In a hotel near Potsdam, two dozen far-right politicians, fascist activists and wealthy supporters met to discuss a “masterplan” for mass “remigration”. In their scheme, millions of asylum seekers, migrants and “non-assimilated” German citizens would be forced out of the country, some relocated to a proposed new territory in North Africa. This is not an anecdote from the rise of fascism in the 1930s, but the revelations of an investigative report by German newsroom Correctiv.

Central to the secret meeting were leading figures from Alternative for Deutschland (AfD). Formed in 2013, AfD has become the most successful far-right party in Germany since the Nazis. Stoking anti-migrant and anti-Muslim racism has been key to its success. In response to Correctiv’s report, a leading AfD politician declared: “Remigration is not a secret plan—it’s a promise”.

While AfD formally rejects Nazism, party activists have well-documented ties with fascist groups. For example, a former AfD parliamentarian was arrested in 2022 for aiding a planned coup attempt by a far-right movement.

In the last year, AfD has become the second most popular party in Germany. It polls ahead of every party in the current coalition government, comprised of the Social Democrats, Greens and centre-right Free Democrats. In the eastern states of Thuringia, Saxony and Brandenburg, which each hold elections later this year, AfD is on track to become the biggest party.

The current government has ruled over a historic decline in living standards. Rent is so unaffordable that a camping site in Munich recently offered concession rates for homeless students. Prime Minister Olaf Scholz has delivered little meaningful cost-of-living relief and he told mortgage holders late last year that they shouldn’t complain about rising interest rates.

But when corporate profits are suffering, the government has plenty of empathy. Scholz spent more than €50 billion bailing out energy giants Uniper and Siemens. The government has also pumped cash into reviving German military power.

Unsurprisingly, all this has made the coalition deeply unpopular and allowed AfD to position itself as the “anti-elite” choice. In echoes of President Joe Biden’s America, the political establishment, unable to offer an attractive alternative to the far right, has resorted to calling on the courts to ban the AfD. This is unlikely to be successful, but the strategy risks boosting the AfD’s anti-establishment credibility. It could also set a dangerous political precedent in a country that is already repressive against left-wing activism.

Yet there is an alternative. Since mid-January, hundreds of thousands of Germans have joined weekly mass demonstrations in a powerful show of opposition to AfD. It has become the biggest German protest movement since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

While it’s too early to say whether it can push back the far right, there are some encouraging signs. AfD suffered a surprising defeat in a local election in eastern Germany, while the party has dipped below 20 percent in opinion polling for the first time in months.

Germany is not alone in its rise of the far-right. This is the new normal across Europe.

“The Netherlands will be returned to the Dutch—the asylum tsunami and migration will be curbed.” So promised Geert Wilders, long-time figure of the European far right and now leader of the biggest party in the Dutch parliament, after last November’s elections.

For two and a half decades, Wilders has built his brand as a rabid anti-Islam campaigner. Despite naming the parliamentary group he started in 2006 the Party for Freedom (PVV), Wilders calls for shutting down mosques and banning the Koran. He says that migration from Muslim-majority countries should be stopped, all asylum seeker claims should be rejected and Muslim immigrants should be paid to leave the country. He was convicted for discrimination in 2016 after leading a chant demanding “fewer Moroccans” in the Netherlands.

Due to the peculiarities of the Dutch electoral system, Wilders is still negotiating with other parties to form a coalition government. The People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD)—the conservative party leading the outgoing government—has suggested it might support a Wilders-led administration.

Like AfD, Wilders’ PVV benefitted from the cost-of-living crisis and the unpopularity of the mainstream parties.

Wilders offered seemingly simple explanations and solutions for the crisis. Housing is unaffordable? There are too many migrants. You don’t get enough welfare? There are too many migrants. The healthcare system is in crisis? “The treatments of ‘Henk and Ingrid’ are being postponed because [hospital] beds are occupied by ‘Mohamed and Fatima’”, Wilders once said on social media.

The conservatives attempted to capture the anti-migrant vote by taking an increasingly hardline approach. Ex-Prime Minister Rutte split his coalition government and triggered new elections by trying to force through tougher immigration restrictions. Under new leader Dilan Yesilgoz, a Turkish-Kurdish refugee, the conservatives ran a tough-on-migration campaign, summed up by the title of their election manifesto: “Make Space, Set Boundaries”.

The strategy backfired. It escalated anti-migrant sentiment, gave confidence to racists and made the positions of the far right, once consigned to the fringe of Dutch politics, seem legitimate. Predictably, Wilders, the symbol of anti-migration politics in the Netherlands, got a massive boost. In the words of French fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen: “People prefer the original over the copy”.

The “progressive” parties have offered no alternative. The Labour Party ruled in coalition with the conservatives from 2012 to 2017. Its leader recently told a popular podcast that, while he’d like to be like Bernie Sanders, he has to be like Joe Biden (a craven ally of the rich).

The day after the Dutch election, on 23 November, Ireland was rocked by major riots. After a stabbing attack outside a school, racist lies spread that the perpetrator was an Islamic terrorist. Hundreds of people took to the streets of Dublin to burn cars, loot businesses and battle police through the night. #IrelandIsFull trended on X and rioters held banners reading “Irish Lives Matter”.

The hard right of Irish politics, including the Irish Freedom Party and news outlet Gript, helped whip up the anti-migrant frenzy. British fascists Tommy Robinson and Paul Holding, leader of Britain First, circulated racist content on social media. “Ireland, we are at war”, MMA fighter Conor McGregor declared to his 10 million followers on X.

Ireland had been heralded as a success story of thwarting the far right, but anti-migrant sentiment has grown in recent years. Last May, a makeshift camp for homeless refugees in Dublin was attacked and tents set on fire during a racist demonstration. On New Year’s Eve, a disused pub in Dublin, rumoured to soon house refugees, was set alight.

Elsewhere on the continent, Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who comes from the fascist wing of Italian politics that has direct historical links to Mussolini, has been welcomed into the Western political establishment since her election in 2022. According to the Washington Post, she has “proved her critics wrong”, meaning she hasn’t rocked the boat of European capitalism, as the elite feared she would. Meloni has backed the West’s military aims in Ukraine and worked with the political and economic elites of the European Union. She has found an especially close friend in British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak—in October the pair co-authored an anti-migrant opinion piece in the Times.

While the ruling class can sleep easy, workers and the oppressed in Italy are under attack. Last August, about 169,000 low-income families had their social support slashed after being notified via text just weeks earlier. Same-sex couples who use a surrogate parent, even if that person is in another country, now face jail time. Meloni is leading the charge for a naval blockade of North Africa to stop boats carrying refugees from getting to Europe.

Fascist presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen has benefited from years of polarisation in France. Unpopular President Emmanuel Macron has routinely attacked the working class and beaten the anti-migrant drum. In December, Macron introduced a vicious set of attacks on the rights of immigrants—so vicious that some proposals, like preventing migrants from accessing key parts of the welfare state for five years after arrival, were deemed unconstitutional.

French workers have resisted Macron on a scale unseen in the Western world in years—most significantly, historic strikes rocked the country for the first four months of last year. But the refusal of the trade union officials to lead an indefinite general strike assured defeat for the movement, and the long-term growth of the French far right has left Le Pen best positioned to benefit from the turmoil. Opinion polls indicate that she would win an election held today.

The far right is making serious gains across Europe. This is a threat that should not be taken lightly.