Tuesday, June 25, 2024

European elections: Paris and Berlin – not Brussels – will feel heat of far right’s gains

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So in the end, with a couple of alarming wobbles, the centre held. As polls predicted, the mainstream pro-EU alliance of centre-right, centre-left, liberal and Green parties in the European parliament hung on, quite comfortably, to its majority.

Europe’s national conservative and far-right forces made big gains, ending up with just under a quarter of MEPs in the 720-seat assembly – their highest tally ever. But they did not do uniformly well, and in some places fared worse than forecast.

Where they did do well, they did very well, most notably in France, where Emmanuel Macron’s humbling 15%-32% defeat by Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) pushed the French president into the huge gamble of calling a snap legislative election.

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In Germany, too, despite a number of scandals including Nazi whitewashing, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) garnered a higher percentage of the national vote (16%) than any of the three parties that make up the beleaguered coalition of the chancellor, Olaf Scholz.

These are worrying developments in the two countries that have traditionally acted as the motor that has driven the EU forward. France faces the risk of a far-right majority in parliament, while Germany’s government has been further weakened.

Brothers of Italy, led by the Italian prime minister, Giorgia Meloni (pictured), was a big winner with 28% of the vote. Photograph: Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images

Brothers of Italy, led by the Italian prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, was a big winner, too, scoring 28%. But outside those big three member states – and Austria, where FPÖ, as long predicted, finished first on 26% – the hard right’s scores often underwhelmed.

Vlaams Belang underperformed in Belgium, scoring less than 14%, as did the Danish People’s party (6.4%). The Finns (7.6%) and the Sweden Democrats (13%), both of which are either in or supporting rightwing governments, disappointed.

In Poland, Law & Justice (PiS) was narrowly defeated by Donald Tusk’s Civic Coalition. Spain’s Vox failed to clear 10%, Geert Wilders’ Freedom party (PVV), winners of the last Dutch national election, wound up with three fewer seats than the Labour/Green Left Alliance, and in Hungary Viktor Orbán had his worst night in years.

Overall the results were broadly in line with expectations. “More than anything, these elections reflect developments at the national level,” said Cas Mudde, an expert in populism and the radical right at the University of Georgia.

The Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, celebrates after his Civic Coalition narrowly defeated PiS. Photograph: Maciek Jaźwiecki/Zuma Press Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

Those developments undoubtedly included highly unpopular incumbent governments. But, said Mudde, if anything, judged against their current strength at national level across the bloc, the far right was now “underrepresented at European level”.

The elections’ main impact, consequently, is likely to be most felt in national capitals – most particularly Paris and Berlin.

In the European parliament itself, however, the centre-right European People’s party (EPP), which gained 10 MEPs, the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and – despite losing a fifth of their seats – the liberals of Renew seem on course for more than 400 MEPs.

Adding in the Greens, which shed about a quarter of their seats but were left with more than 50, that gives the pro-European mainstream “centre” a total of about 455 MEPs – a reduced but still relatively comfortable majority in the 720-seat assembly.

Meanwhile, the combined hard right, splintered into Meloni’s national-conservative ECR, Le Pen’s far-right Identity and Democracy (ID), and assorted (thus far) non-aligned parties, including AfD and Orbán’s Fidesz, can count on perhaps 145.

Mujtaba Rahman, of the Eusasia Group consultancy, said: “Despite their gains, divisions and disorganisation among the rightwing groups will limit their impact on the EU’s political and policy agenda in the next five-year term.”

Along with other analysts, however, Rahman said that on specific issues where far-right policy positions had traction (and might align with centre-right EPP objectives), “tactical right-of-centre alliances” could dilute or even derail EU initiatives.

Those are most likely to include particular debates around migration and the green transition, with rightwing MEPs probably seeking to restrict the impact of climate legislation in particular on companies, households and individuals.

In these areas, and maybe others, parliament’s work could get complicated. Analysis of votes in the outgoing assembly by EUobserver and Novaya Gazeta Europe showed that 69 out of more than 2,000 final resolutions were decided by a narrow margin.

Under a more rightwing parliament, the analysis suggested, almost half of those 69 votes would have had a different outcome. Fully 40% of them were on green topics, but there were also tight outcomes on human rights and the rule of law.

Nicolai von Ondarza, of the German Institute for International Affairs (SWP), said that although the centre held, “European politics are going to get more polarising, more politicised and more populist”.

Péter Magyar of the Respect and Freedom party sings with supporters during an election night party in Budapest. Photograph: Robert Hegedus/AP

There would be much movement among the various parliamentary groups on the right, von Ondarza said, with AfD likely to try to form its own “righter-than-far-right” group but also MEPs from Orbán’s Fidesz seeking a new political home.

“But these movements will not affect the overall majority,” he said. “If anything, they are likely to further strengthen the EPP, which will grow even bigger,” with the addition of Péter Magyar’s new centre-right opposition party in Hungary, which scored 30%.

Although the far right’s big gains in France and Germany will have little impact on the European parliament as such, they could well have a major impact on EU politics, because – despite Brexiters’ claims – most EU power still resides in the capitals.

Ursula von der Leyen receives flowers from the CDU party leader, Friedrich Merz, during a party leadership meeting after the EU elections in Berlin on Monday. Photograph: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

Von Ondarza said all of that would most likely leave Meloni as the figure to watch – in particular, “how far she and the ECR can get the likely commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, and her EPP to work with them.”

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