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11 April 2024

Europe’s hard right is deeply divided. Does it matter?

Giorgia Meloni and company are set on changing the EU, but they’re not a united front.

By Wolfgang Münchau

One of the most frustrating political experiences in Europe must be trying to change how the EU works. People have tried this from the left and the right, from pro- and anti-European positions. I spent a fair share of my professional life campaigning for a closer economic union in the eurozone but gave up. If a sovereign debt crisis can’t create enough momentum, what else can?

The latest group of politicians to try are from the hard right. Its unofficial leader is Giorgia Meloni, the Italian prime minister. Her accomplice is Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian leader. Another is Robert Fico, the prime minister of Slovakia. Fico’s position was strengthened on 6 April, when Peter Pellegrini, a fellow populist, was elected president of Slovakia.

The right is on the march in Europe, galvanised by opposition to immigration. But it is far less united than one might think. Meloni supports Ukraine in its war against Russia, for example, whereas Orbán and Fico do not. Meloni and Orbán are both social conservatives. This is much less true of Marine Le Pen. France just became the first country in the world to include abortion rights into its constitution. Le Pen supported this. Alice Weidel, the co-leader of the hard-right Alternative for Germany is openly gay. She partly lives in Switzerland with a partner, who was born in Sri Lanka, and their two children. Orbán’s government, meanwhile, passed a constitutional amendment in 2020 that declares that “the mother is a woman, the father is a man”. I am not surprised that the hard-right parties disagree with each other. Their ideologies are rooted in nationalism.

Divided though they may be, they should all recognise that attempts to change Europe from within have a long track record of failure. The EU resisted Charles de Gaulle in 1965 and 1966 when he boycotted EU meetings with an empty-chair policy. He was fighting to maintain his veto. The episode ended with the face-saving Luxembourg compromise in which the EU ceded almost nothing to De Gaulle. In the 1980s, the EU resisted Margaret Thatcher’s various demands. She got most of the UK’s “money back” in the form of the British rebate, but failed in the bigger battle to stop the next stages of European integration. In the 1990s, the EU resisted pressure from German politicians who wanted to establish a deeply integrated core Europe that would have excluded large parts of the south. Tony Blair tried to win over European hearts and minds when he became UK prime minister in 1997. But his main European legacy was the division of the EU over Iraq. The union later resisted David Cameron’s attempt to renegotiate Britain’s deal with it – resulting in Brexit.

This short history serves as a reminder that people more formidable than Meloni and Orbán have tried to change the EU and failed. Whenever the attempt to change Brussels from within stems from domestic politics or from ideology, it fails. Success in European politics requires focusing on issues of collective action. This is why none of the previous attempts to change Europe have worked. It was always about red lines, what we pay and what we get. And, in the case of De Gaulle, of trying to foist his own political beliefs on to others. The hard right falls into the same category. Their entire existence is premised on the denial of the need for collective action at European level.

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The hard right is nevertheless a formidable political force. Projections show that it could win many seats in the June European elections. It will become harder, maybe impossible, for the centre to form an effective alliance. Hard-right politicians won’t run Europe. But no one else will either.

The gridlock has already started. EU ministers recently failed to agree on the Nature Restoration Law, the flagship project of the European Commission’s green agenda, because of opposition from Meloni. They had to water down a law designed to make European companies responsible for slave labour in their supply chains.

Gridlock plays into the hands of the hard right. But Meloni and Orbán want more. They seek to roll back existing EU laws and regulations. I am confident this will not happen: if there is one thing harder than European integration, it is European disintegration. You need big majorities for both.

But the likely failure of the right should not be a cause for joy for centrists either. The EU’s ability to resist the likes of Meloni and Orbán is part of its DNA, but that also deprives it of the life force of politics – and contributes to the decline in popular support. European elections rarely have visible consequences except that politicians get new jobs. Those campaigns are usually focused on national issues, rather than on what the European Commission or the European Parliament should do. Winners do not win, and losers do not lose because, for legislation to pass, there must be a majority among ministers representing 55 per cent of EU member states and 65 per cent of the population. EU voting processes are unique in that it is possible for everybody to lose.

My fear for the EU is not that Meloni and Orbán take over, or that it collapses or disappears, or even that several member states follow the UK and leave. I think a far more likely scenario is for the EU to become irrelevant, unable to widen and deepen, to move forward or backward.

[See also: Giorgia Meloni’s long game]

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