremist parties and prevented mainstream parties from effectively handling such political challenges due to the transfer of policy responsibility from the national to the community level. The fragmentation of the party system, of which the proliferation of extremist parties is symptomatic, is but one aspect of the changes being brought to the European polity through integration. But it is a change that suggests that the project of uniting Europe may have some divisive and destabilizing consequences.(1)

In the last decade, scholars have employed four analytical approaches in their research concerning the re-emergence of extremist(2) parties in West Europe. First largely dismissed as a legacy of the far right, these parties were then considered single issue movements, based on xenophobia and immigration. Yet as support for these groups persisted, and even grew, social scientists began to view extremist parties as vehicles of protest more generally. Into their second decade of success, parties such as the French Front National are now deemed symptomatic of a crisis of the party system, a crisis rooted in social and political change. The information on the French National Front is by far the most extensive, especially for electoral and survey data.(3) In large part, this is because the National Front achieved electoral success before its counterparts elsewhere. Yet while the evidence presented here is mainly for the French case, it describes a pattern that is similar for extremist parties in other West European countries.(4)

Until the mid 1980s, research on right-wing parties tended to be more backward looking than forward looking. Scholars tended to focus on the ideological heritage of the right wing--links to Europe's fascist past.(5) Modern fascist parties are small (most were founded in the 1970s and early 1980s) and the connections to their fascist predecessors, both ideologically and personally, are easy to trace. Until the first electoral successes of the French National Front, few scholars and political analysts believed that these fringe groups could seriously destabilize the European party system, which during the post-war period had become solidly consolidated. Previous right-wing movements in the post-war period had failed to gain permanency because they were easily absorbed by the conservative mainstream. For example, in France, the Gaullists absorbed the Poujadist movement in 1958, while in Germany, the Christian Social Union (CSU) incorporated a number of right-wing groups that emerged in Southern Germany.(6) Thus, when the French National Front, led by Jean Marie Le Pen, first caused a stir in the municipal elections of 1983, it was dismissed as "vestige of history. …