Far-right EU election gains could boost nationalist parties on home turf

Far-right gains in next month’s European elections will be hard, if not impossible, to parlay into more power in parliament, experts say, but they could boost nationalist parties in EU capitals – with potentially greater consequences.

Polling suggests far-right and hardline conservative parties could finish first in nine EU states, including Austria, France and the Netherlands, in the polls between 6 and 9 June, and second or third in another nine, including Germany, Spain, Portugal and Sweden.

The predicted rise of the far- right Identity and Democracy (ID) group and the conservative-nationalist European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) has sparked speculation about a “sharp right turn” in the European parliament, potentially jeopardising key EU projects such as the green deal.

ID, which includes Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) in France, Matteo Salvini’s League in Italy, Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), Austria’s Freedom party (FPÖ) and Vlaams Belang in Belgium, are on track to be the big winners – from 59 MEPs to perhaps 85.

The national-conservative ECR, which includes Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party, Spain’s Vox, the Finns party and the Sweden Democrats, is on course to return about 75 MEPs, a more modest advance.

Analysts say, however, that such far and hard-right gains, while sizeable, may make little immediate difference to the workings of the parliament – one of the EU’s three core institutions along with the council, which represents governments, and the commission, the bloc’s executive.

First, said Luigi Scazzieri of the Centre for European Reform (CER)thinktank, the parties that make up the current “grand coalition” of conservatives, socialists and liberals “are likely to lose a substantial number of seats, but maintain their overall majority”.

The mainstream centre-right European People’s party (EPP) group, which includes the German Christian Democrats (CDU) of the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, is set to stay the largest in the 720-seat parliament, with about 175 MEPs, while the centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats – parties such as Spain’s Socialist Workers’ party (PSOE) – is heading for second with up to 145 MEPs.

And though the liberal Renew group, including French president Emmanuel Macron’s centrist Renaissance, may lose a dozen seats, possibly retaining as few as 80, that should still ensure that “on the big decisions, the centre holds”, said Nicolai von Ondarza of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

Moreover, analysts say, ID and the ECR disagree on so much, and so bitterly, that it is difficult to see them working together. “I’m pretty sure we won’t see a broad-church far-right group in the European parliament,” von Ondarza said. “They’re too divided.”

The two groups may agree broadly on some issues such as migration (where their hardline stance has in any case become pretty much European mainstream) and postponing or even rolling back green legislation, but they are deeply split on others, including, critically, their line on Russia and backing for Kyiv.

The parties that make up the ECR are mostly populist, nationalist and conservative, and many are, or have been, in government. They are EU-critical (sometimes strongly), but are ultimately part of what Von Ondarza described as “the great EU compromise machine”, and have frequently helped draft EU legislation.

ID members, by contrast, are mostly far right, anti-EU – and often seen as extreme in their national contexts. On the European stage, they are more disruptive than constructive: AfD talks favourably of a “Dexit” referendum, while RN’s proposals for a French-first “national preference” in jobs and benefits are not compatible with staying in the single market.

Nowhere is the divide between the groups clearer than over Russia. Since Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, ECR members such as Meloni’s Brothers of Italy and Poland’s PiS have proved staunchly pro-Nato and pro-Kyiv.

By contrast, many ID members – particularly AfD – remain more or less overtly pro-Russian.

There are also internal tensions, analysts note. Within ID, Le Pen in particular has voiced criticisms of AfD after members attended a secret meeting to discuss a plan for the mass removal of foreigners from Germany, including those with German passports.

The arrest last month of the parliamentary assistant to Maximilian Krah, the party’s top candidate in the elections, on suspicion of spying for China, has fanned some partners’ doubts about AfD, elements of which are classified by Germany’s domestic intelligence service as “proven rightwing extremists”.

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Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán’s pro-Russia stance over Ukraine is causing divisions among Europe’s far-right parties. Photograph: Koszticsák Szilárd/Reuters

Some kind of reorganisation of the two hard-right groups is most likely after the election – with the decision of Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, whose Fidesz party left the EPP in 2021 and whose MEPs do not currently belong to any European parliamentary group, set to be key.

Many observers see his projected 14 MEPs eventually joining the ECR – but that, as von Ondarza noted, “would almost certainly mean the Finns party and the Sweden Democrats would leave” over, among other things, the Hungarian government’s Kremlin-friendly stance on Ukraine.

Whatever constellation emerges, predicted Mujtaba Rahman of the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, the populist right will be “too disorganised to work together. They simply won’t be able to cohere. Will they be able to hold joint meetings, vote strategically? I don’t believe they will.”

Nonetheless, even if the parliament’s grand coalition of centre-right, centre-left and liberals holds, its reduced majority could have consequences, particularly in policy areas where the conservative EPP may be tempted to slow progress.

“The far-right discourse has already won in the EU on immigration,” von Ondarza said, “and things are starting to move that way on climate policy: the EPP is already opposed to some parts of the green deal. It could be tempted to side with the ECR to block those, and also maybe on some family policy and security issues.”

Von der Leyen has already said that, depending on the parliament’s composition and who is in each group, the EPP did not rule out working with the ECR (although an ECR that included Orbán could complicate matters, with many EPP member parties reluctant to be associated with the illiberal Hungarian leader).

Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni could have a pivotal role in shaping the future direction of the European Union. Photograph: Massimo Percossi/EPA

The role of Italian prime minister Meloni, who has shown herself to be a surprisingly constructive EU player, could prove critical. “She’s trying to convince Orbán to move in her direction on Ukraine, on the EU,” said Rahman. “She has understood that her success is to do with her being constructive.”

Von Ondarza said Meloni faced “a big choice. She can team up with Orbán and move the ECR definitively away from the centre, or she can align herself with von der Leyen. If she opts for the former, she loses all she’s gained so far.”

It is, however, outside Brussels and Strasbourg that these European parliament elections may have their biggest impact, analysts say. Far-right parties are already in coalition governments in Italy and Finland and lending another parliamentary support in Sweden.

A far-right party is most likely to be a big part of the next Dutch government after Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom finished first in November’s elections; Vlaams Belang is on track to finish first in Flemish-speaking Belgium in national elections there in June; the FPÖ is set to win Austria’s elections later this year; and AfD may win three state elections in Germany.

“A strong electoral result for the far right is likely to lend them more momentum,” said Scazzieri of the CER. “A strong showing by the FPÖ could set it up for victory in the national vote. If its leader, Herbert Kickl, becomes chancellor, Orbán and Slovakia’s Robert Fico would be joined by a third Ukraine-sceptic populist leader.”

In France, said Rahman, Le Pen looks set to humiliate Macron, with the RN’s list scoring perhaps double the president’s. In Germany, the AfD may have shed three or four points in the polls after a succession of scandals but is still on course to finish second, behind the opposition CDU, but ahead of chancellor Olaf Scholz’s centre-left Social Democratic party.

“What concerns me most is the impact of these elections on already weak leaders,” he said. “Macron and Scholz are already struggling. At the EU level, the biggest impact of these elections will be to weaken already weakened leaders yet further.”

For Scazzieri, the full influence of the European parliamentary elections of 2024 “will be felt over time”, with mainstream political forces coming under pressure to move right on issues such as climate policy – and, potentially, the balance of power among national capitals shifting.

On Tuesday 28 May at 7pm BST, join Jon Henley and a panel of experts for a livestreamed discussion on the rise of the far right in Europe. Tickets available here.

The Guardian

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