The Observer view on the dangerous rise of the far right in Europe| Observer editorial

The success of the Sweden Democrats shows that no country is immune to hard-right populist parties

The scary rise of the far right in Europe: it’s a familiar theme and one that progressive politicians and liberal media often rehearse. A game-changing surge in support for nationalist, Eurosceptic, culturally intolerant parties was predicted after the 2016 Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s US election victory. Yet it never really took off.

Last year’s electoral success of Germany’s centre-left Social Democrats, and setbacks for the hard-right Alternative for Germany, suggested the forces of reaction were in retreat. Then came France’s presidential election run-off, when the far-right’s Marine Le Pen gained a record 13.3m votes – over 41% of the total.

The broader lesson to be drawn from such fluctuations is that efforts to discern distinct, Europe-wide trends can be misleading. Voting behaviour in different countries is influenced by personalities, events, timing, regional issues, party loyalties and electoral systems. In the end, all politics is local.

That said, far-right populist parties are a pan-European problem that concerns all democrats. Common ground, and ideological conjunctions, can be found, for example, between Sweden, in Europe’s far north, and Italy in the Mediterranean south. In both, radical right parties are on the up.

Surprising many in Stockholm, the Sweden Democrats, a party with neo-Nazi roots and a fierce anti-immigrant, law and order stance, won second place in last week’s national election, backed by one in five voters. Its support will be crucial for the new centre-right coalition aiming to replace the Social Democrats. If the fact that such a party, skewered by opponents as neo-fascist brown shirts, will play kingmaker is not alarming enough, then consider this: in the land of Greta Thunberg’s birth, 22% of first-time voters aged 18 to 21 voted for the Sweden Democrats, a party that shares the European far right’s scepticism about the climate crisis.

Worries about cost of living and energy crises, the war in Ukraine, immigration and gun crime – a hot-button issue in Sweden – may help explain this phenomenon. And they are not confined to Swedes. Such issues easily translate to Italy, where like-minded far-right parties are poised to win power next weekend.

Opinion polls suggest Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, an insurgent populist movement whose lineage traces back to Mussolini, will lead the next government. It is backed by two more familiar rightwing figures, the ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini of the League. Both are expert in the politics of division.

Like the Sweden Democrats and Le Pen’s National Rally (formerly the National Front), the Brothers of Italy have carefully laundered their image and suppressed their wilder urges. Meloni has moderated her anti-EU stance and distanced herself from Russia. In contrast, Berlusconi is known as an old pal of Vladimir Putin.

Italy’s far right shares other characteristics with European brethren – hostility to “elites”, authoritarian tendencies, disdain for multiculturalism and gender rights and an obsession with national identity underpinned by racism. Poland, the Netherlands, Austria, Spain, Serbia – all have their own versions of the same contagion.

The damage the far right can do in power is painfully evident in Hungary. Its pro-Moscow prime minister, Viktor Orbán, and his Fidesz party have obstructed EU action on Ukraine and undercut judicial, academic, minority and media freedoms. Last week, the European parliament declared Hungary was no longer a democracy.

At a moment of national introspection and not a little self-flagellation, the British should be grateful – and proud – that far-right parties have never gained the significance they have elsewhere. Could it happen here? If our affairs are mismanaged badly enough, yes, it could.

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