It was exactly the sort of remark you’d expect from Europe’s far right. At a party meeting in Vienna, Andreas Mölzer, a senior member of Austria’s right-wing Freedom Party and a candidate for Europe’s parliamentary elections, referred to the European Union as a “collection of negroes,” a phrase that was directed at residents of the continent’s sunny southern states.
The reaction was as swift as it was surprising. As public criticism mounted, the head of the Freedom Party, Heinz-Christian Strache, forced Mölzer to resign and insisted that racism was not on his or his colleagues’ agenda.
The incident was telling. Whereas in the past, blatant bigotry may have brought Europe’s far right periodic success at the ballot box, the movement has been trying to broaden its support by softening its rhetoric in the lead-up to the European parliamentary elections, which began today. “The far right is trying to speak in a way that is closer to the mainstream,” says Peter Kreko, director of the Political Capital Institute, a Budapest-based think tank. “They are trying to demolish their extremist image.”
It seems to be working. As voters began casting their ballots to elect a new European Union Parliament, polls show that several right-wing parties stand to do well. Support for the Austrian Freedom Party hovers at around 20 percent, the Front National in France enjoys comparable numbers and the Danish People’s Party and Great Britain’s United Kingdom Independence Party are both polling at above 25 percent. Right-wing parties in several other countries also expect to win seats this year.
Not all of that support stems from the right’s cuddlier, more inclusive message; other circumstances have helped. The European economy is still healing from the recent crisis. Add that to the growing number of African refugees competing for jobs, and it’s easy to see why the far right, which has long been skeptical of the European Union, is making greater inroads.
The right is certainly taking advantage of the situation. They’ve succeeded in party by dressing their rhetoric in the language of human rights and democratic values. Right-wing politicians frequently mention the “dictatorship” of political correctness and the value of freedom of expression. “Our choice of words has changed,” says David Lasar, the only Jewish member of the Austrian Freedom Party. “You can say the same thing in two different ways—in a way that doesn’t attack the other.”
In a few rare instances, parties on Europe’s far right have even begun distancing themselves from overt instances of bigotry and anti-Semitism. Last month in Brussels, for instance, during a European Parliament conference about the crisis in Ukraine, Lasar dug into Svoboda, a far-right nationalist party that’s part of Ukraine’s interim government. The reason: its anti-Jewish rhetoric. “We only want to work together with reasonable right-wing parties,” Lasar says.
Part of this new makeover involves taking a stronger stance on foreign policy issues and working with some unlikely allies. Michael Kleiner, a key member of Israel’s Likud Party, was on the panel at the Brussels meeting. And Rifaat al Assad, the uncle of Syrian president Bashar al Assad, was also in attendance.
Their presence was no accident. Several right-wing politicians such as Geert Wilders of the Netherlands have established ties with conservatives in Israel. And with Islamist extremists now playing a greater role in the Syrian civil war, the right has also been trying to develop a working relationship with the Assad regime. “European nationalist parties are stepping outside of their domestic, patriotic spaces,” says Kreko, the Budapest-based analyst. “They are globalizing and are no longer satisfied with just echoing nationalist positions in their respective countries.”
The polls close on Sunday, and the challenge for the right-wing groups will be assembling an effective coalition. Hardly a week goes by without one of the parties reminding Europeans that the right’s new image may simply be a veneer. Last year, a right-wing Italian senator referred to the country’s first black cabinet minister as an orangutan. And in March, Wilders led a chant of “fewer, fewer, fewer” after asking followers at a rally if they wanted more or less Moroccans in Holland.
Despite these setbacks, at least some among the far right are determined to make this makeover permanent. As Filip Dewinter, a member of the nationalist Vlaams Belang party in Belgium, puts it: “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”