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What the recent wins for far-right parties in Europe could mean for the region

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to Western Europe, where two recent elections show what seems to be the growing force of far-right politics. In Italy, Giorgia Meloni is set to become the country's first female prime minister after her party, The Brothers of Italy, a far-right group with neofascist roots, claimed the greatest percentage of votes in that country's election earlier this week. And in Sweden earlier this month, a far-right group called the Sweden Democrats won big. They received the second highest number of votes in the election after the left-leaning Social Democrats. And while the far-right party won't hold the seat of power, it is widely expected that they will be influential in setting the country's political agenda.

But these victories are just the latest in what's become a growing trend in Europe - the resurgence of far-right parties that run on anti-immigrant and nationalist platforms. We wanted to hear more about this and what these victories might mean for European politics more broadly, so we called Cas Mudde. He's a professor of political science at the University of Georgia, where he studies far-right extremism and populism in Europe and the U.S. And he's with us now. Professor Mudde, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

CAS MUDDE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So we should mention at the outset that, you know, obviously, no two countries are the same. Each has a different history and culture that shapes their politics. But for the sake of this conversation, we wanted to talk about the trend that we're seeing across European democracies. So with that being said, what was your reaction to those recent victories that we just mentioned in Sweden and Italy? Was there something in particular that stood out to you?

MUDDE: Not really. I see it as kind of a conclusion of a at least two-decade-long process of what is the mainstream normalization of the far-right across Europe. And so if you look at the last election in both countries, you see the trend towards this. But what has shifted is that, for example, the Sweden Democrats, while they won only 3% more, they have now finally become accepted as one of the parties. Similarly, whereas a party like Brothers of Italy about 10 years ago could be popular but would still be seen as outside of the scope, in today's politics in Europe, they are also now acceptable. And that has to do with a right-wing shift in general. On the one hand, extreme right, radical right parties that win more support, but also, mainstream parties that move more towards the positions of these parties.

MARTIN: Well, you know, to that point, though, you know, part of the reason that these stick out is that it speaks to a normalization of their politics - right? - and their position. So that's one thing. And the number of votes that these far-right candidates received. But they're not - Italy and Sweden aren't the first in Europe to see, you know, these far-right candidates or these platforms seem to grow strength. So what's the origin story here? Do we know? I mean, I think a lot of people would point to the long civil war in Syria, which, you know, pushed a lot of refugees out of the country and, you know, moving across Europe in search of safety. So do we have a sense of, like, what's the origin story of this in the modern era?

MUDDE: Well, you have to go back to the mid-1980s. And so the origin has to do with societal changes. On the one hand, the decrease of the working class, on the other hand, the secularization of population, and then also the effects of mass immigration that we actually saw in the '50s, '60s. But in the 1980s, immigrants and their families became more visible parts of society. And this is to a large extent related to a backlash to a multicultural society as well as a shift towards more inclusion.

Now, there was a moment then with 9/11 that the focus on Islam became very strong. And whereas politics used to be purely socioeconomic, now the focus was on identity issues. And then in 2015, '16, the so-called refugee crisis was kind of like a catalyst for these sentiments. So on the one hand, there are specific moments that have pushed the support for the far right, but overall, the process is a very gradual process that has taken now at least four decades.

MARTIN: OK. So these are both going to be part of coalition governments where a bunch of parties come together to rule, you know, a country to set its policy agenda. Consensus is usually required. That is the case in Italy and Sweden. There's the idea that in that environment, that the most radical ideas will be mitigated. Is that still true, though? If we're in an environment where, as we said earlier, some of these ideas are being normalized, do we think that's true or do we think it actually goes the other way, that perhaps they then start to move their coalition partners more in their direction?

MUDDE: Right. And I think that is the key point here. On the one hand, the radical right has not moderated. On the other hand, the radical right is perceived as less radical today. And the explanation is that the mainstream has moved closer to the radical right, particularly on issues like immigration, integration to a certain extent, minority rights regarding also gender, trans rights, et cetera. And so their most radical ideas will not be implemented.

But at the same time, there's no doubt that in both governments there will be a string - a more stringent integration and immigration policy. There will probably be more law and order. There will be a harsher environment for ethnic and potentially also sexual minorities, although less in Sweden than in Italy. So the key point is that the radical right is seen and also treated increasingly as kind of more moderate. But that is a misrepresentation of it. It's not that the radical right moderated it. It is that the mainstream radicalized.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, we know that far-right extremist ideas do travel back-and-forth across the Atlantic. I mean, we know this, that, you know, there have been far-right movements in the United States that drew inspiration from extremist views. And in Europe, we know that the reverse is also true, that the racial segregation strategies in the United States were - have been embraced, you know, elsewhere. Right?

So since we know that there - and there are certain sort of political figures like Steve Bannon, for example, former President Trump's, you know, close associate, certain media figures here have been embraced. But, you know, in Europe and vice versa, we know that, say, Viktor Orban, for example, spoke at an influential conservative political group in the United States. Since we know that this is - sort of there is this - I don't know how you would call it - a sort of transfer of sort of ideas there. Is there something that Americans should be paying attention to when it comes to looking at what's happening in Europe and how - and our own politics here in the United States, you see what I'm saying? What do you think?

MUDDE: Well, I think it's important to note that the U.S. has a very unique political system, and therefore, a lot of the things that happen in Europe will not happen in the U.S. - most notably, coalition formations. And that is a fundamental difference. At the same time, it is clear that within the broader and very radicalized right wing within the U.S., there is much more attention for Europe these days than there ever was. That being said, the U.S. remains relatively parochial and is not going to follow, like, a prime minister of a small country.

I think what will be interesting is if Trump or DeSantis or another Republican will come back to the White House. And then there are now much more relationships, personal relationships between people in the broader entourage of the Republican Party and particularly parties like Fidesz from Orban or Meloni, actually, and the Brothers of Italy. And that could lead to some closer relationships. Mostly what people like Orban and Meloni will probably use that for is to find some kind of leverage in their negotiations with the EU. But we are still very far away from an international-like collaboration. And even within the European Union itself, it is important that the radical right remains pretty divided. Even over Russia, for example, where Orban and Meloni, for example, don't see eye to eye at all, and to a certain extent within the coalition of Meloni, there are also more pro-Putin voices and very anti-Putin voices. So the radical right remains, on the one hand, divided. On the other hand, it is growing. And there are more connections than there were before.

MARTIN: That's Cas Mudde. He's a professor of political science at the University of Georgia. He's also the author of "The Far Right Today." Professor Mudde, thanks so much for joining us.

MUDDE: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.