31 January 2014 – 08 February 2014 the European Voice held an online debate on the rise of the far right in Europe, questioning whether or not to engage or isolate these parties. The outcome and contributions to the debate can be found here. Below is my contribution to the debate in the Rebuttal Phase, arguing for critical engagement:
The issue of engagement with ideologies and socio-political stances we view as highly undesirable has always left the greater public with a sense of unease. Working within a counter-extremist think tank our stance on engagement has always been nuanced, and is best articulated as “critical engagement”. It is crucial not to ignore the spread of extremist ideologies while being equally careful not to legitimise extremist narratives.
Looking over some of the comments already made within this debate I agree that there is an inherent problem in both definition and understanding of the radical right as a political family. Across Europe the radical right takes on many faces and forms that expose a range of socioeconomic, political and ethnic concerns through the scapegoats they develop. While some parties target perceived external threats from general immigration (the Norwegian Progress Party, the French National Front and the Austrian Freedom Party), other parties focus direct attention on cultural threats from the influx of Muslim communities (the Dutch Freedom Party, National Democratic Party of Germany and British National Party). Meanwhile other radical-right parties target internal minority groups such as Jewish communities and Roma populations, with little concern for the spread of Islam. The Hungarian party Jobbik, for example, has openly supported Palestine against Israel due to their strong anti-Zionist sentiments.
What this means is that radicalisation trends are given salience and moulded by the environment they are native to. Nobody is born anti-Semitic, xenophobic or Eurosceptic. Extremist ideologies are socialised through a number of potential outlets: family, friends, media, exposure to activism and political propaganda to name a few. With this in mind re-socialization and deconstructing the extremist narrative needs to be challenged on multiple platforms, including by mainstream political parties.
We need to be careful that the appropriate people and parties engage on an appropriate level. Sharing political platforms and creating alliances with radical-right parties has the potential to legitimise unwanted ideologies. However, challenging radicalised politicians and party manifestos in an open debate, on a public playing field, can better educate and equip the public with the information needed to assess their own ideological stances.
Let it also be clear that prohibiting one radicalised facet, while engaging with others, can also legitimise the radical right. Isolation of the radical right by the mainstream, while publically engaging with other radicalised entities, such as Islamists or the far-left (brought up by one commentator) creates inherent hypocrisies within governments’ preferential treatment of ideas.
Engagement is therefore key in countering the radical right, but this engagement needs to be empowering. Political parties play a crucial role in presenting strong counter-narratives through open debate and by creating strong platforms that address the roots of civil discontent. That being said, empowerment also needs come from an active civil society which is willing to challenge radicalisation on a grassroots level. Only by combining top-down and bottom-up initiatives can the radical right be truly countered.