Katya Adler: What will happen if the far right wins the EU elections?

image source, Good pictures

The far right could make big gains in EU elections. What does that mean?

“The far right is on the march” is something you’ll often hear across Europe right now. “It feels like 1930s Europe.”

With 350 million people across the European Union currently voting for their direct representatives in the European Parliament, it’s no surprise that many Eurocrats in Brussels are scrambling. But are the fears – and the media headlines – overblown?

Millennials and first-time Gen Z voters are predicted to be pulled to the right. Figures compiled recently for the Financial Times show that a third of young French voters and 22% of young Dutch and German voters under the age of 25 support their country’s far-right. This is a significant increase since the last European Parliament elections in 2019.

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image caption, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party hopes to win

Far-right parties are predicted to win a quarter of all seats, and if they win big, the optics will be clear. But the finer details of what impact it might have on EU life and policy-making are more nuanced.

Because the nationalist right itself is nuanced – different nationalist right-wing politicians hold different positions in different countries. Some try to tone down former far-right rhetoric and broaden their appeal to voters.

So, what might change in Europe if the European Parliament shifted to the right?

Push back against green policies

The EU has long nurtured a big ambition – to be ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to the environment. But Europe’s voters are more concerned about the cost of the green transition.

Take the recent farmers’ protests. Tractors from across the EU descended on Brussels and the European Parliament, bringing them to a standstill. Opponents say EU and national environmental laws and bureaucracy are putting them out of business.

Nationalist-right parties in France, the Netherlands and Poland saw an opportunity to claim to be representatives of “ordinary people” against the EU and national “out-of-touch elites”.

The result? The EU has withdrawn or repealed several key environmental rules, including stricter restrictions on the use of pesticides.

Voices for National Sovereignty

Most European voters say they do not want to leave the EU, although they have many reservations about how it should work. Instead, right-wing nationalist parties promise a different EU – more power for nation states, less “Brussels interference” in everyday life.

If their voices are heard louder in the European Parliament, it will be harder for the European Commission to take more powers from national governments, such as on health policy.

Barricades around the shelter…

You would think that this would be an obvious one, and that a swing to the right in the EP would lead to tougher EU legislation on migration.

Take Geert Wilders, the far-right leader of the Netherlands. His PVV party became the largest group in the Dutch parliament this fall after national elections. He has promised the “toughest migration law of all time” and polls suggest the PVV will do well in this election.

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But it should be borne in mind that EU migration and asylum policy is already nicknamed Fortress Europe. Keeping people out is a big priority. There is a flurry of economic agreements with non-EU countries such as Tunisia, Morocco, Libya and Turkey to crack down on traffickers who send economic migrants or asylum seekers.

A large group of hard-rights in the European Parliament may change the so-called solidarity principles.

Each EU country must take its quota of asylum seekers, or at least pay a substantial contribution, to help fellow EU members like Italy and Greece, where most migrants land by people-smugglers’ boats. But nationalist-right MEPs may refuse to play ball, as we have already seen with populist nationalist governments in Hungary and, until recently, Poland.

…and expansion

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has prompted leaders across the EU to talk about making their “neighborhood” more secure.

Not just by spending more on defence, but by speeding up the process – or at least showing more determined enthusiasm – for neighboring countries to join the EU. I’m talking here about Ukraine, Georgia and the Western Balkan countries of Kosovo and Serbia, which have been of great concern to Europeans because of their proximity to Moscow.

Members of the bloc that receive substantial EU subsidies, such as Romania and Poland, and French farmers (still the EU’s largest single beneficiary of the Common Agricultural Policy) will also not benefit. For example, it’s hard to imagine that Ukraine, nicknamed the breadbasket of Europe – a massively rural, agricultural Ukraine – would get a glimpse if it were to join the EU.

What is unlikely to change

Defense and security are seen as the hobby horse of the right, but in these days of conflict, most agree that defense spending is a priority in the EU. Their hopes have been hardened by the prospect of Donald Trump returning to the White House as US president.

After World War II, Europeans looked to the United States to have their backs in terms of security. Look at how important Washington is to providing aid to Ukraine.

But in the run-up to the US election in November, if he wins, Mr Trump is clear that Europe should take nothing for granted.

EU leaders are determined to be better prepared.

Europe’s nationalist right remains divided

Ukraine is a clear example of why generalizing about the hard right as a uniform movement is so misleading.

It is true that far-right parties scattered across the EU say they want to change the nest from within. If they win more MEPs this week and form more national governments, it gives them a bigger voice in the European Parliament, key EU ministerial meetings and EU leaders’ summits.

But it is also true that their impact on the EU depends on how united those political parties are. Ukraine is an example where they are deeply divided.

Pressures within Italy’s government compounded these tensions. Matteo Salvini and his far-right Lega party are in a coalition government with right-wing nationalist Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni of the Brothers of Italy group.

He is a staunch Atlanticist who has pledged military and economic aid to Kiev. Mr Salvini, on the other hand, is more typical of hard-right nationalists in Europe: somewhat USA-sceptic, closer to Moscow – like Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party.

image source, Good pictures

image caption, Matteo Salvini’s Lega is the junior partner in Italy’s coalition government

Another obstacle to the consolidation of European far-right parties is leadership. The nationalist right favors outspoken, charismatic national leaders who, depending on the country they hail from, proclaim “Italy first” or “Make Spain great again” or “France for France”.

Italy’s Giorgia Meloni doesn’t want to tell France’s Marine Le Pen what to fight for in Brussels. Ms Le Pen is unlikely to accept Hungary’s Viktor Orbán clipping her wings.

Who are the right-wingers, anyway?

Part of the problem here is terminology. Who are the toughest? How far right of center does your political group have to be to be labeled “extreme right”?

Right-wing nationalist advocates complain that the mainstream media and mainstream politicians are too quick to use the term.

Italy’s Giorgia Meloni is a high-profile example of a former “extreme right” figure who tried to become more mainstream in order to appeal to a wider range of voters.

image source, Good pictures

image caption, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni delivers a speech ahead of the 2024 European Parliament elections

Once he openly praised Italy’s former fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, he now cites former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as an inspiration. Marine Le Pen has sought to erase a reputation for racism and anti-Semitism among her supporters. And before last year’s Dutch general election, Geert Wilders abandoned the radical anti-Islamist approach associated with him in order to win big.

Further confusing political boundaries is that center-right politicians across Europe have increasingly begun to ape “far-right” rhetoric on hot-button issues like migration or law and order. By doing that, they hope to hold on to voters that the hard right might try.

This is the case, for example, of the long-time prime minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, and the president of France, Emmanuel Macron. His latest migration law only passed the French parliament with the support of the hard right. French media have debated whether Marine Le Pen has “won” – expecting her to win this week’s European Parliament elections.

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