IT’S election time in Europe and a spectre is haunting politics – the rise of a new,

21st-century fascism. With votes this month in Finland and Spain, then European Parliament and Belgian polls in May and parliamentary elections in Greece, Denmark, Portugal, Switzerland and Poland later in the year, we should anticipate a strategic advance by the far right. The liberal, post-war European order is disintegrating.

Of course, it’s easy to misuse the fascist label. By fascist I don’t mean Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party. To date, most right-wing, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim currents in Europe have not yet crossed the line into genuine fascism, which I would characterise as abandoning democratic institutions for outright authoritarianism and systematic use of violence against opponents.

True, there have been calculated acts of fascist violence; eg Anders Breivik’s murderous attack on members of the Norwegian Labour Party youth wing, or sporadic Falangist assaults against Catalan nationalists during street demonstrations. And, of course, there have been numerous, repeated cases of vandalism and arson directed at mosques in cities across Europe.

However, to date, such fascist violence has been marginal to politics. That is about to change.

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As harbinger, we are witnessing the emergence across Europe of powerful electoral currents on the semi-fascist right – Vox in Spain, True Finns, Brothers of Italy, Jobbik in Hungry, the Tommy Robinson current in the UK (currently swallowing the old Ukip), and the Slovenian National Party. Though there’s an over-lap, these ethnic-nationalist formations need to be distinguished from right-wing populist groups such as Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France (RN, the re-branded National Front), or Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Groups like the Brexit Party, RN and AfD represent mainly professional middle-class strata, not those living on the edges of the gig economy in peripheral housing estates or banlieues. Theirs is a sanitised, constitutional racism packaged as a mildly populist alternative to the traditional Christian and Social Democratic parties that have dominated Europe since 1945. The electoral animus behind these new populist parties is the collapse of middle-class confidence in a Europe where economic growth has stalled in the wake of US and Chinese competition.

Farage and his continental emulators are hardly genuine, anti-establishment populists. Farage is the son of a stockbroker. He went to a public school and was a commodities broker in the City of London. AfD is headed by an academic economist and by a former senior civil servant. These parties are better understood as “national conservatives” whose pathetic programme of “reform” boils down to blaming immigrants and “the establishment”, and quitting the EU. If Farage and co ever do come to power, they will have even less of a plan to deal with Europe’s decline than the traditional parties.

Farage, Le Pen and the current AfD leadership have all tried to distance themselves from this far right. This has nothing to do with being less anti-immigrant or less anti-Muslim. It has everything to do with trying to mobilise a broad, middle-class and working-class vote on a nationalist (aka “anti-Europe”) ticket. But if successful, this project will undermine and erode working-class, progressive and pro-immigrant parties. Worse, to get into government, Farage or his continental bedfellows ultimately need parliamentary support from the far-right. Thus a genuine fascism will be legitimised.

We have already seen this happen in both Finland and Spain. In Finland last month, the centre-right, coalition government was forced to resign over its failure to impose yet more spending cuts and austerity in response to the general European economic crisis. As I wrote this, the opposition Social Democrats looked likely to be the largest party in yesterday’s election, as a result of their opposition to austerity.

However, in the weeks running up to yesterday’s election, the party that gained the most ground in recent polls was the extreme far-right The Finns, which almost doubled its score on the back of the most demagogic, anti-immigrant rhetoric. To have a neo-fascist party winning a fifth of the vote in Finland does not bode well.

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What Finland does prove is that the only way to confront both the right-populists and the fascists is to mobilise support on a clear, anti-austerity and free-movement platform. Where left and social democratic groups have flirted with pro-austerity, anti-immigration policies – in order to win votes from the right – the result has been disastrous.

Last year in Sweden, the Social Democrats suffered their worst election result in a century, after tacking to the right. They are now in a minority government with centre-right parties and busy cutting taxes and raising public sector rents. Meanwhile, the neo-fascist Sweden Democrats (sic) are at 19% in the polls in the run-up to the EU Parliament election.

In Denmark, which holds an election in June, the traditional centre-left Social Democrats (currently in opposition) have simply adopted the populists’ anti-immigrant rhetoric wholesale and even voted with the right for a ban on wearing the burka in public. As a result, the entire left has splintered, suggesting the right will tighten control and austerity.

The crisis of Nordic social democracy and the rise of populism (and outright fascism) in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland should be a lesson to Scotland. Traditionally, the Nordics built their economic success on premium engineering exports, facilitating high taxes to fund an extensive welfare system. Their export-led model was facilitated by having their own currencies and altering the external exchange rate to keep costs internationally competitive.

The domestic currency model also ensured very high levels of internal saving and investment. But latterly, the Nordics embraced the neo-liberal economic model, abandoned exchange rate flexibility by joining or pegged their currencies to the euro, and resorted to the perilous game of relying on foreign investment.

The resulting domestic strains are the real cause of internal social unrest and the rise of fascism, not immigration. The sad fact is that the social forces responding to the fascist siren cry – often the most crushed and demoralised by neo-liberal austerity policies – will only see their lot worsened if the right wins out. Fascism in power always paved the way for an even tighter exploitation of working people, once democratic safeguards and human rights are eliminated.

What is different today, compared with the 1930s, is that hard-won European social safeguards are also under threat as the

neo-right continues its assault on the European Union. Eurosceptic forces representing the populist and fascist right are slated to win more than a fifth of seats in the next European Parliament election (UK aside).

This is not a counsel of despair. But it is a call to the left (especially in these islands) to think in internationalist terms and forge a plan to confront fascism on a European level. It means defending the free movement of labour and, instead, organising to defend workers’ rights on a pan-European basis.

There are those on the left who worry that defending free movement and opposing the new Balkanisation of Europe is a capitulation to the agenda of big business and the EU bureaucracy. But we don’t get to pick and chose our battlefields. Fascism is on the march again. The stakes don’t get any higher than that.