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

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

Image source, Getty Images

The far right could make significant gains in the European Union elections. what does that mean?

“The far right is on the rise” is a saying you often hear across Europe at the moment. “This looks like Europe in the 1930s.”

So perhaps it is not surprising that with 350 million people across the EU currently voting for their direct representatives in the European Parliament, there is strong criticism from many European bureaucrats in Brussels. But are the fears – and media headlines – exaggerated?

Millennials and first-time Gen Z voters are among those expected to shift to the right. Figures recently compiled by the Financial Times indicate that about a third of young French and Dutch voters under the age of twenty-five, and 22% of young German voters, prefer the far right in their country. This is a significant increase since the last European Parliament elections in 2019.

Image source, Getty Images

Comment on the photo, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party hopes to make gains

Far-right parties are expected to hold up to a quarter of the total seats, and if they win a large majority, the picture will be clear. But the finer details of the impact it could have on life and policy-making in the EU are more nuanced.

This is because the nationalist right itself has a slight difference: different nationalist right politicians in different countries take different positions. Some have toned down previous far-right rhetoric in an attempt to broaden their appeal to voters.

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

Addressing green policies

The European Union has long harbored a huge ambition – to be one step ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to the environment. But voters in Europe are increasingly concerned about the costs of the green transition.

Take, for example, the recent mass farmers’ protests. Tractors from across the European Union descended on Brussels and the European Parliament, bringing work to a halt. Protesters said EU and national environmental laws and bureaucracy had put them out of work.

Nationalist right-wing parties in France, the Netherlands and Poland jumped on this bandwagon, seizing an opportunity to promote their claim to be representatives of “ordinary people” against “out-of-touch elites” in the European Union and nationalism.

Results? The European Union has rolled back or eliminated several key environmental rules, including stricter regulations on the use of pesticides.

Voices for national sovereignty

Most European voters say they don’t want to leave the EU, even though they have many complaints about how it works. Instead, right-wing nationalist parties promised a different EU: more power for nation-states, and less “Brussels interference” in daily life.

If their voices become louder in the European Parliament, it could make it more difficult for the European Commission to obtain more competencies from national governments, such as health policy.

Obstructing asylum…

You might think this is obvious, and that a shift to the right in the European Parliament would lead to tougher EU immigration legislation.

Take, for example, the far-right leader in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders. His party, the Party for Freedom, became the largest group in the Dutch parliament this fall after national elections. He has promised to pass “the toughest immigration law ever,” and exit polls suggest the Freedom Party will do well in this election.

Image source, Getty Images

But it is worth bearing in mind that the EU’s migration and asylum policy has long been nicknamed the Fortress of Europe. The top priority is keeping people out. There has been a wave of economic deals with non-EU countries such as Tunisia, Morocco, Libya and Turkey to crack down on people smugglers who send economic migrants or asylum seekers.

But what a larger group of the hard right in the European Parliament could change is so-called solidarity politics.

Each EU country is supposed to take a share of asylum seekers, or at least make significant contributions, to help fellow EU members such as Italy and Greece, where most migrants arrive via people smugglers’ boats. But MEPs on the nationalist right may refuse to play the game, as we have already seen with populist nationalist governments in Hungary and, until recently, Poland.

…and expansion

Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine has EU leaders across the EU talking about making their “region” safer.

Not only by spending more on defence, but also by accelerating the process – or at least showing more tangible enthusiasm – to get neighboring countries to join the EU. I’m talking here about Ukraine, Georgia, and Western Balkan countries like Kosovo and Serbia, the latter of which is a major concern for Europeans due to its proximity to Moscow.

It also means that bloc members who received large EU subsidies such as Romania and Poland as well as French farmers (who remain the single largest beneficiary of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy) will probably no longer benefit. It is hard to imagine that they would stand a chance if, for example, the huge rural agricultural Ukraine, dubbed the breadbasket of Europe, joined the European Union.

Which is unlikely to change

The right tends to view security and defense as a workhorse, but in these days of conflict, most EU members agree that defense spending is a priority. Their condemnation was strengthened by the prospect of Donald Trump returning to the White House as President of the United States.

Since World War II, Europeans have looked to the United States for security support. Just look at how important Washington is in providing aid to Ukraine.

But Trump has been clear that if he wins the presidency come the US elections in November, Europe should not take anything seriously.

EU leaders are convinced that they need to prepare better.

The nationalist right in Europe will remain divided

Ukraine is a clear example of why generalizing about the far right as a unified movement can be so misleading.

It is true that far-right parties spread across the European Union say they intend to change the bloc from within. If they win more MEPs this week, and if they gain access to more national governments, that will give them a greater voice in the European Parliament, at key meetings of EU ministers and at summits of EU leaders.

But it is also true that their impact on the EU depends on how united those political parties are. Ukraine is one example of the deep division between the two countries.

These tensions are summed up by tensions within the Italian government. Matteo Salvini and his far-right party, Lega, form a coalition government with right-wing nationalist Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni of the Brotherhood of Italy.

It is an avowed Atlanticist and has pledged continued military and economic aid to Kiev. Salvini, on the other hand, is more typical of Europe’s hard-line human rights nationalists: somewhat skeptical of the United States, and closer to Moscow – like Marine Le Pen’s National Rally.

Image source, Getty Images

Comment on the photo, Matteo Salvini’s party is a junior partner in the Italian coalition government

Another obstacle to coordination between European far-right parties is leadership. The nationalist right tends to favor outspoken, charismatic national leaders, declaring “Italy first,” “Make Spain great again,” or “France for the French,” depending on which country they are from.

Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s prime minister, will not want French leader Marine Le Pen telling her what to fight for in Brussels. Le Pen is unlikely to accept having her wings clipped by Hungarian President Viktor Orbán, etc.

Who are the far right anyway?

Part of the problem here is terminology. Who are the owners of the difficult right? How far right of center does your political grouping have to be to be classified as “far-right”?

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

Giorgia Meloni in Italy is a prominent example of a former “extreme right” figure who sought to become more mainstream, to attract a wider range of voters.

Image source, Getty Images

Comment on the photo, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni delivers a speech ahead of the 2024 European Parliament elections

While she once publicly praised former Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, she now cites former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as her inspiration. Marine Le Pen has tried to erase her reputation for racism and anti-Semitism among her followers. Before the Dutch general elections last year, Geert Wilders abandoned the extremist anti-Islam stance that his critics associated with him, achieving a major victory.

Further complicating political definitions is that centre-right politicians across Europe have increasingly begun to imitate “far-right” rhetoric on hot-button issues such as immigration or law and order. In doing so, they hope to retain voters who may be vulnerable to harassment by the hard right.

This was the case with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, for example, as well as French President Emmanuel Macron. The recent immigration law was passed in the French Parliament only with the support of the far-right. French media have debated whether Marine Le Pen has “won” – just as she hopes to do in this week’s European Parliament elections.

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