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Europe turns right

Parties of the hard right are in the ascendancy across the continent – but their political prospects are difficult to gauge.

By New Statesman

The results of the European Parliamentary elections on 9 June revealed popular discontent at the core of the Union. In France, Marine Le Pen’s hard-right National Rally (RN) received 31 per cent of the vote, more than double the share of the coalition that Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party led. In Germany, the hard-right Alternative for Germany made significant gains, beating Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democratic Party to second place. In Austria, the anti-immigrant Freedom Party won a European election for the first time, ahead of Chancellor Karl Nehammer’s centre-right People’s Party. Italians seemed less rebellious – Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia secured victory after receiving 28 per cent of the vote, consolidating her position at home and as Europe’s pre-eminent powerbroker.

To head off a hard-right insurgency in France, on 9 June Emmanuel Macron called a snap legislative election. France’s leading left-wing newspaper, Libération, described this decision as an “extreme gamble”. If Le Pen’s party wins, its official leader, the 28-year-old Jordan Bardella, could become prime minister.

The four centrist-party groups in the EU Parliament – the European People’s Party (EPP), the Socialists, Macron’s Renew, and the Greens – still retain a majority. The arch-technocrat Ursula von der Leyen looks likely to win a second term as president of the European Commission. But the election results mean that hard-right groups will have more influence than ever over the EU budget and policy areas such as defence and the environment.

There are, however, deeper trends. Europe’s hard right has been increasing its support and influence for years. Intersecting crises including economic recessions, failed immigration systems, the Covid-19 pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and spiralling energy costs have created the conditions in which anti-system movements on the left and right have cast themselves as agents of revolt against Europe’s exhausted political classes.

But those same classes have also served the political fortunes of the hard right. As Hans Kundnani writes for the New Statesman, the idea that “the centre held” in the European elections “only makes sense if you ignore… the way the centre right has normalised and mainstreamed hard-right ideas during the past decade”. This is especially the case with ideas around identity, law and order, immigration, Islam and green politics. The defining political tendency in Europe now is not the threat of Eurosceptic parties on the fringe threatening to pull their countries out of the EU. It is the belief that the only way the centre can defeat the hard right is to become the hard right.

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After the Dutch election in November 2023, when Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom emerged as the biggest party in the Dutch parliament, the EPP leader, Manfred Weber, declared that to see off the “populist” challenge the centre right needed to show voters it could be hard-line on immigration. In France, responding to Le Pen’s surging popularity, the Macron government has become increasingly anti-immigrant and anti-Islam. Outside the EU in Britain, the Conservatives – and arguably Labour – have adopted more socially conservative positions as a response to the “Farage effect”.

The political prospects for Europe’s hard-right insurgency, however, are difficult to gauge. The parties are divided – on economics (neoliberal vs protectionist), on international affairs (pro-Putin vs anti-Putin), on cultural issues (pro-abortion vs anti-abortion), and with their varying levels of Euroscepticism more generally. In the centre, too, voting discipline among the EPP and other EU parties is weak.

These divisions reflect a politically fragmenting continent. And yet in the Nordic countries left-wing and green parties, such as the Socialist People’s Party in Denmark, made gains, while hard-right parties, such as the Sweden Democrats, saw their support diminish.

In The European Dream (2004), Jeremy Rifkin wrote that Europe “does not share the passion of the early American Dream, with its vision of a young chosen people destined for greatness. It is less evangelical and more patient. Its goal is harmony, not hegemony.” With social, cultural and political schisms emerging from east to west, and with the continent squeezed between the United States and China, it seems that Europe will achieve neither.  

[See also: How Europe’s hard right went mainstream]

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