Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative government in Britain is in turmoil. But the resignations that have rocked it in recent days — even that of Boris Johnson, who was until recently her obsessively ambitious foreign secretary — risk blinding us to a simple truth: The big reason Mrs. May’s party is in so much trouble over Brexit is that it is determined at all costs to end “the free movement of people” that, even for those European countries outside the European Union, is a condition of belonging to the bloc’s single market.
Why are Britain’s Conservatives so set on that course, despite the fact that access to that market is vital to the prosperity of the country they govern? Because promising to “take back control” of their country’s borders gradually became the party’s default response to a challenge that so many of Europe’s center-right parties have been trying to deal with for a decade or more.
The rise of anti-immigrant nationalist insurgencies claiming to represent “the people” against a corrupt and uncaring political establishment has deep economic, political, social and cultural roots. Yet the reaction of the Continent’s mainstream conservative, market-liberal and Christian democratic parties can be boiled down to four fairly shallow, and equally ineffective, approaches. Only if the center-right fully faces up to the fact that they are all dead ends can it begin to come up with better, more creative and probably more combative ways to deal with the challenge it’s facing.
The first approach is to try to ignore the populist radical right — and even treat it as some kind of pariah. That’s essentially what the Christian Democratic Union of Germany and the Moderates in Sweden did for years. In the end, it hasn’t worked.
The far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany took a remarkable 13 percent of the vote in last year’s federal election. The party’s rising popularity has so spooked Chancellor Angela Merkel’s junior partner, Bavaria’s Christian Social Union, that its leader, Horst Seehofer, recently came perilously close to resigning in protest of her supposed failure to act on the matter — a resignation that might easily have brought down her government.
Meanwhile, the fact that the Sweden Democrats originated in that country’s white supremacist underground didn’t prevent them from gaining 13 percent in the 2014 general election. Many predict they will do even better this year, even in the wake of attempts by the Swedish government to strengthen border controls.
The second approach taken by the center-right is to toughen its stance on migration and multiculturalism, promising to make life more difficult both for those who want to come to the country and for those who’ve already made it. Countries where the center-right has tried this include the France, the Netherlands, Denmark — and Britain.
Again, though, the results haven’t exactly been impressive: The far-right National Front made it into the runoff in the 2017 French presidential election. The equally extreme Dutch Party for Freedom hasn’t gone away. The Danish People’s Party became Denmark’s second-biggest party when it took 21 percent of the vote in the 2015 general election — at which point it resumed a role it had already played between 2001 and 2011, namely guaranteeing the survival of a minority government led by the center-right.
In Britain, the Conservative Party’s decision to try to outflank from the right the U.K. Independence Party, the populist radical-right party that under Nigel Farage (a big fan of Donald Trump) helped bring about Brexit — delivered it only a pyrrhic victory. True, the U.K.I.P.’s vote share plummeted to just 2 percent in 2017 from 13 percent in 2015. But by alienating better-educated, more liberal voters, Mrs. May ended up losing her parliamentary majority. Since then, she has been forced to rely on the support of Northern Irish evangelicals to stay in power — and now, given the disagreements within her own party, even that might not be enough.
The third approach takes this kind of support arrangement to the next level. Since the turn of the century, center-right parties in Italy and Austria have been periodically involved in full-blown coalition with populist radical-right parties, at least partly in the hope that doing so would expose the latter as blowhards incapable of delivering on their ramped-up rhetoric. The results? Policies on migration and multiculturalism have grown ever tougher without doing much — at least in the long term — to dent the standing of the populists.
Last year saw the Austrian People’s Party, nominally Christian democrats, obliged to invite their radical competitors, the Freedom Party, into government for the second time. And the policy consequences are now becoming clear: The state has been empowered to seize cash and cellphones from asylum seekers and is planning to reduce welfare benefits to migrants who don’t pass language tests and to ban girls under 10 from wearing head scarves. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia finished this year’s general election behind La Liga, whose leader, Matteo Salvini, is now the country’s interior minister and the man responsible for Italy’s recent refusal to allow boats carrying desperate asylum seekers to dock in its ports.
The fourth and last approach is the most radical of all. Rather than trying to isolate, borrow from or govern together with a populist radical-right insurgency, a center-right party actually turns itself into one. This is effectively what has happened in Hungary, where Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz has over the past decade transmogrified from an apparently market-friendly mainstream party into an ultranationalist champion of closed borders and “illiberal democracy.”
Has it worked? Well, only up to a point. In Hungary, in spite of Mr. Orbán’s efforts (or who knows, partly because it has shifted the system’s center of gravity so far to the right) Jobbik, which is still very much a far-right party notwithstanding recent attempts to render itself more respectable, nonetheless took 19 percent of the vote in 2018 — down just 1 percent from its best ever showing four years previously. And there has been a pretty high price to pay.
So, trying to beat a radical right-wing populist insurgency by becoming one — or for that matter, by adopting its agenda and even inviting it into government — turns out to be a fool’s errand. Just as important, it also has a huge ethical, as well as economic, cost. As the Bible puts it, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” That’s a question that Europe’s center-right politicians (and maybe their Republican counterparts in the United States, too) seriously need to ask themselves, and soon.
‘To Defeat Far-Right Nationalists, Don’t Try to Imitate Them’ by Tim Bale originally appeared in The New York Times on 16 July 2018 at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/16/opinion/to-defeat-far-right-nationalists-dont-try-to-imitate-them.html.