by Marta Lorimer
Far-right parties are frequently, and not without cause, painted as fervent Eurosceptics, or even ‘Europhobes’. Ideologically nativist, and usually placed at the margins of the political system, these parties appear as almost naturally inclined to oppose a supranational construction generally supported by mainstream actors. But how accurate is this narrative? Are far-right parties really naturally ‘Eurosceptic’, and what does it even mean to be ‘Eurosceptic’?
A cursory look at the history of the far right should give one reason for pause. For starters, several of the parties that are today seen as Europhobes started off as pro-EU and have also generally benefitted enormously from the EU’s existence. Take the French Rassemblement National (RN, previously, Front National) as an example. In the 1980s, long before Marine Le Pen spoke about Frexit, her father made his first appearance on the national scene in European elections and insisted that Europe ‘shall be imperial, or shall not be’. More broadly, knowing how these parties feel about the EU tells us very little about what they think about Europe beyond the narrowly construed project of the EU. Indeed, their language is replete with references to a European (Christian) civilisation worth protecting, claims seemingly at odds with the rabid opposition by many of them to the European Union.
In my research on the relation between the far right and Europe, I attempt to make sense of these tensions by analysing how far-right parties conceive of Europe through ideological lenses, and the effects that approaching Europe in a certain way has. I advance two key arguments: first, I hold that the depiction of far-right parties as ‘naturally’ Eurosceptic is misleading. Second, I posit that these parties’ positions on European integration served the broader purpose of legitimising them by making them appear more palatable to a general public. These claims are developed empirically through the in-depth study of how the Italian Social Movement/Alleanza Nazionale (MSI/AN) in Italy and the Rassemblement National in France integrated Europe in their ideological frames over the period 1978-2017, and to what effects.
What do they talk about when they talk about Europe?
Let us start with the first of the two claims, namely, that the depiction of far-right parties as ‘naturally’ Eurosceptic is misleading. To develop this point, it is pertinent to take a step back and ask first ‘but what do far-right parties talk about when they talk about Europe’?
One way to address this question is to analyse the concepts that these parties commonly associate with Europe in their party literature. In the MSI/AN and RN’s ideology, three in particular stand out: the concepts of identity, liberty, and threat. In each of these key concepts, the parties express an ambivalent view of Europe at odds with the term ‘Eurosceptic.’
The concept of identity refers to a category of identification that allows groups to define who they are, through considerations of the positive (and negative) aspects of the group they belong to. The MSI/AN and RN rely on this concept to define Europe as a distinct civilisation. The MSI, for example, spoke in favour of European unity conscious of the ‘community of interests and destinies, of history, of civilisation, of tradition among Europeans’, while Jean-Marie Le Pen spoke of Europe as ‘A historic, geographic, cultural, economic, and social ensemble. It is an entity destined for action’. This understanding is not one that is strictly time-bound, and as late as 2017, Marine Le Pen could affirm that for her party ‘Europe is a culture, it’s a civilisation with its values, its codes, its great men, its accomplishments its masterpieces […] Europe is a series of peoples whose respective identities exhale the fecund diversity of the continent’. Importantly, both the MSI/AN and RN consider themselves as part of this civilisation and view it as compatible with their national identity. As the MSI/AN put it, ‘Individuality (in this case national) and community (in this case European) are not in opposition but in reciprocal integration and vivification’.
In addition to approaching Europe through the prism of identity, the MSI/AN and RN also rely on the concept of liberty to define it. Liberty, as it is understood in their discourse, is an essential attribute of the nation and corresponds to central principles of autonomy, self-rule, and power in the external realm. It is also understood as a collective term: the bearer of ‘liberty’ is not the individual, but the nation intended as a holistic community. The relation between liberty and Europe, however, changes significantly through time. In the 1980s, the RN and the MSI spoke of Europe as a space in need of ‘liberty’ in face of the ‘twin imperialisms’ of the USA and the USSR. This was also associated with the need to re-establish Europe as an international power which could not only defend its nations, but also, reinforce their global influence. From the end of the 1980s, however, and particularly for the RN, ‘liberty’ shifted from being an attribute of Europe to being an endangered part of the national heritage. The introduction of the Single European Act and the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty contributed significantly to this shift (although they are not the only factors). These treaties did little to make the EU into a strong international actor, as they privileged economic integration over integration in matters of foreign policy and defence. Furthermore, by setting the EU on an increasingly federal path, they were at odds with the RN’s view that European unity should happen in the form of a vaguely-defined (but clearly confederal) ‘Europe of the Nations’. As a result, the RN starts speaking increasingly about ‘sovereignty’ as a ‘collective form of liberty’ endangered by the EU.
The final concept that the parties draw upon to define Europe is that of threat, with Europe presented as a community endangered by a variety of threats such as the USSR in the 1970s and 1980s, the USA in the 1980s and 1990s, and decline and migration throughout. While the nature of threats varies across parties and across time, Europe and its nations always appear to be threatened by some evil force that requires swift intervention. As with liberty, however, the relation between Europe and threat changes over time: whereas in the 1980s, Europe was mainly an endangered community (and indeed, a potential source of protection from external threats), since the 1990s, Europe in the shape of the EU has become a threat in and of itself. This is particularly true for the RN, which since the 1990s has identified globalisation as a growing threat, and the EU as its vector. Europe, in this sense, went from being an instrument which could protect from ‘others’, to an ‘other’ which could facilitate the demise of nation states by facilitating the instauration of a new, globalised world order.
As will have become evident, the MSI/AN and RN’s approach to Europe shows more nuance than the term ‘Eurosceptic’ fully captures, and ‘Euro-ambivalence’ seems to be a better descriptor of their positions. Whereas the EU has frequently been an enemy (although more so for the RN than for the MSI/AN), this was not always the case, and ‘Europe’ remained a positively valued concept throughout. This ambivalence is grounded in three elements:
First, political ideologies are notoriously flexible: while one might expect some degree of continuity, they are also deeply contextual and can evolve over time and depending on historical and national circumstances. In this sense, ambivalence emerges both synchronically across countries and diachronically over time depending on contextual changes.
Second, the European Union is a complex construction in constant evolution. Whereas it started as a small economic union of Western European countries, it has evolved into a deeply political construction encompassing a large part of the European continent. Far-right parties’ ambivalence therefore partially depends on which aspect of the EU they are looking at, and at what phase of its historical development.
Finally, for as much as the EU tries to equate the two, ‘Europe’ and the EU remain two different constructions. The EU is but one embodiment of the idea of Europe, and the far right’s ambivalence about Europe also derives from swearing allegiance to ‘Europe’ while rejecting the political construction of the EU. As the party statutes of the far right ‘Identity and Democracy’ group in the European Parliament show, far-right parties are willing to acknowledge that Europeans share a common ‘Greek-Roman and Christian heritage’ and consider that this heritage creates the bases for ‘voluntary cooperation between sovereign European nations.’ However, they also reject the EU and its attempts to become ‘a European superstate’.
Summing up, while today we tend to see far-right parties as Eurosceptic, this was not always the case, and neither does the term fully capture the complexity of their positions. Ambivalence about Europe is an important part of the far right’s approach to Europe, and can help us understand why far-right parties can collaborate transnationally in the name of ‘another Europe’ different from the EU.
Europe as ideological resource
In addition to being ambivalent about Europe, far-right parties also have a marked tendency to benefit from it. The EU has, in fact, provided these parties with symbolic and material resources that have helped them become established actors. Electorally, the proportional system of representation employed in EU elections made it easier for far-right parties to gain representation. This has also come with a gain in resources which could be used to improve their standing in domestic elections. Far-right parties have also sought to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the EU, for example by employing alliances in the European Parliament to enhance legitimacy at home.
One might ask how speaking about Europe in a certain way may have helped the far right. A plausible answer to this question is that Europe presented an ideological resource for far-right parties looking for legitimation because it allowed them to reorient their ideology in a more acceptable fashion and speak both to their traditional electorate and to new supporters.
An ideological resource, as I define it, is a device that offers political parties an opportunity to revise and reframe their political message in a more appealing way. Europe is one such resource. As a relatively new political issue, and one which has no clear ideological answer, it leaves parties, including far-right ones, with some leeway in determining the position they adopt. As such, it makes it possible for them to craft a position that is appealing to their traditional voters and to new voters alike. In addition, the divisiveness of European integration can benefit far-right parties because it makes dissent more acceptable. Because European integration has divided political parties and electorates alike, it is a topic on which disagreement is acceptable and where it may be easier for parties to present a more widely appealing political message.
To illustrate this argument, it is worth looking at two specific discourses employed by the RN in association with the previously discussed concepts of identity and liberty: its claim to be ‘pro-Europe and anti-EU’ and its growing focus on questions of sovereignty, autonomy, and independence.
As discussed earlier, the RN has since the 1980s claimed to be ‘pro-European’, however, since the end of the 1980s it has also increasingly pitted its support for Europe against the European Union. For example, a 1991 party guide draws a distinction between ‘two Europes’ holding that
‘The first conception is that of a cosmopolitan or globalist Europe, the second is that of a Europe understood as a community of civilisation. The first one destroys the nations, the second one ensures their survival. The first one is an accelerator of decline, the second an instrument of renaissance. The first is the conception of the Brussels technocrats and of establishment politicians, the second is our conception.’
More recently, Marine Le Pen has claimed that ‘even though we are resolutely opposed to the European Union, we are resolutely European, I’d go as far as saying that it is because we are European that we are opposed to the European Union’.
The claim to be pro-Europe but anti-EU serves the dual purpose of attracting new voters by presenting them a ‘softer’ and less nationalist face, all the while maintaining the old ones by relying on the notion of a closed identity that is key to traditional RN discourse. Speaking of Europe in these terms, then, makes it possible for the RN to construct a more legitimate image, without, however, losing the support of its existing electoral base.
The RN’s reliance on ideas of sovereignty, independence, and autonomy to criticise the EU serves a similar purpose. When the party says things like ‘A nation’s sovereignty is its ability to take decisions freely and for itself. It refers then to the notions of independence and exercise of political power by a legitimate government. The entire history of the European construction consists of depriving States of their sovereignty’, it is both speaking about elements that are perfectly compatible with its own nationalist ideology, and drawing on more common discourses about the nation that may carry broader appeal. These critiques also resonate with critiques of the EU presented by actors with no association with the far right, an element which may provide them with an additional ‘ring of truth’.
In sum, while opposition to European integration is frequently presented as a marker of marginalisation for parties, when well phrased it can in fact function as a powerful tool for legitimation that far-right parties can seize upon.
Where to for the far right and Europe?
Simplification is often necessary in the social sciences; however, it is worth remembering that even seemingly straightforward associations can be more complicated than one thinks. The link between far-right ideology and opposition to ‘Europe’ is one of these associations that seems intuitive, but which conceals a more variegated picture made of a history of support for European integration, attachment to a different ‘Europe’, and a penchant for benefitting from a project it explicitly rejects.
Understanding and appreciating the ‘Euro-ambivalent’ nature of far-right parties can help make sense of some recent phenomena such as the transnational collaboration of nationalists. Because many of these parties share a common vision of Europe, they can leverage it to justify their collaboration on an international scale as part of a project to defend Europe from the EU. They have also been able to collaborate because they found cooperation beneficial: namely, it served to portray them as a unified and growing movement, carrying ever greater political weight and forming the main axis of opposition to the cosmopolitan elites.
Crucially, however, one should not assume that a far-right takeover or destruction of the EU institutions is in the making or ever likely to happen. On the one hand, while far-right parties do benefit from some ideological flexibility, the nation and the national interest remain their guiding principles. Thus, while the far right may be able to argue that they are both nationalists and Europeans, in case of conflict, it is unlikely that their commitment to Europe will ever trump the nation.
In the improbable event that far-right parties did engineer a takeover of EU institutions, it is also doubtful that they would actively seek to dismantle them. Europe, after all, has its uses, and it is likely that they will be willing to take advantage of some of them. More likely, the far right would try to transform the EU into something more compatible with their own worldview; however, what this ‘Europe of the Nations’ would look like, or how it would function, remains mostly unclear.
What is more problematic for the EU in the short term is that much of the far right’s criticism contests core assumptions about the EU institutions, and runs counter some of the solutions brought forward to tackle its own legitimacy deficit. For example, the centrality of the concept of Identity to far-right parties’ definition of Europe raises questions about the feasibility of promoting a ‘European identity’ as a solution to the EU’s legitimacy issues.
At the same time, the far right’s claims to be ‘pro-Europe but anti EU’ bring to the fore the contestedness of the concept of Europe, and create a counter-narrative of Europe which questions the very premise that the EU is the embodiment of Europe. Reopening that equation to contestation removes one of the EU’s legitimising narratives, suggesting that the way ahead for the EU will remain paved with opposition.
In sum, even if far-right parties may not be able to coalesce to dismantle the EU or orchestrate a takeover of its institutions from the inside, they can still rock it to its very core.
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 A point perceptively made by McDonnell and Werner, 2019 as well.