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Where Europe's Far-Right Stands At The End Of 2017


Remember those white nationalists marching with torches in Charlottesville, Va., last summer? Well, it's not just America. Last month on Poland's independence day, the crowds included marchers chanting slogans like white Europe and clean blood. Across Europe this year, there's been a rise of right-wing nationalists, and they're gaining political power. It set off alarm bells for the European Union. Author and columnist Anne Applebaum has been chronicling this from her base in Warsaw. And she joins us now via Skype. Hi.


FRAYER: Is this the same thing, what we saw in Charlottesville and what we're seeing in Poland and other countries across Europe?

APPLEBAUM: It's similar in some ways in that these are movements organized on the Internet. They pull together people who wouldn't necessarily have known of one another in the past. They're similar in the sense that they are international. So in Poland, you now have - it's not just a question of the Polish far right, which has always been a tiny fringe. It's not a major movement, but it's now joined by Slovaks and Italians and others who now travel to different places particularly to go to these kinds of marches. And I think there was a similar phenomenon in the United States where you had people from all over the country coming to Charlottesville.

FRAYER: What's the link between those popular protests, perhaps, organized online and then far-right political parties?

APPLEBAUM: Well, they're different degrees. I mean, increasingly, you have the phenomenon in Europe of so-called populist parties, which are really anti-pluralist parties - in other words, they're anti-democratic political parties - winning elections, sometimes using the kind of rhetoric that the far right uses - so talking about, you know, anti-immigration, talking about very narrow, old-fashioned ideas of national identity. And you've had parties like that kind of using and, in a way, mainstreaming what used to be considered very extreme racist and xenophobic rhetoric.

FRAYER: I want to ask you about some news this past week in your patch. The European Union accused Poland of acting undemocratically by curbing the independence of its judges. It even put the country on notice that it could lose its voting rights in the EU. How do Poles feel about this?

APPLEBAUM: Quite a lot of Poles are really distraught. Now, I've seen a bunch of different polling in the last couple of days. And at least half and probably a majority are very against the so-called judicial reform and are very worried about being forced out of the European Union. Some - well over 80 percent of Poles want to be part of Europe. They, you know, are glad to have the ability to travel and trade and so on with European partners. And they don't want to be kicked out. I'm not sure that many of them yet understand the seriousness of this story. The European Union has been monitoring and examining and studying this case for two years now. It was two years ago that the Polish government first broke its own constitution by illegally choosing Supreme Court justices. And so this is really the end of a long process.

FRAYER: And do Poles feel like the EU is ganging up on them, treating them unfairly?

APPLEBAUM: I mean, it's a very divided country. And some people probably do think that. And some people are very pleased with what the EU is doing.

FRAYER: We should say you're married to a Polish politician, Radoslaw Sikorski, who served in right-wing and also centrist governments. And yet, would you have predicted that Polish politics would have taken this turn?

APPLEBAUM: I knew that these tendencies existed. I am surprised that it has gone as far as it has. Mind you, the real threat here is not so much marchers, which is - I promise you - really is still a fringe phenomenon. The real threat here is the attacks on the courts, on public media, on state institutions, on the civil service, the kind of wholesale attack on the state that this government is carrying out. That's the real threat that could both end democracy in Poland and result in Poland being expelled from the European Union without any strategic partners.

FRAYER: The marches might be fringe, but it's politics, too. Austria's governing coalition now includes a party founded by Nazis. A far-right party won seats in Germany's parliament this year for the first time. Geert Wilders' anti-immigrant party came in second in the Netherlands. Has the European Union failed in its mission to instill democratic values?

APPLEBAUM: Well, I would start by asking that same question about the United States. We've seen xenophobic rhetoric used in our politics in a way that we also thought was impossible until very recently. I mean, look, anti-democratic instincts, authoritarian instincts, xenophobia - you know, these are problems of the human race. They return time and time again. The job of democratic politics is to figure out how to win elections against them.

FRAYER: Anne Applebaum is a Washington Post columnist. Her latest book is called "Red Famine." Thank you so much for joining us.

APPLEBAUM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.