Today, the international media will fix its gaze on Warsaw as tens of thousands of far-right supporters in Poland take to the streets for the annual Independence Day march. This year, this demonstration will be under greater scrutiny, as it coincides with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The media is likely to broadcast images of violent clashes between far-right activists and police, cementing fears that the far right is 'on the rise.' Indeed, this annual assembly has undergone an alarming growth since 2010, from around 3,000 participants to approximately 20,000 last year. Though it is easy to conclude that the far right is growing in strength and influence, this is only a piece of the story.
Promoted and popularised by two Polish far-right groups, National Radical Camp and the All Polish Youth, the Independence Day march has inspired a 'marriage of convenience', bringing together anti-Semitic skinheads alongside nationalist right-wing political parties, and even 'moderate' centre-right supporters. Five years ago, Polish Independence Day only attracted a few hundred activists in the streets of Warsaw, wearing SS uniforms and displaying overt fascist symbols. However, recent years have seen moderate conservative groups join hands with the extreme right to organise participation in the march; Members of Parliament from the Polish Law and Justice party have been witnessed walking side by side with neo-Nazis.
Last year organisers of the march announced the launch of a new united front called the National Movement, accompanied by a trained paramilitary squad called the Independence Guard, and modelled on the Hungarian far-right party Jobbik. While there are reasons to be watchful of this development, the number of boots on the street does not always correlate with the organisational capacity and united vision of a far-right movement.
In fact, the number of activists with strong ideological motivations attending this annual demonstration is minimal, and swelled by football hooligan groups. Hooligans abandon their tribal rivalries for the occasion, but retain club identity by wearing bandanas in their team colours. The demonstration is always awash with colour, demonstrating the true diversity within what appears to be a unified front.
Whether across borders or domestic, cooperation between distinct far-right groups is often not advantageous. It can make far-right movements more vulnerable, increasing the likelihood of internal conflict or power struggles. In some cases, it leads to the fragmentation of the group and ultimately a collapse and reduction in numbers. One need not look further than the English Defence League (EDL) to understand the consequences of far-right street movements becoming too big for their own good.
Following an initial uptick in activists turning up at EDL demonstrations, numbers have declined, undoubtedly impacted by internal disagreements and an inability to control the actions of participants, while some have simply lost interest. Since Tommy Robinson stepped down as leader of the EDL last month, he has spoken out about the internal struggles he faced with neo-Nazi's turning up at demonstrations and more extreme factions using the group for alternative agendas. In the EDL's case, these struggles have spawned more radical splinter groups like the Infidels and Combined Ex-Forces, or have simply caused more 'moderate' individuals to leave.
Similarly, a significant development for this year's Independence Day march has been the request of Polish right-wing opposition party Law and Justice to their supporters to march in Krakow instead of Warsaw, distancing themselves from the atmosphere of violence associated with marching in the capital. This is the first indication that the Independence Day march is not as unified as it seems, and may continue to struggle with internal disputes.
Furthermore, as police become more adept at keeping far-right demonstrations at a safe distance from their traditional enemies, including counter-demonstrators, left-wing activists, and ethnic minority communities, the fissures in these movements become most apparent. Demonstrations by the EDL in Manchester and Bradford, have descended into chaos as fights have broken out between EDL factions themselves or with the police.
The unification of these groups is more of an agreement to disagree, and the reality is that extreme right groups in most European countries remain marginal forces. This is not to downplay their potential to incite violence and inflame community tensions, which continues to pose a real threat to community safety across Europe. Jewish and LGBT communities and anti-fascist activists in Poland remain the victims of hate crime, often perpetrated at the hands of far-right supporters. Nor is it to deny the mainstreaming of xenophobia and prejudice, and the challenges that poses for community cohesion. However, claims that the Polish far right is tens of thousands strong are not indicative of the power and reach of these marginal groups. Many of those taking to the streets today in Warsaw will tomorrow return to their daily lives, and in the case of football hooligan groups, resume their campaigns of rivalry - and violence - against each other.
It is in the public interest to distinguish between the factions demonstrating today. Many of the thousands expected to march today will be citizens with real grievances that need to be addressed, some will be lost individuals seeking a meaningful identity, and others will be passionate fascist ideologues. Policies and measures to tackle far-right extremism need to be targeted and tailored based on these distinctions.
Extremist groups aim to create an environment of fear, and much of today's media coverage of far-right extremism contributes to that aim. Coverage of far-right demonstrations should not only be a means to raise public awareness of the problem, but also to emphasise that, despite these attitudes becoming more overt in recent years, the far right remains a significant minority in most places. The outlook is more optimistic than it seems. For every far-right supporter turning out on the streets, there are often 100 citizens who disagree with their message, and even more who disagree with their means.