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12 June 2024

How Europe’s hard right went mainstream

Across the continent, EU leaders have badly misread the nationalist surge.

By Wolfgang Münchau

The European hard right is not in power. But it is in control. The increase in voter support for hard-right parties in the European Parliament elections of 6-9 June will make Europe – both the continent and the institutions of the EU – more culturally conservative. This moment of hard-right insurgency has been building for some time. Over the last year, the right mobilised against Ursula von der Leyen’s Green Deal, the flagship programme of her five-year presidency of the European Commission. They got her to strike dodgy financial deals worth billions of euros with North African countries, including Tunisia and Egypt, to keep migrants out of the EU. Pressure from the right has turned the European People’s Party (EPP) – the largest group in the European Parliament – from a pro-EU centrist coalition into a congregation of conservatives. So, even if the hard right is not running Europe, it is winning the battle of ideas about immigration, identity, crime, green policies and the economy.

There were two nominal victors in these elections. The first was the EPP, which has built on its previous majority as the largest group in the parliament; in preliminary results, it won 186 of the total 720 seats. The second were the combined forces of the hard right: those marshalled by Marine Le Pen, figurehead and former leader of France’s National Rally party, and those led by Giorgia Meloni, the Italian prime minister. Both could merge their representation in the European Parliament to create the second-largest group, together with some other, non-aligned parties. In France, Le Pen’s party won about 31 per cent of the vote, more than double Emmanuel Macron’s centrist liberals with 15 per cent.

After the extent of his defeat became clear on the evening of 9 June, Macron dissolved France’s legislative body, the National Assembly. He said: “As someone who has always believed that a united, strong, independent Europe is good for France, I cannot accept this situation. The rise of nationalists and demagogues is a danger not only for our nation, but also for Europe, and for France’s place in Europe and the world.”

It is a risky move, one that could see Jordan Bardella, the official leader of the National Rally, become French prime minister weeks before Paris hosts the 2024 Olympic Games.

One of the reasons why Europe’s centrist liberals are losing elections – and what centrist-liberal commentators in the media keep failing to spot – is that they underestimate what is driving the hard-right surge. The right is strong not because it is funded by Vladimir Putin, or because social networks disseminate fake news. It is strong because many voters are deeply unhappy with their governments. The circumstances may be different, but the European rebellion has much in common with what drove UK voters towards voting for Brexit: widespread disaffection and a desire to see someone else in power.

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The main voter group behind the shift in European politics is young people. Germany is a cautionary tale of how fast the young can flip their political allegiances. At the 2019 European elections, 30 per cent of under-30s voted Green. This time, the Green vote is down to 12 per cent. The hard-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has increased its support in that age group from 7 per cent in 2010 to 17 per cent today. And it has consolidated its position in the former East Germany: the election results confirm that the AfD is now the largest party in all five eastern states.

In France, Le Pen’s National Rally is also the favourite of the young. Bardella is himself only 28 years old. Second most popular with young voters was La France Insoumise, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s party of the hard left.

But not all young people who vote for right-wing parties support right-wing agendas. A recent German study of youth attitudes shows high inflation as the main concern, followed by the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East and a lack of affordable housing. Social injustice and climate change are next. Immigration, the right’s recurring theme, does not make the top five. One thing that attracts young people to the AfD is that it is the only party that knows how to use social media. It has more than twice as many followers on TikTok than the other parties combined.

While the rise in support for hard-right parties – and far-right parties – is remarkable, the victory of the EPP will be more consequential politically. The grouping can now choose what kind of coalition it wants to be. Numerically, the four centrist groups in parliament – the EPP, the socialists, Macron’s Renew and the Greens – have a majority. But voting discipline within these alliances is not strong.

In July, the European Parliament is scheduled to vote for the next Commission president. It will be a secret ballot. Last time, when the four parties of the EPP had more seats than they do now, Von der Leyen just got through with a majority of nine. When votes are secret, anything can happen. Official majorities do not always assert themselves. Unofficial ones might. It is an arrangement that favours secret back-room deals.

There is a further complication. Before the parliament votes, the leaders of the EU countries must nominate the candidates. The meeting for this is scheduled to take place on 27-28 June, just before the first round of the French parliamentary elections. It would be a gift to the hard right if Macron were to nominate Von der Leyen, an unpopular German centrist. 

I keep hearing from my sources in Brussels that Macron expressed support at one point for the idea of nominating Mario Draghi as an alternative to Von der Leyen. Draghi was the president of the European Central Bank during the euro crisis between 2011 and 2019, when he made bold promises to do whatever it would take to save the euro. When the Italian government collapsed in 2021, he was hauled in to become prime minister. The Italians call it governo tecnico: technical government. Technocratic rule is always a possibility in gridlocked political systems such as the EU.

Both Macron and Draghi believe that the European Commission should focus on disruptive economic renewal, such as reforming the EU’s banking sector and its fragmented capital markets. Meloni had a good working relationship with Draghi when she was leader of the Italian opposition, and during the transition afterwards. There is nobody among EU leaders and in the European Parliament who has obvious problems with Draghi. I suspect that Von der Leyen will squeeze through, but if not, he would be a possible alternative.

The choice of the Commission president is important because it is the Commission, not the European Parliament, that sets the EU’s political agenda. The underlying political reality of the EU is that its budget is only 1 per cent of GDP. By comparison, the US budget is 23 per cent of the US economy. The EU is full of ambition, but it does not have the money for any major policies, such as funding a European army, or stabilising the economy in a crisis. In her 2023 State of the Union speech, Von der Leyen praised the “birth of a geopolitical union”. But with the EU’s limited budget this seems delusional. The modern EU is to some extent an exercise in keeping up appearances. The Commission’s programmes are far smaller than their headline figures and pompous names suggest. In 2020 the much-hyped “NextGenerationEU” was hailed as Europe’s Hamiltonian moment – the big shift that would turn a loose confederation of states into a genuine political and economic union through what seemed an impressive roster of joint investments. It turned out to be a comparatively small scheme with hardly any measurable effect on the EU economy. Judging by these elections, the programme had no effect on the next generation of European citizens either.

The Commission is a rule-setter, and a rule-watcher, not a government. Under Von der Leyen it went into regulatory overdrive. Aside from the Green Deal, the EU was the first to devise a regulatory regime for AI. It recently agreed the regulation of cryptocurrencies. And it places big restrictions on US tech firms such as Apple and Google through the Digital Services Act. The old joke is that America innovates, China imitates and Europe regulates. This underestimates modern China. But it is an accurate description of the EU.

When old industries such as steel or mechanical engineering still generated high profits, Europe’s lack of innovation was not such a big deal. Now it is. Europeans are dissatisfied due to economies that no longer generate the surpluses to compensate the losers: the less well off and those whose livelihoods are becoming obsolete. The EU is stuck in the past, a world in which people had jobs in factories and drove diesel cars to work.

It was the Austrian political economist Joseph Schumpeter who coined the term “creative destruction” in his 1942 book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. Yet it is the European that struggles with this concept the most. In the US, for example, there would not have been a Silicon Valley without the industrial wastelands of Detroit. There are no European Detroits, but also no Silicon Valleys. 

The shift towards the hard right is largely a reaction to a failing economic model. National economies are stagnant, with regular cycles of inflation and recession. The rise of the hard right is a consequence of more than a decade of terrible economic policies – from the way the EU handled the eurozone crisis to its dependency on Russia and China, and the lack of investment into high technology.

The most telling aspect of these elections is the absence of a political debate on economic renewal. The debate is all about protection – against immigrants, against cryptocurrencies, social networks and Chinese cars. Further economic slowdowns or downturns – as I expect there will be – will only intensify this siege mentality and hard-right reaction. The hard right is still far away from governing the EU. But the strength of its support is a metric of continental discontent that will persist in the years to come.

[See also: How the European left can take on the far right]

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This article appears in the 12 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The hard-right insurgency