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United in Division: What’s at Stake for the EU in the Face of Consolidating Far-Right Voices?

The results of the 2024 European Elections showed that the far right in Europe is here to stay. How gloomy is the political future of Europe? The SNF Dialogues discuss with three experts.
Dialoguers
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The 2024 European elections took place between the 6th and 9th of June marking a new era of negotiations on future alliances, coalitions and key position appointments in the European Union.

Although the center right has remained strong with the “European People’s Party” holding on to 188 seats – an additional 12 compared to the 2019 elections – far-right parties including the “Conservatives and Reformists” and “Identity and Democracy” have also seen significant increases, holding on to 83 and 58 seats respectively[1].

Not only does this harbor the possibility of independent MEPs joining forces with such parties to form a right-wing supergroup, but the internal political fabric of member states has already been shaken. The sweeping victory of Le Pen’s “Rassemblement National”, in France, drove President Emmanuel Macron to call for snap Parliamentary elections, which took place on the 30th of June. While the first round secured Le Pen with 33.2% of the vote[2], the second round, held on the 7th of July, saw the predominance of the left-wing alliance, the “New Popular Front”, with 188 seats[3]. Nevertheless, the wider questions of immigration, the EU Green deal, the war in Ukraine, as well as the expansion of the EU to include additional member states are now even more contentious, creating uncertainty about the future.

To help shed light on these developments, the SNF Dialogues asked experts in the field of politics, the far right and the EU, the question:

“What does the future hold for European integration in the face of the consolidation of far-right political voices?”

Jean-Yves Camus, Director of the Research Center on Political Extremism at the Fondation Jean Jaurès think-tank in Paris.

The central bloc retains a majority in the European Parliament but it is clear that far-right or best to say, radical-right parties, are a challenge for those who believe that the EU should move forward with further integration, support for a free-market economy, a compassionate conservative approach to social issues as well as tackling climate change.

Far-right parties, except Ms. Meloni’s who has a more pragmatic approach to the EU, will challenge European integration on three major issues: immigration and refugee policy, the Green Deal, which they see as a threat to growth and industry, and finally enlargement of the EU to include Ukraine and Moldova. Not only do far-right parties stand against enlargement, but they also oppose support for the war effort in Ukraine, both because several of those parties admire Russia’s model of government and because they think in terms of purely national “interests”, that is, they reject integration and rather adopt a neutralist, protectionist attitude. That is the opposite of integration.

At this very moment, there is a Meloni-Orban axis which is also trying to bargain support for Mrs. Von der Leyen against the appointment of a Commissioner whose views on the aforementioned topics are conservative/radical-right. This attempt to exert pressure on the appointment to EU top jobs is something new and the more far-right parties are successful, including in legislative elections, the more the Commission will be pressured by the far right to put the brakes on European integration.

That is exactly what Viktor Orban is attempting to do as Hungary is presiding the EU, and this is what he will continue to do with the FIDESZ-backed new group of nationalists in the European Parliament, which will include the French “Rassemblement National”, however without Mrs. Meloni’s party joining this new political movement.

"It is clear that far-right or best to say, radical-right parties, are a challenge for those who believe that the EU should move forward with further integration."

Jean Yves Camus SNF Dialogues Profile

Jean-Yves Camus, Director of the Research Center on Political Extremism at the Fondation Jean Jaurès think-tank in Paris.

Kostis Papaioannou, Director of SIGNAL, an initiative for researching and taking action against the far right.

EU election results confirm a shift to the right and the far right, of historic proportions. It is a new political architecture with great breadth and depth. The traditional right retains the lead, the far right is the most strengthened of all political blocs and is preferentially “communicating” with the discontented.

We are seeing that the map of the far right comprises, for the most part, “post-fascist” parties. They are playing the parliamentary game, investing in the characteristics of their leaders, breaking political isolation, making aggressive moves and claiming participation in governments or forming governmental coalitions. The far right today seeks to set or influence the agenda and — when it can — to govern. Its influence is already visible: part of its programmatic discourse is now official European policy on migration. A key aspect is how it is able to utilize a two-fold discourse: harsh rhetoric on “identity” issues concerning European culture and values that are “at risk”, anti-immigration, anti-LGBTGIA+ and anti-woke on the one hand, and hard systemic choices in economic, security/arms and foreign policy on the other.

What is the imprint we are already seeing as a result of the rise of the far right? The cordon sanitaire of exclusion is being broken: parties of the traditional right and part of the media are opting for policies of inclusion of the far right, discovering a “good” version of the far right (pro-European, pro-NATO, liberal), which is now being de-characterized and destigmatized. They can work with it to counter the “bad” far right, which is anti-European, pro-Russian and favorable towards state intervention in the economy. However, we also see an imprint on the political opposition, as a “Conservative Left” is taking shape, economically progressive, but politically-culturally conservative and anti-immigration (see Wagenknecht in Germany, the “Five Star Movement”, parts of the Greek Left adopting reactionary and moralistic schemes).

In conclusion, if any part of European integration is being strengthened, it is the unification of the reactionary fold that allows little room for optimism regarding the democratic acquis and the open societies of Europe.

"The far right today seeks to set or influence the agenda and —when it can— to govern. Its influence is already visible: part of its programmatic discourse is now official European policy on migration."

Kostis Papaioannou SNF Dialoguer Profile

Kostis Papaioannou, Director of SIGNAL, an initiative for researching and taking action against the far right.

Dave Keating, Journalist, Brussels Correspondent for France 24 and Senior Non-Resident Fellow with the Atlantic Council.

Despite predictions of a massive far-right surge in June’s European Parliament election, in the end this growth was mostly limited to France and Germany. The Parliament’s two far right groups, Marine Le Pen’s “Identity and Democracy” (ID) and Giorgia Meloni’s European “Conservatives and Reformists” (ECR), did not see a major growth in seats. In fact, ID went slightly down in seats due to Le Pen’s decision to expel the “Alternative for Germany” party just before the election. Le Pen’s group is in danger of falling below the threshold to be officially recognised (at least 25 MEPs from at least seven countries), so it is no surprise that she has reached out to Giorgia Meloni to unite the two groups. However, Meloni has shown no interest, eyeing instead ad-hoc alliances with the center-right “European Peoples Party” (EPP).

Europe’s far-right parties have all abandoned any idea of taking their countries out of the EU, having witnessed the damaging and chaotic effects of Brexit in the UK. The new idea is to dismantle the EU from within by gaining enough power to bring competencies back to national capitals and downgrade the union into a simple free trade area rather than a confederation. Whether they are successful in this will not be determined by their power in the EU parliament – it would require taking control of several EU governments. Currently the far right is the majority coalition partner in three EU governments: Italy, Hungary and the Netherlands. But they are also part of governing coalitions in several other countries including Finland and Czechia.

Though the far right may like to pretend otherwise, ultimate power in the EU still lies with the national capitals who make up the European Council, the union’s most powerful institution. If the far right takes power in enough national capitals, particularly in large countries, they could very easily succeed in pushing through a treaty revision to dismantle the powers of the EU. It will be up to pro-Europeans to convince voters that only a powerful united European Union can give Europeans true sovereignty in a century dominated by other global powers.

"Europe’s far-right parties have all abandoned any idea of taking their countries out of the EU, having witnessed the damaging and chaotic effects of Brexit in the UK. The new idea is to dismantle the EU from within."

Dave Keating SNF Dialoguer Profile

Dave Keating, Journalist, Brussels Correspondent for France 24 and Senior Non-Resident Fellow with the Atlantic Council.

Reference

[1] Politico (2024). 2024 European Election Results. Available from: https://www.politico.eu/europe-poll-of-polls/european-parliament-election/

[2] Dodman, B. (2024). Le Pen’s far-right party wins first round as Macron’s snap elections gamble backfires. France 24. Available from: https://www.france24.com/en/france/20240630-le-pen-s-far-right-party-wins-first-round-of-french-elections-as-macron-s-gamble-backfires

[3] Politico (2024). French legislative elections 2024. Available from: https://www.politico.eu/europe-poll-of-polls/france/