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A Look At Far-Right Politics In Europe

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to begin the program today in Europe, where President Biden continues the first overseas trip of his presidency. The president is using this trip to try to repair relations with European allies frayed by the behavior and attitudes of the previous president, reassuring G-7 and NATO partners that the U.S. is ready to resume its leadership role, to recommit to global alliances and to fight for democracy. It's a very different tone than the one taken by President Trump, who openly disparaged NATO and threatened to pull the U.S. out of the alliance altogether. Trump also openly embraced some of Europe's most far-right and authoritarian politicians during his tenure.

So as U.S. foreign policy shifts, we thought we'd take a look at where those far-right political movements currently stand in Europe and what Biden's leadership might mean for domestic politics across that continent. To answer those questions, we've called Anne Applebaum. She's a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of "Twilight Of Democracy: The Seductive Lure Of Authoritarianism." And she's with us now from the U.K.

Anne Applebaum, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

ANNE APPLEBAUM: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Broadly, how would you describe the state of far-right politics in Europe right now?

APPLEBAUM: The issue isn't the state of far-right politics in Europe; the issue is the state of authoritarianism in Europe. We have at least two countries where there are such authoritarian parties in power, and that's Poland and Hungary. There are one or two others where important would-be authoritarian parties are contenders for power. That would include Austria, that would include France and that would include Italy. All of these parties are still in play. And the arrival of Biden is an interesting turning point for them because on the one hand, you know, American politics happens in America, doesn't affect directly Europe. On the other hand, the change of power and the change of authority does change the tone of the conversation.

MARTIN: A few countries, including France and Germany, have upcoming elections this year. Do you have a sense of how these right-leaning parties are faring?

APPLEBAUM: So the German far-right is not doing as well. It's on the - it's on a kind of downward trend. It was meant to have done well in a recent local election, and it didn't. I think the pandemic in Germany, which, you know, brought a lot of respect for central government, for bureaucracies, for science, was bad for the AfD in Germany. That's the German far-right party. And so I - they seem to be disappearing as a factor, not altogether, but they're - but they've shrunk.

France is a stranger situation, where there is a French presidential election coming up. It is probably the case that the two people who will be in the last round of that election - this is the current President Emmanuel Macron and his far-right rival Marine Le Pen. The difference between them is very small at the moment. It's 5% or 6%. Macron is ahead. And a lot of the credit that Macron had when he first ran for office, you know, several years ago has disappeared. And paradoxically, it's partly because of the pandemic.

So people are angry. They are tired of the restrictions. They don't feel it was managed well. And even people who don't necessarily like Le Pen - it's thought that they might be looking for alternatives. So you can see how the current politics plays out differently in different places.

MARTIN: You know, it's so interesting to consider the effect of the pandemic and how this may be affecting these far-right politicians because I think what we see in the United States is that, in some places, people have been very much emboldened by the pandemic, right? And in other - it's almost as if it's become its own kind of political phenomenon, right?

APPLEBAUM: That's very much the case in Europe. I mean, one of the reasons it's hard to answer your questions is that the pandemic played out differently in different countries, depending on their national health care services, depending on how people reacted to lockdowns. And that's - you know, and that's had a big impact on whether people's trust in the sitting government of the day has increased or whether it has decreased.

MARTIN: You know, here, part of President Biden as a candidate, part of his campaign was a return to normalcy, right? He was promising a return to normalcy, a return to - an attempt at a return at bipartisanship, but normal politics, where, you know, just, you know, bizarre things weren't just happening, you know, all the time. In Europe, he's making a similar point. I mean, he's trying to reestablish long-standing diplomatic relationships with European allies. And I'm just - I'm wondering what you think that means in Europe and what particularly that means for far-right leaders in Europe that, you know, clearly, President Trump was attracted to.

APPLEBAUM: It depends a little bit from country to country. But for far-right parties, which are - again, what I mean by that are parties that are seeking to undermine democracy or democratic institutions. For those parties, you know, obviously, you know, it's in their interest to undermine Biden's narrative because they're interested in gaining power through other means or holding power through other means. And they're made very nervous by it.

So, I mean, for example, the government of Poland, which was - which sought very, you know, assiduously to bring itself close to Trump now feels very cut off. It does have - again, these things are hard to quantify, but it does have a kind of trickle-down effect on Polish voters who depend very much on the American alliance, care about it a lot. And when they see their country shunted to the side, you know, we're not at the center of political argument anymore, that makes a difference. And Poland, of course, was for 25 years absolutely at the center of European politics, NATO politics, you know. It was very close alliance to America. And feeling that they now may be out in the cold again will have an impact down the road.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I think many people will remember that President Trump seems to come in on a wave of similar politics around the country, which was more - it was more or less successful in different parts of the globe. OK? I think that the move toward Brexit was part of that kind of movement, the rise of leaders like Viktor Orban in Hungary was part of that movement. And I'm just wondering - what is your sense of that now?

APPLEBAUM: Trump's success was very much seen by others as a model. It was something to follow. His disappearance and his loss is a setback for those movements, whether they're in Europe or whether they're in Israel, you know, or whether they're in the Philippines or whether they're in Turkey because it shows the limits of that kind of politics. And so him being gone and Biden having won offers another set of lessons and another path forward. So I think the disappearance of Trump and the absence of Trump has damaged this kind of internationalist nationalism. But although, it, of course, has not disappeared.

MARTIN: That is Anne Applebaum. She's a staff writer at The Atlantic. She's the author of "Twilight Of Democracy: The Seductive Lure Of Authoritarianism." Anne Applebaum, thank you so much for your time and being with us.

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