European elections: a mixed bag of far-right gains and centrist resilience

#CriticalThinking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

At first sight, doom and gloom will be the instant feeling among convinced believers in the European project. As predicted, the far right surged in the European elections and in many countries across the continent, embracing north and south as well as west and east. So the far right has not just become a malady of two or three of the 27 EU member states, in the way that the Freedom Party has long dominated the political scene in Austria, but of the EU as a whole. The far right polled around 30% in some countries and as much as 60% in rural areas. It will make up one quarter of the seats in the next European Parliament. Of course, the most shocking news came from France, where the Rassemblement National received twice as many votes as Macron’s Renaissance movement, prompting Macron to dissolve the National Assembly and call early legislative elections for 30 June and 7 July. If the Rassemblement National repeats this performance during the national elections it will form the government and force Macron into a paralysing co-habitation for the remaining 3 years of his presidency. It is bad for Europe and for  Western support to Ukraine that France, the country leading on European integration and EU security and defence at this dangerous time, should be turning inwards and becoming less stable. And at a time when the NATO Washington Summit and decisions on the future leadership and direction of the European institutions loom on the horizon. Along with the far right, Vladimir Putin will be the clear winner of last week’s elections. Seeing the EU in disarray and more polarised, with populist forces hostile to Ukraine and bent on appeasement of Moscow gaining more influence, if (not yet) actual power, the Russian leader will be encouraged to double down in Ukraine and continue to intimidate EU member states. Seeing Macron and Scholz in trouble will be a boon for the Kremlin’s propagandists.

But look closer and all is not lost. The far right parties did well but not as well as many of them would have hoped. The  centre-right and Christian Democrats held up well in Germany, Poland and across Eastern Europe. This is surprising as the former communist countries were often labelled as the most vulnerable to the sirens of populism and demagoguery. In Germany the CDU did better than during the German national election. The centre right Partido Popular emerged once more as the leading party in Spain with the Socialists in second place”. The European People’s Party will still form the largest group in the new parliament. It actually increased its number of seats, and if it works together with the other centrist and pro-EU groups (Socialists and Democrats and Renew), it should have 403 seats out of 720. This is 10% over the simple majority and should allow for the current Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, to lead the EU for another 5 years. The far right has also failed to unite in the past as some parties, like Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli di Italia, have joined the more pragmatic group (European Conservatives and Reformists) while others have gravitated to the more rejectionist Identity and Democracy group (for instance Le Pen’s RN). By definition far-right groups convinced that the nation-state is everything and the answer to every problem are less interested in international cooperation than centrist groups who see multilateralism within the EU as a better solution for the common interest.

The pro-EU centre has wavered but held for now

Far-right parties are not identical. Some are protectionist and corporatist, others are more liberal and free market in their economics. Some are pro-NATO and support Ukraine. Others pride themselves on their ties to Russia. Some advocate changing the system from within, working with and through the institutions; others want a revolutionary and even violent overthrow of liberal democracy from without. Far-right groups have also weakened other far-right groups as several different factions have emerged. For instance, Le Pen’s RN decimated Zemour’s Reconquete in France. In Hungary a new far right party formed by a Fidesz dissident, Peter Magyar, led to Fidesz having its worst result in any European election since Hungary joined the EU in 2004. Its vote slumped to 52% and it lost 2 of its seats in the European Parliament. In Italy, Salvini’s Lega was the big victor of the European elections 5 years ago with over 30% of the vote,but it slumped to 9% on Sunday and the old and once supreme Berlusconi party, Forza Italia, didn’t get much traction either. Clearly, Meloni and her Fratelli di Italia have done a much better job occupying their political space. Moreover, with the exception of France and Austria, far-right parties did not emerge as the top party. Vlaams Belang trailed behind the more moderate NVA in Belgium and the Alternative fur Deutschland received only half the votes of the CDU/CSU. Its 16% score was more than the Social Democrats but less than the 20% predicted by the polls. Yet the most striking setback for the far right occurred in Sweden where the Swedish Democrats, long an emblematic success story of the European far right movement, suffered a major fall off in support and the Social Democrats, long in the doldrums, re-emerged as the largest party. It seems that migration wasn’t the biggest concern for Swedes this time round.

Yet it has to be acknowledged that the most enthusiastic pro-EU parties were the biggest losers. The Greens were the winners last time round, moving from 52 to 71 seats in the wake of the mobilisation of the young to tackle global warming, but they slumped back to their 2014 result. According to estimates, about half of the young Green voters shifted to the far right. A troubling phenomenon that needs to be explored carefully by centrist politicians and EU supporters. The result also points to the paradox that at a time when the effects of climate change are becoming more obvious and severe than ever, the European publics seem more ready to live with floods, forest fires, storms and extreme heat, particularly if they have to make sacrifices or reduce their living standards to do something about it. This is another result that will need a lot of pondering in the months ahead. The Liberals had a bad election. Alexander de Croo of Open VLD resigned as Belgian Prime Minister (as national elections for Belgium were held at the same time).  In addition to Macron’s debacle, the Liberals receded in Spain, Belgium and Germany. Yet thanks in part to a surprisingly strong showing in Slovakia, they still emerged as the 3rd largest force in the European Parliament with 80 seats, down from 102. And some good news for the Socialists, whose spectacular collapse across Europe from former dominance has allowed the far right to occupy much of its space and steal its voters: the French Socialist leader, Raphael Glucksmann, who is pro-Ukraine, had a good campaign and secured 14% of the vote. The left performed well in Italy, Spain and Sweden too (and looks set to win in non-EU Britain on 4 July). So there are some encouraging signs of recovery even if left-wing governments, as in Spain or Germany, were overtaken by their right-wing adversaries.

So, in sum, this is not the end of the EU, nor the fascist black and brown shirts sweeping across Europe and ushering in a new wave of intolerance and racist ideology, as in the 1930s. At least not yet, and not inevitably. The pro-EU centre has wavered but held for now. The elections are, to some extent, business as usual in Europe. The far right advances another step closer to power, and the larger centre-right formations crack a little but survive while the smaller centrist parties fluctuate more severely. There was no massive breakthrough of the far right on Sunday even if their progress monopolised all the media headlines. Calmer analysis in the light of day shows a more nuanced picture.

The far right loves big announcements with little attention to the how

But a stay of execution for liberals and moderates does not mean execution is avoided at a future date. The EU has 5 years to put its house in order and to burst the populist balloon before it makes another assault on the citadel.

This is not the moment or place to give detailed answers. As said, an in-depth analysis of the lessons and a full debate on the policy conclusions will be needed before we rush in with half-baked and irrelevant responses. But the European elections have at least clarified the big questions that need to be answered.

  1. Why are so many voters, particularly the young, attracted to far-right parties and their messaging? Is it just antipathy to migrants or something deeper? Why do these voters not take the time and trouble to read the policy details and question what lies behind the simple slogans of these parties? Why are they invariably sceptical about centrist parties but so naive and forgiving when it comes to the inexperience and multiple policy contradictions of far-right parties?
  2. Which of the far-right parties can be partners at the European level and mainstreamed into the democratic and parliamentary process because they are sufficiently pragmatic? How can this be done effectively, and for which policy areas (climate, defence, migration, Ukraine, etc).? Which of the far-right parties are anti-constitutional and a threat to European democracy, meaning that they have to remain beyond the pale and confronted actively?
  3. Before the next European elections, how can the major rallying calls of the far right be neutralised? Particularly illegal and uncontrolled migration and socially acceptable and economically affordable adaptation to climate change so that citizens do not feel squeezed on these issues in their daily lives. How can European citizens be mobilised behind moderate policies and EU leadership because they see these as effective and providing REAL solutions? How can the centrist pro-EU parties reclaim these issues from the far right that believes it has a monopoly over them?
  4. Finally, is it best to form coalitions to keep the far right out of power to defend democracy and limit the damage that it could do, or to let it govern when it has a majority and then see it discredit itself when it’s empty, promises all rhetoric is confronted with the harsh realities of governing and delivering? The far right loves big announcements with little attention to the how. The campaign of the RN in France was extremely light on serious policy. It relied on animosity towards the centrist parties, particularly Macron. There is a difficult dilemma here. To form last-ditch centrist alliances to keep the far right out of power only allows the far right to claim that a conspiracy against the people’s choice is preventing it from rightfully governing and that this is against democracy. It only reinforces the popularity of the far right. Trump uses this tactic all the time, which is why Macron called for early French legislative elections. There may be some merit in letting the far right govern if that is truly what French voters want and the European vote last Sunday was not simply an unserious protest vote. Let Le Pen and Bardella then show that magical thinking gets you nowhere and that simple slogans don’t create jobs or grow the economy. Then disillusioned voters coming to their senses will return to the mainstream. That is Macron’s risky gamble. Let’s hope it works out. After all, when Five Star took power in Rome, its inability to deal with the rubbish collection over the years quickly soured the voters as to its competence. But the other part of the dilemma is just as risky. On 30 January 1933 President Hindenburg and the German conservatives asked  Adolf Hitler to become Chancellor in a coalition government. They thought that in doing so, Hitler and his National Socialists would soon be tamed by the realities of government and lose their popular appeal. “And now gentlemen, go forward with God” shouted Hindenburg to Hitler and the other coalition ministers as they filed out of his office. The rest, as they say, is history.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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