Europe’s two-faced authoritarian right: ‘anti-elite’ parties serving big business interests
If the more pessimistic projections are to be believed, authoritarian right-wing politicians will do well in the upcoming European Parliament elections, reflecting a surge in EU scepticism and disillusionment with establishment parties, many of whom have overseen a decade or more of punishing austerity.
These authoritarian right parties are harnessing this disillusionment using the rhetoric of ending corruption, tackling ‘elite’ interests, regaining ‘national’ dignity and identity, and defending the rights of ‘ordinary people’. However, the contrast between this rhetoric and their actual actions is stark. From repressive laws to dark money funding; from corruption scandals to personal enrichment; from corporate deregulation to enabling tax avoidance, the defence of ‘elite’ interests disguised as the defence of disaffected classes is a defining characteristic of Europe’s rising authoritarian right parties.
The defence of ‘elite’ interests disguised as the defence of disaffected classes is a defining characteristic of Europe’s rising authoritarian right parties
After the election, Europe could well see the formation of a new axis by these parties across the EU institutions, simultaneously becoming a significant force in the European Parliament, while having a strong voice in the Council and European Council, and nominating like-minded commissioners to the EU’s executive. Such an alliance could undermine or prevent action to tackle some of the most pressing issues facing us such as climate change, whilst working against workers’ rights, and measures to regulate and tax business interests; and meanwhile undermining values of democracy, tolerance, openness, justice, and equality.
We study a number of these authoritarian right-wing parties in this report which include Fidesz and Jobbik (Hungary); Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (Austria); Alternative für Deutschland (Germany); Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc (Poland); Lega (Italy); Rassemblement National, formerly the Front National (France); UK Independence Party (and its increasingly popular offshoot, the Brexit Party); Partij voor de Vrijheid (Netherlands); Dansk Folkeparti (Denmark); Sverigedemokraterna (Sweden); Perussuomalaiset (Finland); and Vlaams Belang (Belgium). However, this is a non-exhaustive list and such parties are present in most, although not all EU member states. While these parties are all different, emerging in different national contexts, with different histories, there is much which unites them, which is why we have investigated them and their records as a group.
These parties’ use of ‘grassroots’ language is based on the apparent rejection of existing political or business ‘elites’, and a hatred of the ‘establishment’, in an attempt to reach out to disillusioned working class people (as well as other groups) and promise a better future. Their vision for their country is simplistic and based on demonising others – migrants, ethnic minority communities, LGBT+ people, to name just a few. This ‘other’ is portrayed as an extreme threat, justifying a response by the strong-arm of the state via attacks on human rights, civil society, the judiciary, and / or the media, especially in the Central and Eastern Europe states where some of these these parties already hold power. Here lies their authoritarianism.
Collectively, these parties don’t believe in genuine vibrant democracies, despite their rhetoric about ‘people power’.
Collectively, these parties don’t believe in genuine vibrant democracies, despite their rhetoric about ‘people power’. Rather, they present a future vision based on (ultra)nationalism; even if many of them have been through recent re-branding exercises to try to tone down their more unsavoury and extreme racist elements and broaden their appeal. Many of the parties profiled in this report are all too happy – despite their nationalist platforms – to cooperate with the Russian Government and its allies, Chinese interests, or controversial US figures, when convenient.
None of these parties’ claims to reject the ‘elite’ stand up to close examination. As this report shows, far from rejecting the ‘establishment’, these parties’ politicians are happy to cosy up to the rich and powerful or corporate interests, at home or abroad, for funding and political patronage. Whether it is UKIP’s cohort of millionaire backers; the dark money streaming into the AfD; the PVV’s acceptance of funding from a millionaire-backed US “hate group”; the Front National’s nine million euro loan from Russia; Fidesz’ close relationship with multinationals; the FPÖ, now nicknamed the “Party of the rich”; or ANO, created by a Czech billionaire, these parties get significant support from many rich and powerful interests.
These parties’ voting records in the European Parliament show disdain for policies aimed at supporting working people or low income communities, such as on tax and workers’ rights. Our research shows that none of the parties studied voted to support a minimum 25 per cent corporate tax rate across member states, while almost all voted to oppose or abstain on creating a pan-EU tax evasion authority.
Our research shows that none of the parties studied voted to support a minimum 25 per cent corporate tax rate across member states, while almost all voted to oppose or abstain on creating a pan-EU tax evasion authority.
All but one of the parties studied opposed a proposal for a directive to promote ‘decent work’ for all workers. All but one party opposed the phase out of fossil fuel subsidies.
Much of their political rhetoric centres on some form of "draining the swamp" of corruption in politics; yet what is most notable about many of these parties’ national and EU politicians, is the consistency with which they have been caught up in numerous scandals, from political corruption, to dodgy donations, to personal enrichment schemes, to fraud. For example under the Fidesz regime in Hungary corruption levels have increased; ANO’s leader is being investigated by Czech authorities for funnelling EU money for his own use; Rassemblement National politicians have been indicted on charges of funding misuse in France; large fines have been levied against UKIP and the AfD; a bonus scandal has rocked the PiS government in Poland; the Lega Transport Under-secretary is currently being investigated in Italy for supposed bribery; raids have taken place in FPÖ offices in Austria; and there are ongoing European Anti-Fraud Office investigations into several EU groups closely connected to authoritarian parties. Far from being on a mission to tackle ‘corrupt politicians’, these parties are among the perpetrators.
Far from being on a mission to tackle ‘corrupt politicians’, these parties are among the perpetrators.
Furthermore, a number of these so-called anti-elite politicians are not averse to lucrative side-jobs to supplement their salaries. These include French MEP Jean-Luc Schaffhauser who initially ‘forgot’ to register his €140,000 kickback for arranging the Front National’s Russia loan; the UKIP’s Nigel Farage who is number two on the list of top-earning MEPs, with outside income of at least €360,000 a year; and Italian MEP Angelo Ciocca from Lega who declares being a freelancer but doesn’t explain who he works for. The swamp, far from being drained, looks engorged; and it stinks.
Corporate Europe Observatory is especially interested in the way in which these authoritarian parties have reached out to corporate interests and millionaires who prefer to keep a low profile. It is clear why the parties do so; after all it’s far easier to raise one large donation than thousands of smaller ones. In some countries, authoritarian parties such as the FPÖ, or UKIP (and now Farage’s Brexit Party) appear well networked with either corporate interests or rich individuals. Where the party is actively supporting a low tax, low regulation agenda, there is a clear commonality of interests, for example Fidesz has actively prioritised attracting inward investment from multinational corporations.
There is a long and disturbing history of corporations working hand in hand with the authoritarian right to serve their own interests.
There is a long and disturbing history of corporations working hand in hand with the authoritarian right to serve their own interests. Today is no exception: in countries such as Italy, Hungary, Austria, and others, corporate leaders have advocated cooperation with or actively supported authoritarian parties when they are in government or have a realistic chance of being so, in a display of cynical realpolitik. Some corporations and the rich and powerful will actively cooperate with the state to further their agenda; others will provide more implicit support and acceptance. Either way, as corporations rarely prioritise freedom of expression, media freedom, or democracy, for them “strong men” leaders in the guise of Viktor Orbán (Fidesz), Andrej Babiš (ANO), or Matteo Salvini (Lega) can be preferable to a government with the adequate checks and balances inherent in a robust democracy.
The Hungarian case, where Fidesz has been in power for almost a decade, also shows us how authoritarian figures can create new economic leaders. Supporting such figures can be a sure way for corporate interests to receive favours, public funding, or even helpful labour laws in the future, without having to worry about unwelcome public scrutiny as the government simultaneously cracks down on the rights and the space for critical voices.
While hypocrisy is not the unique preserve of authoritarian right parties, the distance between their avowed principles – on the strength of which some may be elected to the European Parliament in the coming days – and their actual political activities is truly vast. These parties, their politicians – and their cronies—deserve more of our attention; not to fan the flames of their abhorrent rhetoric but to expose the hypocritical reality of their funding, their positions, their networks, and their (lack of) ethics.
For more information on our methodology and an overview of each party’s voting records, click here.
Hungary (Fidesz & Jobbik):
Fidesz gives us a great insight into what happens when an authoritarian party is in power for almost 10 years. Prime Minister Viktor Órban’s party has continuously attacked the democratic structures of the country, curtailing media freedom, the independence of the courts, the space for NGOs and the academic freedom of universities. While these developments have been reported internationally, there has been less scrutiny of Fidesz’s pandering to corporate interests. Big multinationals have been given direct access to the government, their wishes taken on board with little regard for the consequences for Hungarian workers. The network of influence in Hungary does not end there: Órban’s government has even hired a lobbyist supposedly to handle negotiations with Russia, and the Prime Minister himself appears to be at the centre of a newly-created network of rich and powerful individuals.
But authoritarianism isn’t exclusive to the Hungarian government: the “Movement for a Better Hungary” known as Jobbik, is part of the country’s opposition. Currently undergoing a re-branding, Jobbik’s new message focuses on improving Hungarian workers’ lives and fighting Fidesz’s corruption. So far, Jobbik’s image overhaul is not reflected in its voting choices in the European Parliament, while at the national level the party has gladly accepted support from an oligarch linked to Prime Minister Órban.
The Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (Austrian Freedom Party, FPÖ) calls itself the Social Homeland Party but promotes pro-corporate, anti-worker positions, and cosies up to business leaders, often using xenophobia to try to divide society according to origin or class. Now it is part of the Government, the FPÖ’s pro-business deregulatory zeal has become clear, while its MEPs have opposed social measures and action on climate change.
The German authoritarian right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has been embroiled in a series of scandals around illicit financial flows. At least two leading party figures have accepted illegal donations, which were channelled via Switzerland. The money seems to have largely come from rich individuals, a context in which it does not seem surprising that the AfD’s tax policies are very supportive of the rich.
Poland under the Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc, PiS) has adopted an authoritarian approach to media freedom, the judiciary, migration, and gender rights. PiS is known as the “pro-coal party” and the fossil fuel industry can surely count on its support. Like many other authoritarian parties, PiS claims to stand up for the interests “of the ordinary man” but that sits uncomfortably with the 2017 bonuses scandal around PiS ministers, and the failed property deal involving party leader Jarosław Kaczyński which undermined his ‘down-to-earth’ reputation.
In 2012, Lega (called Lega Nord at the time) was shaken by revelations that its then leader had embezzled €49 million of Italian taxpayers money. Since then, Matteo Salvini has taken over, replacing the party’s demonisation of Southern Italy with hate towards the EU and immigrants. But cleaning up Lega’s image has been hard: one of its members has just been forced to resign from government over bribery allegations and there are still questions as to where that €49 million ended up. Potential conflicts of interests abound, with business-owner friends of Salvini’s with a firm operating in Russia, apparently participating in official government negotiations with Russia.
France’s Rassemblement National (RN), formerly the Front National (FN), is one of the Russian Government’s closest political allies in Europe. The party’s links to Russian oligarchs and its multi-million euro loan from a Russian bank have fostered friendly relations with the Kremlin. In Europe allegations of abuse of EU party funding by the RN are under investigation, with its leader facing prosecution. Meanwhile the RN’s outreach to working people needs to be seen in the context of how the party’s MEPs are said to “rarely miss an opportunity to demonstrate their total disdain for workers and their interests”.
While the UK Independence Party (UKIP) has always tried to appeal to “hard-working people”, it has attracted significant funding from ultra-rich individuals, adding up to millions over the years. Too often, its MEPs have voted in line with the interests of the wealthy. UKIP’s MEPs have also railed against EU corruption, but have themselves repeatedly broken EU funding rules and been forced to repay funds. Recently, many UKIP MEPs defected to a new party, the Brexit Party, which appears to simply present more of the same.
In 2015, the Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV), a toxic anti-immigrant party, accepted a large donation from a US “hate group” and it is one of the few EU parties to have fully endorsed former Trump advisor Steve Bannon’s proposal for a movement of extreme right European political parties. MEPs representing PVV have the worst voting record of all parties in this study, opposing 13 of the 14 votes analysed, including voting against social and labour protections, and progressive tax reform. While the PVV pretends to ally itself with citizens against the ‘elite’, this is a false image.
The Dansk Folkeparti (DF) has been implicated in funding controversies for several years. The party has been forced to pay back substantial sums of misspent funds by its EU political group, and the European anti-fraud agency is continuing its investigations into the scandal. Ironically, corruption and waste of money in the EU has been a recurring theme in DF’s narrative. The party’s MEPs have also voted against EU action on tax evasion and a minimum corporate tax rate of 25 percent.
Sweden (Sverigedemokraterna), Finland (Perussuomalaiset), Belgium (Vlaams Belang):
Former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, who is now hoping to create a new far-right ‘movement’ in Europe, has called Sverigedemokraterna and Perussuomalaiset “perfect casting” to join his project, although they have rejected his overtures so far. But the European Parliamentary voting record of these far-right parties, indicate how far removed they are from the interests of citizens and those they purport to support. Both voted against some social rights provisions, progressive taxation measures, and action to phase out fossil fuel subsidies. Vlaams Belang, another anti-immigrant party, has a similar EU voting record.
Czech Republic (ANO):
The “Action for Dissatisfied Citizens” (ANO) was set up by Czech billionaire Andrej Babiš. Despite having been created as anti-corruption movement, ANO has been plagued by accusations of the fraudulent use of EU funds and suspicion that Babiš (now Prime Minister) has used his government role to increase his personal wealth. At the same time, Babiš has had no qualms about using authoritarian language when convenient, relying on his own media group to silence critics, attack the opposition, and pressure civil society. Since facing a potential court case in the Czech Republic, Babiš has also made a move to limit judicial independence.
The 26 May European elections will see millions of citizens go to the polls. While people will vote over a mix of EU and national issues, these elections are the only way for citizens to directly influence EU politics. Elected MEPs have an important say on labour and tax issues; regulatory standards; social justice; transparency and accountability; environmental protection; and many other issues. These elections will also help set the tone for the direction of the EU over the coming five years, at a time when the climate emergency requires urgent and radical action.
BOX: A big coalition of anti-migration, nationalist parties in the European Parliament?
In the past months, Lega, and particularly Salvini have attempted to unite many of the parties analysed here ahead of the European elections and create a new political group. By working together this way, these parties could be entitled to EU funding and resources.
The European Alliance of Peoples and Nations was finally announced in Milan in April. So far, the German AfD, Finnish Perussuomalaiset, the Dansk Folkeparti, Rassemblement National, and Austria’s FPÖ have agreed to join.
Some glaring absences were Fidesz (which is currently suspended from the much bigger and mainstream European People’s Party political grouping), while the Polish PiS has seemingly declined as the party opposes cooperation with Putin’s Russia. It is unclear whether this group will hold as there are tensions between these parties, for instance, on economic policy.
With so much at stake it is important to focus the magnifying glass on parties from the authoritarian right. What we see of them in action does not match their rhetoric. Whether it is cosying up to the rich and powerful, financial wrong-doing, or saying one thing and voting another way, these parties’ records and hypocrisy need exposing.
While these parties usually claim that they are the only ones looking out for working people, when examined it becomes clear their policies often support the rich and big business. They often say they are against corruption, but they have a terrible record on political funding fraud, holding second jobs, or other scandals. They say they want to fight tax evasion and stand up to the power of multinationals, but when given the opportunity, they either step back, or sometimes actively forge bonds with corporations. Only on one point do their actions align with their declared principles: they rarely claim to care about climate change, and this is true. Most of them do not.
For those already in power, such as Lega, Fidesz, and ANO, we can also see their governing reality of corruption, favouritism towards big business (both national and international), and even the creation of new oligarchs. None has delivered a better working democracy where citizens can be heard and can shape the policies that affect their own lives. Worse, the attacks on the freedom of the press, the judiciary, and civil society in Hungary, Poland or the Czech Republic, make it far, far harder to hold them to account.
Austerity policies which have increased inequality and feelings of insecurity; decision-making which prioritises the interests of big business over working people; anger at the EU; the undermining of trade unions; and the strong reluctance to stand up for migrants, all of which have been presided over by more mainstream EU governments of the past decade and before, have helped create the political space in which the authoritarian right has flourished. To this extent, these elections could be a wake-up call for all of us.