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Marta, thanks for joining us, and congratulations on your Europe as Ideological Resource: European Integration and Far Right Legitimation in France and Italy. I wanted to start with some definitional questions to orient our readers. As the title of the book suggests, you frame Europe as an “ideological resource” for the far right. Can you tell us how you define this term? Second, early on you problematize the idea that the far right has a “legitimacy deficit,” arguing that this line of thinking necessarily implies an “outsider’s view.” Could you talk to us about why the far right has traditionally been thought of as illegitimate, and the paradoxes of that framing?

An “ideological resource,” as I define it in the book, is a device that offers political parties an opportunity to revise and reframe their political message. I view “Europe” as one such resource: because the process of European integration demands ideological adaptation from parties, it offers them an opportunity to update their political message in a potentially beneficial way.

In the book, I argue that Europe functioned as an ideological resource for the far right because it gave them an opportunity to refashion their political message in a more acceptable form, while maintaining the allegiance of their existing supporters.

To develop this idea, I suggest that for a long time, far-right parties suffered from a “legitimacy deficit.” Although today far-right parties are a regular feature of European politics, until relatively recently they were viewed as pariah parties unfit to wield power and be obeyed. In some countries, they were formally banned. In others, their association with the fascist regimes that led Europe to war made them deeply unpalatable. More generally, their ideas were viewed or presented as “alien” to European political systems—a thesis known in academic circles as the “normal pathology” thesis.

This framing, however, has some issues. first, that some of the ideas that these far-right parties hold are quite widespread; second, and more importantly for the argument of the book, it takes the perspectives of the political adversaries of the far right, without considering that there are many who would support them precisely because they hold unorthodox positions.

Far-right parties wishing to address their legitimacy deficit, without, however, alienating their supporters need to find a way to navigate between the Scylla of legitimization and the Charybdis of ideological consistency. Europe offered them a way to do so because it allowed them to reframe their political message in a way that addresses outsiders’ critiques while keeping their existing supporters on board.

Adopting the perspective of a “legitimacy deficit” fails to consider that the ideas that these far-right parties hold are quite widespread and it takes the perspectives of the political adversaries of the far right, without considering that there are many who would support them precisely because they hold unorthodox positions.

You discuss the four pillars of the far right’s strategy—identity, liberty, threat, and national interest. I want to drill down on the liberty pillar for a moment. You note that the far right’s understanding of liberty, in the European context, was for many years anchored by two things: the conflation of liberty with self-rule and autonomy, and the ability to project power and shape world politics. On this point, do you think that this interpretation of “liberty” has become more or less salient in recent years?

The themes of autonomy and self-rule are still relevant to the far right today, although we might see them appear in a more “populist” framing of “the (national) people” versus “the (EU) elite.” The theme of power, conversely, seems to be less relevant, and particularly, the idea of a European power. In fact, what I think has radically changed since the 1970s-80s and even early 1990s is that the Movimento Sociale Italiano/Alleanza Nazionale (MSI/AN) and early Rassemblement National (RN) presented power, autonomy, and self-rule as European attributes, whereas now they’ll appear almost exclusively as national characteristics. In the book, for example, I show how the RN’s discourse in the 1980s placed significant focus on the idea of European “puissance,” whereas today, mentions of the term power appear primarily in the context of retrieving French power.

I want to spend a moment on the threat pillar, too. In the book, you note that far-right parties’ “description of Europe as facing exceptional dangers created the space for others to consider things that would normally be considered unacceptable…as appropriate and commensurate to the danger being faced.” There has not been a scarcity of crises in Europe these past few years to the point that some have taken to calling our moment one of “polycrisis.” At the same time, the far right is doing historically well at both the national and European levels. How might we connect these facts? Do you think the far right has been particularly well-placed to take advantage of these crises, given that it has been employing the concept and language of threat for so long?

I think the “polycrisis” and the far right’s success can be connected, to the extent that the sequence of crises that has engulfed Europe has really created the space for the far right’s narratives of crisis to resonate. They were also well-placed to take advantage of these crises. Since they have been speaking of (frequently imaginary) crises for so long, they could claim some kind of prophetic nature for themselves when actual crises materialized.  Their inexperience with power also gave them additional ammunition: since the measures they proposed had never been tested before, they might just be the kind of “desperate measures” needed in “desperate times.”

Much of what you write in the book complexifies phenomena that are often oversimplified, e.g., that the “far right” is a uniform bloc; that the far right is characterized by Euroscepticism, etc. Can you walk us through how, for instance, the far-right MSI evolved on the question of Europe over time and as it transformed into the AN? And also how it varied from the French far right, which also changed its position over time? This may be a good time to walk us through the distinction you make between the principle of “Europe” and the actually existing European Union, and how far-right parties navigated and employed that distinction.

A key point that I make in the book and in some of my previous work is that thinking of the far right as “naturally” Eurosceptic simplifies a more complex picture.

The evolution of my two case studies’ approach to European integration exemplifies this well. The MSI/AN was never a hard-core anti-EU party. In the 1970s-1980s, it held a broadly positive or only mildly critical view of the European construction. Its Europeanism was deeply connected to its anti-Communism: the party viewed European integration as a bulwark against the Soviet Union (and to a lesser extent, the US). AN followed in the steps of the MSI, remaining favorable to European integration that helped advanced Italy’s national interest. The early RN was also broadly pro-European. It started shifting to a more anti-EU position between the middle and the end of the 1980s, due to a series of factors: the party experienced the EU institutions from the inside—and didn’t like it; new Eurosceptic members joined; and the nature of European integration became more demanding than the party was willing to accept.

Adding ambiguity to the far right’s positions is the nature of “Europe” itself. Although “Europe” and “the EU” are sometimes used interchangeably in everyday language, they are not the same and far-right parties exploit that distinction. In the book, I show how these parties tend to distinguish between “Europe” intended as a continent and the civilization that developed on it, and “the European Union” as a political project. This is not a distinction that is exclusive to them, but it does make it possible to claim allegiance to “Europe” while rejecting the EU: because the two are not the same, they can be in favor of one without, however, supporting the other.

Building on this distinction between Europe and the European Union, I wanted to ask for your perspective on the far right’s strategy today. We can acknowledge on the one hand that the traditional far-right line (exemplified most clearly by the RN) was to distinguish between, in your words, a “cosmopolitan and technocratic” European Union and a true Europe “rooted in its culture.” On the other hand, I think we can comfortably say that today, liberal European technocrats are embracing a harsher vision of Europe, one rooted in pessimism rather than optimism, even dipping into civilizational rhetoric—for instance with the EU High Commissioner’s now infamous “Jungle and Garden” speech. While it’s outside the scope of the book, I hoped you might comment on how the far right is navigating this new political moment, as its old lines of attack seem to be less applicable, or at least wherein the mainstream seems more willing to indulge them. How do you see this?

Mainstream actors seem to be increasingly willing to parrot the far right’s view of Europe. The problem with this is that it does not really do much to harm the far right. Quite the opposite, it only gives the far right’s message more resonance.

I agree that mainstream actors seem to be increasingly willing to parrot the far right’s view of Europe. The problem with this is that it does not really do much to harm the far right. Quite the opposite, it only gives the far right’s message more resonance. In this sense, far-right parties don’t need to do much to adapt their message, banking on the fact that, as Jean-Marie Le Pen famously put it, “between the original and the copy, voters will always choose the original.” However, they do tend to suggest that whatever measures mainstream actors are passing are not nearly enough—which helps them maintain a more radical profile and differentiate themselves from the mainstream. Unfortunately, this strategy often leads to mainstream actors doubling down, with negative implications for democracy.

Given how much these parties have changed, and given that they have been effectively mainstreamed at this point (that is, regarded as a normal player in the political game), I guess the big question is this: when do far-right parties that change their policies in pursuit of legitimacy stop being far-right? There is not a bright line obviously, but what guides your thinking when you think about how to classify some of these parties that have done so much to bring themselves into the mainstream? What continues to anchor them to the far right? You discuss in Chapter 5 that parties can use times of change to reinforce their existing ideological principles or apply them to new domains. Is that what you think has happened with the parties you looked at, and more broadly with the far right across Europe?

What I find helpful here is to separate between “mainstreaming” as the result of moderation and ideological change and “mainstreaming” as the normalization of ideas that were previously considered extreme. What has happened in recent years is not really (or at least, not always) a moderation of the far right. Rather, what we have observed is a radicalization of the mainstream and a subsequent normalization of far-right positions. Once mainstream parties started “lifting” ideas from the far right, they also contributed to their normalization, leading to a situation where the far right’s ideological heritage is the same, but the context in which they are acting is not.

It is helpful to separate between “mainstreaming” as the result of moderation and ideological change and “mainstreaming” as the normalization of ideas that were previously considered extreme. What has happened in recent years is not really (or at least, not always) a moderation of the far right. Rather, what we have observed is a radicalization of the mainstream.

For me, it is key to keep focused on what the ideological core of the far right is, and to what extent they still uphold those principles, even if they might be presenting them in a more palatable way, or if they have become virtually indistinguishable from those of the mainstream. Perhaps a more interesting question to consider is how we can tell if a mainstream actor is still mainstream if they sound like a far-right one.

You close the book by discussing Giorgia Meloni and her Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) party, the successor to the MSI/AN. You note that FdI is “more critical of the EU than the MSI/AN ever was.” I’m curious if you still think that is true. Since Meloni took the helm in Italy, it seems that her relations with the EU have only improved, and she has seemingly been embraced with open arms. Given that the research for this book ended five years ago, I’m curious if you have any thoughts about the ideological resources the far right can reach for today.

Giorgia Meloni’s “Europeanist” turn has surprised many, in Italy and in Europe. To me, it seems to be a pragmatic choice that she has made as a leader because she needs EU money, and one that she can justify through reference to her heritage. I found it quite telling that in her book, she referred to the MSI/AN’s Europeanism as proof that she is not Eurosceptic. It is also an intelligent move because it helps her construct a more legitimate image in the international arena—where many were skeptical of her party’s neo-fascist heritage.

Substantively, however, Meloni is still not an enthusiastic Europhile and would probably be happier with “less Europe”; however, she seems to have worked out that there are advantages to adopting a more constructive position in the European arena. This suggests that at least for her, Europe still seems to function as an ideological (and strategic) resource of sorts. It might have lost some of its power, because it is no longer new, but it can still be used to get other messages across.

In the book, I also consider what other issues could become ideological resources in the way that Europe has, and I identify climate change as one that has similar characteristics: like European integration at the time of my study, it’s a relatively new issue. It is also quite divisive, leaving parties lots of space to craft a position that suits them. This being said, far-right parties do not seem to have to do much to legitimize themselves these days (others seem to be doing that for them), so perhaps the issue may not be as useful as Europe has been.

As a way of closing, I want to ask you the question we always ask our guests, which is about illiberalism, a concept close to our hearts here at the Illiberalism Studies Program. I’m curious what you make of this term. Do you find that it has some utility? Your book is about the far right, but you also talk a bit about populism and other concepts. How do you think a term like illiberalism fits into this lexicon, and what kind of limitations do you think it has?

The term illiberalism, a little bit like the term populism, is one that I do not use in the book because other concepts, such as nationalism or authoritarianism, usually suffice to reflect the dynamics I observe. Some of this is also motivated by the nature of one of the parties in my study: the MSI was not a populist, or illiberal party; it was an extreme-right one.

Personally, what I find interesting about the term “illiberalism” is that it seems to offer something of a bridge between the “extreme” and the “radical” right. One of the classic distinctions in research on the far right is that between an anti-democratic “extreme right” and a “radical right” that broadly accepts the democratic system and its institutions. The term “illiberalism” seems to blur the line between those two.

What is interesting about the term “illiberalism” is that it seems to offer something of a bridge between the “extreme” and the “radical” right.

If we take illiberalism to be the rejection of certain aspects of liberal democracy, we find ourselves somewhere between the two concepts because it suggests that there is a position that accepts democracy, without, however, accepting its “liberal” aspects. What I do worry about with the term is that sometimes it can appear as a euphemism for “authoritarianism” and hide how illiberal behaviors can, ultimately, be the same thing as anti-democratic ones.

Marta Lorimer is a Fellow in European Politics at the London School of Economics. Before joining the European Institute, she was a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Exeter. She has also held visiting positions at Forum MIDEM at TU Dresden and the Centre d’Etudes Européennes at Sciences Po Paris. Her research focuses on far-right politics and differentiated integration in the European Union.

The Illiberalism Studies Program studies the different faces of illiberal politics and thought in today’s world, taking into account the diversity of their cultural context, their intellectual genealogy, the sociology of their popular support, and their implications on the international scene.