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Even if it is not about to dominate the European Parliament, the far right’s growing influence is not to be taken lightly. Its normalization, facilitated by the mainstream, has long-term consequences for European policymaking and democracy.

Zsuzsanna Végh

June 7, 2024

 

Far-right parties, which hold nativist and authoritarian views and have Eurosceptic positions to various degrees, have been growing in popularity in EU member states, especially since the 2015 peak of the refugee and migration crisis. Ahead of the European Parliament elections, they led in the polls in Austria, Belgium, France, Hungary, Italy, and the Netherlands. They also were performing well in Bulgaria, Czechia, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, and Sweden. Moreover, far-right parties are in government in Croatia, Finland, Hungary, Italy, and Slovakia; one supports the minority government in Sweden; and another is set to come to power in the Netherlands. In short, the far right has not only become a stable feature of EU politics—it has also been normalized and is no longer a fringe phenomenon in the majority of member states. Its representation in the European Parliament has also significantly increased and is set to become even greater.

Cooperation between far-right parties at the EU level was largely unsuccessful until the 2010s, mainly due to conflicts rooted in their nationalism and leader rivalries. Since then, shared identification of enemies in mostly Muslim migrants, the EU institutions, and in most cases the LGBT+ community has helped them put aside their animosities and facilitated their cooperation.

In the outgoing European Parliament, the mostly far-right European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group had 68 seats. The far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) group had 58 seats, though this recently dropped to 49 with the expulsion of the Alternative for Germany (AfD). This made them the fifth- and sixth-largest groups respectively. Additionally, some radical-right parties, such as the Alliance for the Union of Romanians, Hungary’s Fidesz, and the Netherlands’ Forum for Democracy were represented in the parliament without affiliation to a political group.

 

What Do the Polls Say?

Polls have been predicting an increase in the representation of far-right parties in the European Parliament over the past months. But concerns about a potential tidal wave leading to a take-over are unfounded in light of the latest polling predictions. The coalition of mainstream political groups—the European People’s Party (EPP), the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), Renew Europe, and the Greens—is expected to shrink in size, but should continue to hold a majority. As of June 4, Politico’s Poll of Polls predicted 172 seats for the EPP (down from 176), 143 for the S&D (up from 139), 75 for Renew Europe (down from 102), and 41 for the Greens (down from 72)—together 431 out of the 720 seats. The ECR was forecast to win 75 seats (up from 69), and ID 68 (up from 49).

The ECR is expected to grow thanks to seats won by Fratelli d’Italia (FdI), which governs in Rome. The party is set to become the leading force in the group, overtaking Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS). The predicted increase in size for ID will be due to the growing vote for France’s Rassemblement National (RN), which should more than compensate for the expected drop in support for Italy’s Lega. Until the recent expulsion of the AfD, ID was even expected to outperform the ECR. Its loss of AfD seats will not be offset by those of the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom (PVV), which is expected to join the group upon entering the parliament.

Last-Minute Turbulences on the Far Right

The AfD’s expulsion from ID came in response to scandals surrounding its leading candidate, Maximillian Krah, who reportedly accepted money from China and Russia as well as said that he would not automatically consider members of Hitler’s SS to be criminals. The latter prompted the RN to severe ties with a party that was increasingly problematic for the political group.

Distancing themselves from the AfD was a move by the RN and ID to detoxify their image and to normalize the group, which to date has been kept by others behind a cordon sanitaire and thus had hardly any chance to influence the legislative agenda. With this they seek a status similar to ECR’s toward which the cordon sanitaire has already eroded in the outgoing parliament. The AfD’s expulsion removed a key obstacle to cooperation between ID and the ECR. Le Pen, whose ambition for the 2027 presidential election in France could benefit from cooperation with and the endorsement of an ideologically aligned prime minister, has called on Meloni’s FdI to come together with the RN in the next parliament. Meloni, who has also been courted by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen of the EPP in her campaign for a second term, has so far avoided committing herself to either, holding out to leverage its future position toward both. While Le Pen and Meloni could benefit from a closer cooperation of their political groups, this would be more in Le Pen’s domestic interest. An ECR-ID merger is unlikely as it could result in direct rivalry between FdI and RN for the new group’s leadership. Furthermore, substantial divides remain among ECR and ID parties on policy too— such as on Russia, which would be hard to put fully aside amid the war.

The place of the Hungarian Fidesz, which has been politically homeless in the European Parliament since its departure from the EPP in 2021 and could win 10–12 seats, remains to be seen. Although Hungary’s positions on Russia’s war on Ukraine alienated Fidesz from Poland’s PiS, its long-term ally, there has been room for reconciliation since PiS lost power in late 2023. In January, PiS’s Mateusz Morawiecki signaled that the ECR could welcome Fidesz joining it, which Orbán has said he seeks. But he may not be welcome by the Finnish and Swedish members of the ECR, which consider Russia a serious threat and have just seen the Fidesz government delay their countries’ NATO accession. Alternatively, Fidesz could now pursue joining the now AfD-free ID group.

 

Implications of the Far Right’s Rise

In the absence of a merger, the ECR and ID groups could still cooperate and vote together where their positions align. This tends to be on matters of sovereignty, that is ensuring that the member states’ autonomy to act is not limited further in the EU; for example, on economic and fiscal policy areas, on justice and home affairs, or the enforcement of EU values in the member states. Many of their parties are also highly critical of the EU’s green transition and climate policy.

With AfD now out of the picture, cooperation may be conceivable on a policy basis also between the two far right groups and EPP, e.g. on immigration and asylum. Although far-right parties differ on important aspects of this policy, this is where they have sought the most to exert influence—successfully. That is because they increasingly see eye to eye with many EPP parties on this policy area. Since the 2015 peak of the refugee and migration crisis, mainstream right-wing parties—and on occasion left-wing ones, such as in Bulgaria—have shifted toward the positions of the far right, adopting more restrictive policies at the national level. Subsequently, the approach to immigration and asylum on the EU level has become more securitized, too. In the new European Parliament, parts of the EPP may continue to cooperate more closely with the far right—now including potentially ID, too—on this issue, whether out of fear of the latter’s electoral challenge or out of conviction. Their coalition may even have the necessary majority in the next EP to pass legislation.

Its rise will not be enough for the far right to challenge the majority made up of the mainstream political groups in the European Parliament, but it will give them a greater possibility to exert influence. The growing support for the far right has already led to the erosion of the cordon sanitaire between it and the mainstream in many EU countries. Now, the openness of mainstream parties to cooperating with the far right is gradually leading to its normalization at the EU level. In a parliament with a greater far-right representation, the cordon sanitaire may erode further, affecting policy beyond migration and asylum. If that happens, the mainstream will further legitimize the far right and normalize previously marginal or unacceptable policy positions, including ones contrary to European values. Thus, even if the far-right parties do not take over the European Parliament, through their normalization by the mainstream, they will still pose a major challenge to democracy in the EU. Mainstream parties therefore have a responsibility to keep the far right’s influence in check by upholding the cordon sanitaire.

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Zsuzsanna Végh is a Program Officer at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and author of the book Depleting Democracies: Radical right impact on parties, policies, and polities in Eastern Europe.

 

The AUTHLIB consortium does not take collective positions. Publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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Photo credit: Alessia Pierdomenico via Shutterstock

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