'Europe' and the extreme right: comparing Partidul Romania Mare and Vlaams Belang.

Author:Hartleb, Florian


Extreme right strategies are focused above all else on the construction of a stark division between the included and the excluded, but the formulation of such a division is often taken to be between a narrowly defined 'nation' versus 'outsiders'. This might lead some to conclude that extreme right parties (ERPs) are opposed to each other, based as they are on competing nationalisms. However, the short formation of a parliamentary group of extreme right MEPs in 2007, under the name of Independence, Tradition, Sovereignty (ITS), and featuring members of both the PRM and the VB, casts serious doubt on the notion that the ideologies of extreme right parties are so mutually antagonistic. That still leaves the question of what these parties have in common ideologically, and this is the question explored in our study. I draw upon research on the Vlaams Belang and the PRM--using party manifestos and other public documents (2)--and show that the European context of this new cooperation is all-important. To put it simply, the PRM and VB share a positive orientation towards 'Europe', but deep suspicion of--if not outright antagonism towards--the European Union. These standpoints are derived from the parties' overriding commitment to the nation, and their historical understanding thereof.

I begin by exploring the context of extreme right European cooperation, and then present the two cases for comparison. In the main part of the study, I examine three key features of PRM and VB ideology--the centrality of 'the nation', the relationship between the nation and 'Europe', and the view of the European Union--and demonstrate the important similarities between the two parties. This examination is facilitated by the deployment of some of the conceptual tools of discourse theory, (3) which allow us more easily to come to grips with the 'political grammar' (4) according to which the ideology of these parties is organised.

The cases for comparison: the PRM and VB

In this section, I provide a brief overview of each of the parties under discussion, emphasising what unites and what divides them. Both similarities and differences are relevant in their selection as case studies for this research.

The Partidul Romania Mare emerged in 1991 following the collapse in 1989 of the Ceau?escu regime. Some critics have labelled it a neo-communist party, and there is debate as to whether it can be categorised as far left or far right. Given its ultra-nationalism, racism, history of antisemitism and its similarity to other parties of the extreme right in Europe, we classify it as extreme right. Although the party leader is an erstwhile follower of the Ceau?escus, the ideological links are scarce. The only common feature is an evident nostalgia for the pro-national policies of the late leader, and the party leader Corneliu Vadim Tudor's personality cult. PRM advocates a number of 'pro-Romanian' measures, and has identified in the past and the present a number of enemies of the Romanian nation, including the political class /(establishment), corruption, Gypsies, Hungarians, and Jews (5). Its fortunes took off around 2000 when it merged with the Partidul Unitatii Nationale Romane (6), allowing it to break out of its limited support base in the South of Romania and to become a national party. (7) In that year it took second place in the parliamentary elections, winning 23% of the vote, and Tudor made it through the run-off in the presidential contest. As Andrei Tiut has pointed out, the PRM has undergone a series of ideological transformations since it was formed in 1991. (8) Most notably, it has adopted key elements of western European extreme right discourse, combining a dislike of outsiders with a critique of the political establishment and corruption. Now, in the national election (December 2008), the PRM failed after some great struggles to get in national parliament (only 3 per cent of the votes). So, there is after the membership of European Union a strong decline with a rather open future for the party.

Emerging in the 1980s from a long history of divisions and fusions among Flemish nationalist and extreme right parties and movements, the Vlaams Blok/Belang has become one of the most successful West European ERPs. (9) Since its electoral breakthrough in 1991 the VB has gone from strength to strength. In the 2003 national elections, the party polled 18% of Flemish votes, and was the most successful party in Antwerp. A year later, in regional elections, the VB took 24% of the vote, and became the largest party in Flanders, a position it maintained in the most recent (June 2007) elections. This success, coupled with the mainstream parties' erection of a cordon sanitaire to keep the party out of government, (10) means that coalition formation in Belgium, especially Flanders, is much more difficult. This problem became particularly acute in 2007, with no government formed for five months after polling day, a hiatus that the VB used to call more loudly for partition. (11) The party's destabilising impact on the political system goes well beyond this, however. Violent anti-immigration riots in Antwerp in November 2002 followed the sacking of twenty of the city's policemen, revealed as extreme right sympathisers. (12) More recently, in May 2006, racist shootings in Antwerp were perpetrated by an eighteen-year-old with close family ties to past and current VB politicians. (13)

ERPs can be grouped strategically and ideologically according to three main criteria (14), and the PRM and VB both fulfil all three, thus ensuring that in this study we are comparing like with like. Firstly, they share a focus on a specific ethnic and racial definition of 'the nation' as the core of the political community. We discuss this in greater detail below. Second, both parties place strong emphasis on 'antiestablishment' discourse. This rhetoric is bound up with a critique of the 'corruption' of the political system, and the similarities of the major political parties, who are claimed to be collectively responsible for obstructing national progress. As we will see later, this anti-establishment position has been extended into anti-EU discourse, with 'Eurocrats' the targets of the same criticism as the domestic 'political class'. Third, ERPs are characterised by their preoccupation with immigration. Until recently this has been a markedly more prominent feature of the VB's than of the PRM's ideological production, but even with the latter it is becoming more prominent as Romania begins to experience increasing levels of immigration. Crucial here, and again contrary to any simplistic reading of ERPs as parochial nationalists, is the willingness of these parties to distinguish between various categories of immigrants.

There are, though, key differences between the PRM and VB which make them particularly worthy of comparison. Most basically, they represent east and west respectively, a general point that encompasses numerous important differences in historical and political context. Those which are particularly relevant for this study will be discussed in detail below, notably the contrasting histories of EU membership and the very different patterns of immigration. There is also the obvious contrast in terms of the age of electoral democracy and the party systems within which the two parties operate. More specifically, there are of course differences in the histories of the Romanian and Flemish nation-statehood--or lack thereof. Given the scale and importance of these differences, this comparison can be regarded as a severe test of any hypothesised parallels across parties' ideological production. Put another way, if the PRM and the VB are saying similar things about Europe and the EU, then the potential for a broader ERP common platform is considerable.

Comparing PRM and VB ideology: i) the nation

Probably the defining characteristic of ERP ideology is the location of 'the nation' at its core. In discourse analytic terms, 'the nation acts as the nodal point of exclusivist nationalist discourse'. (15) A nodal point gives sense to the rest of the ideological repertoire. In this sense, nodal points are to ideologies what verbs are to sentences: without one, no political ideology would have a recognisable meaning. (16) Thus, other terms included in these parties' political vocabulary, such as 'democracy', 'freedom', 'law and order', 'security', and 'sovereignty' have their meaning delimited, or in grammatical terms 'qualified', with reference to 'the nation'. (17) Moreover, the nodal point is also used to identify and to classify a series of 'outsiders' as 'enemies' of 'the nation'. It is via this classification of outsiders that ERPs are able to define 'insiders'.

The PRM provides a classic case of such an ideological strategy. An ultra-nationalist party most notorious for its anti-minority policies, the PRM has made extensive use of symbols of internal enemies around which to define Romanian-ness. 'Internal enemy number one' remains the Hungarian minority in Transylvania, and in this sense the role of history has always been critical. In a recent (2005) manifesto, the tellingly-named Doctrina Nationala (18), the PRM goes to some effort to assert the claims of the Romanian nation, and in the process to discredit those of the Hungarian minority. The party emphasises that Romanian origins...

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