If you want to peer into the future of Europe, just look to recent events in Spain in the lead-up to its general election on Sunday. A billboard on one of Madrid’s main streets demonizing feminism, migration and the LGBTQ+ community — by showing their symbols being thrown violently into a trash can — has been the latest shock tactic used by the far-right Vox party in its bid to drag the elections into the culture wars under the pretext of defending the traditional nation state.
The rhetoric escalated when Vox leader Santiago Abascal falsely claimed during a TV election debate that almost 70 percent of gang rapes were committed by foreigners. These tactics are not new — during the 2016 Brexit referendum, Nigel Farage’s explosive “breaking point” poster depicted a horde of migrants heading toward Britain.
It is no accident that exactly the same photograph was blazoned across Hungary’s election billboards by its prime minister, Viktor Orban, under the headline “Stop.” Hungary is the European country with the lowest level of citizens born outside the country, but Orban’s “copy and paste” campaign made the demand for walls to stop nonexistent “invaders” the election-winning issue.
Vox’s nationalism goes beyond opposing external migration and involves explicitly anti-gay and anti-feminist attacks defining these movements as a threat to the very existence of the nation state. When in coalitions at the local level, the party has closed down any gender equality initiatives, creating in their place “departments for families.”
In Valencia, Vox has forced a change in the definition of domestic violence, reducing it to no more than an “intrafamilial” issue. In the Balearic Islands, the party is removing any formal recognition of the LGBTQ+ movement. Additionally, its ultranationalist agenda include stamping out movements for regional autonomy by banning Catalan and Basque secessionist parties.
Of course, the focus of the right on culture wars is to divert attention from its neoliberal economic policies, which require privatization of utilities, the expansion of private health and top-rate tax cuts, including the abolition of the current wealth tax in place until next year. Spain and its bold prime minister, Pedro Sanchez are now the front line in defense of progressive values, fighting right-wing attempts to drown out his economic agenda for better jobs and action on poverty.
While Vox would not win outright, it might well end up dominating Spain’s next government, as the conservative Popular party (PP), which is already aligning with Vox in regional and local governments pacts, seeks support to build a governing majority.
A few weeks ago, Extremadura’s PP leader, Maria Guardiola, vowed she would not deal with a party that, as she said, “denies macho violence, dehumanizes immigrants, throws the LGBTQ+ flag in the bin.” Then, in a complete volte-face, she announced that her party had no choice but to strike a deal with Vox to enable it to govern.
If the bloc of rightist parties ends up ahead of Sanchez, the near-50-year political taboo against neofascist parties in power would be broken. Vox will have moved from a gang of backstreet demagogues to the Spanish Cabinet room, creating a political earthquake that would be felt right across the continent in the year of Spain’s presidency of the EU.
Its power would embolden far-right parties that have been proliferating across the continent. The far-right German party AfD has more than 20 percent national support across the country and also won its first local election outright, moving within sight of the CDU/CSU, which, at only 25 percent, is being cowed into moving even further rightward.
The Finns party has just taken seven ministries in the recently formed right-wing Finnish government. Austria’s far-right Freedom party looks set to be the governing party after next year’s election, joining Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Fratelli d’Italia, which is already in government in Rome. And who is not to say that the Brexit slogan “Take back control” would not become Marine Le Pen’s path to power, promising an end to street violence and a restoration of order in a divided France?
Europe’s far right parties have been working together regularly since July 2021, when 16 of them signed a declaration against EU integration. This international coalition of anti-internationalists, each — ironically — claiming to be running their own unique national campaigns, inciting nativist fears of outsiders, agreed that nationalism, tradition and the nuclear family were Europe’s bulwark against cosmopolitan attempts to destroy nation states and their cultures.
As long as centrists and progressive parties complacently write off today’s dissatisfaction with globalization as a transient blip, these culture warriors will capture the popular desire for change and reverse every inch of recent progress in human rights and international cooperation, not least the European-wide green agenda already under assault from the right in Germany, the Netherlands and the European Parliament.
As Orban said, what gives the right permission to fight culture wars is that neoliberal versions of globalization have failed, denying working people security in a volatile world. Multiple crises, from falling living standards to worsening pollution, must convince us that no return to the normality of a failed status quo is possible.
There is a positive, progressive, Europe-wide social and economic policy agenda revolving around rising living standards, championed by Sanchez, that needs to be advanced with conviction. We must not forget, as George Orwell wrote in another era, that only “a moral effort” can defeat xenophobic nationalism. The alternative cannot be countered.
“Fixing on homosexuals, blaming women for gender-based violence, suggesting a ban on political parties,” as Pedro Sanchez has said from the heat of the battle: “All that has a name that doesn’t need to be spelled out.”
Gordon Brown is the UN envoy for global education and was the British prime minister from 2007 to 2010.
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