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29 May 2024

Europe’s disunited hard right

By rejecting the AfD and embracing Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, Marine Le Pen has performed a political masterstroke.

By Wolfgang Münchau

Everything is going right for Marine Le Pen right now. The leader of the French National Rally was the mastermind behind the recent expulsion of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) from her own Identity and Democracy group in the European Parliament. 

Superficially, this looked like a fracture of the right. But it turned out to be a political masterstroke. With the AfD out, Le Pen has opened the door to a merger with the other big group of the right – Giorgia Meloni’s European Conservatives and Reformists. And that, in turn, could open up to a coalition with the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP).

This is Meloni’s big strategy, a powerbase in Europe that looks like her own right-wing coalition in Italy. The goal of both Le Pen and Meloni is to dismantle the centrist majority that has been in charge of EU politics practically forever. The centre-right EPP has always been the largest party group, and is projected to extend its lead after the 9 June European elections. But the EPP always needed to form coalitions with groups of the centre and the left. After the last European elections in 2019, the four centrist groups – the Socialists, the Greens, Emmanuel Macron’s Renew, and the EPP – only managed to elect Ursula von der Leyen as president of the European Commission with a majority of nine votes. This time, the four parties will probably still have a nominal majority, but it is not clear that they will unite around Von der Leyen, or indeed any other candidate. Meloni’s vision of a majority of the right is both arithmetically possible, and politically feasible.

Le Pen extended her offer in an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. Meloni reacted positively. She said it was not her job to decide who is acceptable or not, noting that not too long ago she herself was deemed unacceptable. Matteo Salvini, whose Lega is in a coalition with Meloni, and tied up with Le Pen in Brussels, said he would also support a merger. This is very much a Franco-Italian project.

If you think about this in coalition logic, a merged group without the extremists would have a lot of political overlap with the European People’s Party. Germany’s Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) is the dominant national group in the centre-right EPP. There is no way they could have formed a coalition with a group that included the AfD. But the CDU has no problems with Meloni. Some may object to an alliance that includes Le Pen, but the French politician has strategically shifted away from her former extremist positions, especially on Europe.

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Le Pen’s exclusion of the AfD helps her form two coalitions at the same time – with Meloni and the centre right. The cost to her is a loss of around 17 seats, the projected number of MEPs for the AfD. The AfD is still a strong party, even though it is no longer polling at rates it did a few months ago because of a string of scandals, including its lead candidate for the European elections, Maximilian Krah, saying in an interview that not all member of the SS were criminals.

A tie-up with the centre right in Europe, meanwhile, would also boost Le Pen’s position at home. Her big goal is to succeed Macron in 2027.

The European Parliament will have a total of 720 seats. A majority would be 361 seats. Politico’s poll of polls has the European Conservatives and Reformists and Le Pen’s Identity and Democracy at 139 seats. The EPP is projected to get 174 seats. Together, they would still be short of a majority at 313 seats. The question will then arise who else could form part of such a coalition. There is Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, with a projected 12 seats – still not enough. So they would need to co-opt parts of Renew, the liberal party, which itself is split between Macron’s people, and right-wing liberals, such as Germany’s Free Democratic Party or the Dutch People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, the party of Mark Rutte. Meloni is right that there could be a majority to the right of the Socialists.

Meloni has said that she would not vote for Von der Leyen if she was a part of a coalition with the left. The Socialists and the Greens are saying the same about Meloni. So there won’t be an enlarged centre with Meloni in it.

This gives rise to two potential coalition options: the current four-party coalition, or a coalition of the right. A four-party coalition of the centre would probably have a nominal majority, but it may not be united enough. Huge gaps have opened between the Greens and the EPP over the future of the Commission’s green policies. A newly merged right would be a party led by France and Italy, with Spain represented through Vox. But by design there would be no Germans in it. The CDU cannot cooperate with the AfD. But it can work with Meloni.

Von der Leyen would have no problem with being part of a coalition of the right, but she cannot work with the AfD either. Her big red line is support for Ukraine. I am not sure it rules out Orbán. His position on Ukraine is a bit more subtle than that of the AfD. He is foot-dragging, and extracting ransom money. But he is not blocking the dispatch of military and financial aid.

The biggest political consequence of such an alliance would be a push-back on green legislation, the hallmark of the Von der Leyen presidency. Back in 2019, when she became Commission president, Von der Leyen called it Europe’s man-on-the-moon moment. The Greens were a central component of her coalition. Bas Eickhout, the Dutch Green and co-leader of the European Greens, got it right when he said: “Imagine if John F Kennedy had said after four years, “OK, maybe halfway to the moon is OK too.’”

Halfway to the moon is a good description of where European politics is right now.

[See also: The EU’s fear-based foreign policy]

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