BOKRIJK, Belgium — They are strikingly young, but emphatic that they should not be considered newcomers. Rather, they are claiming the mantle of Old Europe at its most traditional.
Several of this year’s far-right candidates in Europe are well under the age of 30 — just like some of their most ardent supporters. In Belgium, the telegenic Dries Van Langenhove, who is among the top picks on the list for the far-right party Vlaams Belang, is 26. In France, the head of the far-right National Rally slate for the upcoming European Parliament elections is 23 and has been a card-carrying party member since the age of 16. In Denmark, the lead candidate from the Danish People’s Party is a 29-year-old who is already a veteran campaigner. And in Spain, the chief spokesman for the Vox party is 27 and was elected to parliament last month.
These candidates are part of a growing attempt by Europe’s far-right parties to gear their anti-migration, euroskeptic message to the young, with everything from beer nights for adults and bouncy castles for kids to an outsized presence on social media, the Associated Press has found. Young European voters are responding with a rightward shift sometimes faster and farther than their elders — as illustrated by voting results or party rolls from Italy, France, Spain and Austria.
The trend could have major implications for this month’s elections, which decide the makeup of the European Parliament as well as some national governments, as in Belgium.
“The far right has succeeded at picking up on existing grievances and fears among young people and at using their language and cultural reference points,” said Julia Ebner, a researcher with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a left-leaning think tank.
It’s a significant change from where the far right found itself in Europe’s postwar era: identified with the Nazis and a Holocaust that killed 6 million Jews, marginalized by governments and eclipsed by a unifying Europe.
Opponents say today’s far-right candidates have given new window-dressing to old racist beliefs and an implicit call for violence, pushing a pro-Christian, anti-Islam ideology that Belgium’s security services describe as “extreme right in a white collar.” Only now they’re appealing to a demographic with no memories of where extremist beliefs once led the continent: to a world war that left almost all of Europe in rubble.
Across Europe, the right has gained ground with the electorate in general, but its strength among young voters, who traditionally lean left, has come as a surprise, according to poll estimates. In Italy, 17% of voters aged 18 to 34 voted for the League party in 2018, compared to just 5% in 2013. In Austria, 30% of the youngest voters chose the Freedom Party in 2017, up from 22% in 2013, making it the most popular party among those ages 16 to 29. And in Germany, the AfD’s gains were notable while support from the youngest voters for the Green Party barely changed. France’s vote showed similar trends.
Belgium’s Van Langenhove has 31,000 Instagram followers and a strong presence on social media. Until recently isolated as racist by the rest of the political spectrum, the Flemish independence party Vlaams Belang whose slate he leads in Flemish Brabant has a handful of seats in the parliament and a plan to more than double that.
Van Langenhove is also the leader of Schild en Vrienden, a Flemish nationalist movement known for anti-immigration stunts and named in Belgium’s annual report last year on extremist groups that are national security concerns.
In repeated surveys of young Europeans, including one released this month by the TUI Foundation, migration and asylum are described as Europe’s most pressing issue. The environment comes in a distant second.
“The generation that is committed to nationalist political movements today is the generation that tomorrow will be called upon to lead Europe,” Bardella told the AP.
That is exactly what Pawel Zerka fears. A researcher with the left-leaning European Council on Foreign Relations, he said the mainstream parties have barely made an effort to appeal to younger voters, seeing them as a lost cause because so few actually turn out to vote.
“So many young voters across Europe don’t believe the future will be better than today and they believe the past was better than today,” he said, citing repeated surveys. “The current European Union or the (mainstream) parties don’t offer a credible or attractive vision for the future for the young.”