The violence and volatility of European politics

As Slovakian prime minister Robert Fico lay in critical condition, the former Russian president Dmitri Medvedev took to X (Twitter) to declare the man who shot him “a certain topsy-turvy version of Gavrilo Princip.” This comparison to the Bosnian Serb nationalist who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, effectively instigating WW1, is extreme, provocative, and more than characteristic of the internet’s political attention economy. Surely, the political landscape of Europe has shifted dramatically since 1919.  Yet something in Medvedev’s statement strikes an unnerving chord, not so much in the implication of a new world war, but rather what it suggests about extreme and nationalist rhetoric and where it is being platformed. 

The assassination attempt of Robert Fico has forced a harsh spotlight onto the febrile, polarised political landscape of European politics. The shooting, the first attempt on the life of a European head of state in 20 years, joins a growing number of displays of political violence in the continent. In Germany alone, a recent string of physical attacks on local and national politicians – some explicitly evoking Nazi slogans – conjures unsettling echoes of the country’s fascist past. 

The upcoming elections to the European Parliament have thrown into sharp relief the rise in far-right nationalism across the continent. Countries like Germany, France, Italy and Sweden are plagued by xenophobic rhetoric and increasing popular support for far-right parties. In France, polls suggest that Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally may receive double the vote of President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist Renaissance party. In Germany, the AfD party is rising sharply in support among young people, pledging to scrap the euro, lift sanctions against Russia and abolish Germany’s Renewable Energy Act.

The war in Ukraine continues to cast more than a shadow on the doorstep of the EU. Internal ideological fractures within countries, forming along the lines of ‘national’ and ‘global’, find their avatar in their relationship to Russia and Russian policy. In the process, they also expose ideological fault lines dating back to the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the 90s. In Slovakia, political polarisation has re-opened the old wounds that recall its fractured embrace of globalisation and market economics after the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993. 

There is a reciprocal relationship, therefore, between these intra- and inter-national divisions. As a result of opposing views on Russian policy, the prime minister of Czechia has cancelled its informal joint cabinet meetings with the Slovak cabinet, its traditional showcase of warm relations between the countries since the 1993 split of Czechoslovakia. 

Moreover, the nature of the battlefield has changed. As the political middle ground shrinks, the digital no-mans-land of social media has become more than neutral territory. Undefined by national borders, it amplifies extreme rhetoric and manipulates information. 

The shooting, the first attempt on the life of a European head of state in 20 years, joins a growing number of displays of political violence in the continent.

Following the attempt on the life of Fico, the European Commission wrote to 23 of the largest online platforms, including Meta and TikTok, urging them to crack down on misinformation around the shooting. The impact of the internet’s proclivity for post-truth rhetoric has already been keenly felt in Slovakia, with the general election of September 2023 littered with deepfakes and destructive misinformation. Just weeks before polls opened, videos circulated of candidate Michal Simecka, leader of Progressive Slovakia, discussing buying votes from the Roma minority, joking about child pornography and pledging to increase the price of beer.

Ministers in Slovakia have seized upon the shooting of Fico and the misinformation it provoked to publicly justify his plans to exert greater control over the media, including transforming the independent public broadcaster into a state-run TV channel. It follows Fico’s chequered past of media suppression. The Fico government first collapsed back in 2018, when, the acquittal of Marián Kočner over the assassination of an investigative journalist and his fiancé sent shockwaves through the country. 

As countries across Europe declare an intention to crack down on independent media, the difficulty of defining the democratic boundaries of free speech on the internet becomes tinged with political intent. The displays of physical violence against politicians, however, represent another threat to democratic discourse, one that figures local and national figures as battlegrounds for polarised, disenfranchised populations. 

Europe’s current political landscape of war, widespread discontentment and now an alarming increase in displays of violence against politicians, may well make more favourable the promises of law and order touted by populist and far-right parties. The rhetoric of panic, danger and division has the potential to amplify itself into a self-fulfilling prophecy. In Sweden, the attribution of an increase in gang violence and gun fatalities to its increase in migrant population has fuelled support for the anti-immigration nationalism of the right-wing Sweden Democrats. 

The upcoming European Parliament elections will likely demonstrate that the radical right of Europe is growing, but divided. Forming pan-European alliances within the remits of nationalism has proven somewhat of a delicate manoeuvre. The parliament’s two far-right groups, the Identity and Democracy (ID) and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), are not expected to unite any time soon, especially due to fundamental disagreements about Russia.  Yet their expected increase in vote share points to an alarming normalisation and receptiveness of nationalist, populist and polarising rhetoric. The rise in displays of violence being enacted across the political spectrum, meanwhile, spotlights both the depth of these ideological divisions and the volatile political landscape upon which these parties can stake their claim. 

Image description: Robert Fico, the prime minister of Slovakia

Image credit: Raul Mee via Flickr