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On a few occasions over the past 15 years, it has seemed as if these movements were on the verge of coalescing into something like the fascist tidal wave of the 1930s, such as when Austrian Freedom Party leader Jorg Haider became a leader in his country's coalition government in 2000, or when French National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen won 17 per cent of the national vote in 2002.
But they have failed to gain that kind of traction -- in part because Europe's economies have remained strong.
What is most alarming to many observers is not that fascist-like movements once again exist in Europe, but that the very system designed to prevent their viability -- the European Union -- seems to have given them a new viability. Fascism isn't threatening to take over Europe, but it does seem poised to become a permanent part of the continent's political bedrock -- in part, ironically enough, because of the EU's pan-national force.
"Incredibly, the supra-nationalism of the EU, which was supposed to cause everyone to rise above nationalism, has created a field where these fascist groups can operate with a new kind of authority," says Douglas R. Holmes, an American anthropologist who has spent time with neo-fascist and far-right leaders in France and Italy.
One thing he has observed is that the EU has actually created a space where these parties can step above their nationalism (without abandoning it, of course) and play to an international audience. He calls these movements "integralist," since they believe that nations, regions, ethnic groups and linguistic communities should be kept intact and unchanged, and he notes that they are beginning to speak across their natural boundaries into faraway nations.
"Back in 1989, when Jean-Marie Le Pen came onto the scene, he thought of himself simply as a French nationalist. Ten years later, thanks to the EU, he realizes that his movement can develop this European quality. . . . In Budapest, he gives a speech where he talks about France and everyone applauds all his lines, because they completely get his message -- it now has an appeal across Europe."
Of course, fascism also became an international, pan-European movement in the 1930s. For a time, places like Littoria were seen as examples for the world. The architects of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal looked to the utopian policies of Mussolini, and also to his elegant architecture, for inspiration.
But nobody is pretending that such a thing can happen now -- not with reasonable levels of economic prosperity across the Western world. Even in Austria and Italy, which have had extreme-right parties in their governing coalitions, there have been none of the monumental, imperial projects that came to define fascism in its golden age. Rather, the ultranationalists have devoted themselves singly to an issue that barely existed in the thirties: mass immigration from outside Europe.
And mass immigration is the issue that is likely to keep the neo-fascists from fading into history. Europe's bulletproof anti-fascist government system was designed to withstand the pressures of authoritarianism and intolerance, but not to cope with today's pressures.
The extremists stand to gain either way: If European countries decide to reduce or stop immigration, their extremely low birth rates will force their populations down and their average ages up -- a process that creates mass unemployment, reduced powers of governments to spend and dramatically higher poverty rates. Those are the seeds of fascism.
In order to resist the pressures of depopulation, European countries will need hundreds of thousands of immigrants over the next few years. And the countries with the very lowest birth rates, and therefore the most risk of economic trauma, are precisely the countries with the strongest histories of fascism: Italy, Germany, Spain.
But if the EU has helped to send this message, whose audience in any nation is limited, to a far larger pan-European constituency, it has also become a chief target of the extreme right.
"There's no question that the supra-nationalism has created a nationalist backlash in many places," Mr. Holmes said. "What I find surprising is that it is speaking with a similar voice from the far right and from the left."