BERLIN — A rising far right. Ailing centrist parties. Widespread fracturing of the political spectrum.
Those big-picture trends have taken shape in country after country in recent years—and now with this weekend’s elections for the European Parliament, they are set to be on full display across Europe.
Beginning today with the United Kingdom and the Netherlands and continuing through Sunday, voters in 28 European Union countries are heading to the polls to elect the 751 members of the next European Parliament. The contests take place at a time in which the future of that body, and of the European project more broadly, faces a crucial crossroads.
With expected record gains for euroskeptic parties and movements, the long-held idea of an “ever-closer union” of European integration is under full fire from new challenges—and the European Parliament, like many national legislatures across the continent, will likely face increasing chaos and deadlock as a result.
New gains for right-wing populists
Although it’s difficult to paint the entire EU with a broad brush, it’s clear that right-wing populist forces will make significant gains in a number of countries. What’s more, they’re better organized on the European level than ever before, meaning they could (if they manage to actually work together post-election) develop a greater ability to disrupt policy and political debates in Brussels.
Under Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s ascendant far-right League, like-minded parties from more than 10 countries have joined forces to create the pan-European Alliance of Peoples and Nations. Salvini’s league is expected to finish first in Italy; a handful of other right-wing populist parties are also expected to come in first or second in their respective countries.
Euroskeptic parties, including right-wing populist parties, could together win as many as 254 seats in the European Parliament—a full third of the available seats, according to projections by POLITICO Europe. Seventy-four of those would be for Salvini’s new alliance. The projected gains come at the expense of centrist parties, which are expected to drop to just 389 seats, barely enough to scrape together a majority.
Germany is a prime example of the big-picture trends in many ways. Back in 2014, when it was still a brand-new party, the far-right Alternative for Germany party, the AfD, won only about 7 percent in EU elections; this time, it will almost certainly get a result in the double digits, similar to the 12.6 percent it received in parliamentary elections in 2017.
The center-left Social Democrats, by contrast, have watched their support cut nearly in half since the last EU contests. The party received 27 percent of the vote in 2014; this year, polling suggests it’s on track to receive about 15 percent, surpassed by the German Greens as the biggest party on the left. And while the decline of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats has not been as acute, that party has also lost support since 2014: It’s on track to win approximately 30 percent this weekend, as opposed to 35 percent five years ago.
Could far-right scandals have a late-breaking impact?
Right-wing populist parties have faced some tough headlines in the final weeks of the EU campaign, however. From the implosion of Austria’s government over a scandal involving the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) to an ongoing campaign donations scandal for Germany’s AfD, it’s unclear whether such developments could put a damper on some of the parties’ expected gains.
In Austria, one post-government collapse poll this week suggests the FPÖ has already seen its support drop sharply: After seeing numbers consistently in the mid-20s, the party was down to 18 percent by Tuesday. (The poll was conducted from Saturday to Monday, meaning it was taken too soon to ascertain the full effect of the scandal.)
Since the European elections are focused so much on individual contests in each country, however, it’s hard to see the Austria debacle having too big an impact on the results for similar parties in other countries. Still, it seemed in some ways symbolic that Salvini was kicking off his right-wing alliance with a major rally in Milan the same afternoon the FPÖ’s Heinz-Christian Strache was resigning from office over his role in the leaked video.
Leaders from other right-wing parties have either dismissed the FPÖ’s scandal as an isolated incident or avoided the topic entirely. In Germany, at least, AfD leaders have been quick to say the scandal wouldn’t affect its view of the party as a whole. “We’re going to continue working together with the FPÖ,” Jörg Meuthen, the AfD’s top EU candidate, said over the weekend. The FPÖ, he added, is “our sister party.”
Meanwhile, the AfD has been dealing with its own scandal in recent weeks:It was slapped with a €400,000 fine in April for illegal donations to its 2016 and 2017 state election campaigns. AfD leaders vowed earlier this month to fight back against the fines.
Implications for the future of the EU
While euroskeptic parties aren’t expected to form the biggest bloc in the European Parliament, their gains will give them an unprecedented voice and a presence in debates on key issues like migration. In other words, right-wing populists won’t be the ones explicitly setting the agenda in Brussels, but will have a far greater ability to disrupt and draw attention to their own signature issues.
In recent years, especially as the chaos of Brexit continues to unfold, right-wing populist parties have significantly shifted their rhetoric when it comes to Europe. Conscious that public support for the EU generally remains high, leaders like Salvini and France’s Marine Le Pen are advocating changing the EU from within rather than calling for their countries to exit the EU.
Ultimately, of course, the goal remains the same: to return key decision-making powers from Brussels to EU member states, or foster a “Europe of nations” rather than what they see as an entirely Brussels-centric one. Although such rhetoric typically remains vague, it can mean anything from changing individual regulations or competencies to dissolving the European Parliament entirely, as the AfD wants.
It also remains to be seen whether the parties in Salvini’s new alliance can actually work together after the EU elections. The idea of international cooperation among nationalist parties is a bit contradictory, of course: Although the parties may agree broadly that Islam is dangerous or migration into the EU should be sharply limited, for example, they’re far less united when it comes to what the EU should do with migrants who have already arrived. Such clashes between nationalist rhetoric and the realities of implementing it could drive a wedge between member parties.
Still, although they have been short on specifics, it’s clear Salvini and the other far-right leaders in his alliance envision a long-term shift in European politics: Announcing the new pan-European group in April, he said they had a “vision of Europe for the next 50 years.”
“Our target is to win and change the rules of Europe.”
Lead image credit: By Donald Trung Quoc Don (Chữ Hán: 徵國單) – Wikimedia Commons – © CC BY-SA 4.0 International.(Want to use this image?)Original publication 📤: –Donald Trung 『徵國單』 (No Fake News 💬) (WikiProject Numismatics 💴) (Articles 📚) 20:46, 10 May 2019 (UTC) – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78852777