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10 June 2024

Can the rampant New Right challenge the power of Brussels?

This is just the start of Marine Le Pen and Giorgia Meloni’s plot to remake the continent.

By John Lloyd

The European Union was created, in large part, to prevent another war between France and Germany; and its development soon became entrusted to these two former enemies. France took the lead on political issues and Germany, as it grew richer, provided the money. They formed an alliance, through which all important EU business had to pass and be approved, before it was then embedded – in ways most citizens who pay for it don’t understand – in national legislation.

The Franco-German motor has run the Union in this way ever since – jerkily in the last couple of years, because President Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Olaf Scholz got on badly and only recently (and unconvincingly) pledged new initiatives. But they still personified the indispensable machine of the continental union.

That machine is now in pieces. The Renaissance party of Macron defied its name to come a woeful second to Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN), prompting him to call a legislative election he may well lose. In Germany, the hard-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), despite suffering from accusations that it would expel large numbers of immigrants and accusations of corruption, still won 16 per cent of the vote, putting them second to the centre-right Christian Democrats. Scholz’s Social Democrats, the leading party in a three-way governing coalition, scored just 14 per cent – a new low for the party. Scholz will be hard-pressed to carry on as leader of a country in which less than a seventh of the voters chose his party.

Europe has no political leaders who can grasp this situation. It has “dropped the pilot” as they say in Germany when a political titan leaves the stage, and it will be hard to pick up another. The New Right parties didn’t make a clean sweep of the European elections – some, including the Sweden Democrats and the Hungarian ruling party Fidesz, slipped back (though not by much). But the continued dominance of Giorgia Meloni in Italy, Le Pen’s triumph across almost every region of France, the continued strength of the AfD and the appearance of a new German left-right party led by Sahra Wagenknecht, means the wind remains with the populist invaders.

These results will be followed by a series of manoeuvres among the party groups of the European Parliament. But for the New Right, winning may come to be seen as the easy part. Le Pen and Meloni will try to work together on the EU, and draw other rightist forces to them. Their aim will be to produce a right-wing bloc that can challenge the centre-right hegemony. But before they can form a new kind of European axis – the very inverse of what France and Germany once represented – they must face up to their own domestic insecurities.

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Le Pen and her co-leader Jordan Bardella have pronounced themselves ready – in fact, raring – for another electoral campaign. But there’s a calculation within Macron’s wager. Around half of French citizens have not spoken yet (turnout was only 51 per cent), and when rallied they may still flinch from a party led by a member of such an infamous political family. Bardella’s youthful charm has changed the dial. But if RN does win, Macron would be more or less obliged to appoint Bardella as prime minister – a post for which he has neither experience nor training. An RN member, celebrating on Sunday evening, confided to Le Monde that “they want to show us that we can’t cope, so they can cut off our legs before 2027 [the year of the next presidential election]”.

Meloni has been and remains lucky, facing a weak opposition in the centre-left Democratic Party, which is internally divided. But Italy still has an economy with debt at 137 per cent of GDP, a budget deficit of over 7 per cent (double the EU limit), and chronic low productivity. Meloni’s political hyperactivism and her ability to strike deals – most recently with Albania on immigration – has not helped her to improve the country’s fragile economy, especially in the laggard south. The government bond spread – a vital indication of health – has come down, as has the debt. But a recent European Commission report on the country was guarded, stressing structural problems and low productivity, and noting that its main trading partners, especially Germany, are suffering from low growth at present.

If they want to change the direction of the EU, Meloni and Le Pen will need to confront Brussels head-on. Both have tempered the extremist elements of their parties and their Euroscepticism in recent years. But they retain, as Meloni told a conference in Madrid last month, the intention of stopping the EU’s further integration, and forcing a return of powers to national parliaments. It’s an almighty goal for this new Franco-Italian engine to have set itself. And in the absence of the strong domestic background that allowed France and Germany to build the EU in the first place, it remains to be seen if they can turn rhetoric into reality.

[See also: What the West gets wrong about the war in Ukraine]

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