“The Brussels Diary With Yana Toom”: "Cordon Sanitaire" Against Radicals?


Following the series of EKRE scandals, discussions that have already been held across Europe for quite some time intensified. Should radicals be given the keys to power or not? One thing is having the support of people; it’s another thing to be at the helm. Political scientist Tõnis Saarts reminded us about the ‘cordon sanitaire’, which prevails in many western European countries: such parties are not allowed into power – end of story. According to Saarts, this cordon, however, comes with a price. Radicals are not spawned from nothing, and those who society and the government have treated unfairly vote for them in large swathes. If we close our eyes to the problem, it does not go away, and this is what the radicals cultivate.

The fact that ‘cordon sanitaire’ does not work is obvious even in Brussels. In the previous European parliament, the political group of radicals united 35 people from eight countries; currently, the group consists of 75 people from ten countries. Furthermore, these numbers are without the right-wing parties of Poland and Hungary, which are members of other political groupings.

The picture is no better elsewhere. In France, this practice of not letting Marine Le Pen's National Front party into power culminated in the presidential election in 2017 when Le Pen received one third of votes and Macron two thirds in the second round. Long ago, it would have been a good result had French far-rights won every tenth place in local departments; today, however, they have every fifth place. So much for ‘cordon sanitaire’.

The situation is different where the far-rights are allowed into power. The Finns Party grew exponentially after the crisis of 2008: from two to thirty-four places in parliament. In 2015, they were in coalition; two years later they returned to opposition and their number still remained thirty-four. Even worse, in local elections the results of the Finns Party dropped by one and a half times.

The same is the case with the Danish National Party and the Austrian Freedom Party: they only grow in opposition, as their popularity collapses when they join the government – time and time again. The trick is simple. In essence, the far-rights are populists and are usually unable to govern the country in a coalition. They feel good in opposition. They grow like yeast in times of crisis, and particularly after a crisis, if the government fails to take care of social justice issues. The same happened in Estonia. The better the economy, the quicker the radicals are marginalised.

A classic example: a hundred years ago, Hitler enjoyed enormous popularity because Germany was left poor after the war. By 1928, the situation had improved and the NSDAP won only two per cent in elections. Then the Great Depression hit and the nationalists' position strengthened. Nevertheless, by November 1932, support for them began to weaken. It would have weakened even more had they not assumed power.

Today, I think, such seizing of power is not possible in Europe. However, I return to my initial point: the position of radicals is strengthening where people are treated unjustly, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, where the government does not protect you and you fear tomorrow. A traditional party has only one chance to win back people's support. In order to achieve that, there is no need to fight radicals for power on Olympus, but it is time to come back to earth and deal with the issues of economy and social policy. The battle between ‘ours’ and ‘not ours’ and another split in society does not lead to anything good. Sadly, we know all about this in Estonia, first-hand.