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11 June 2024

Confronting the new Europe

How the ideas of the hard right went mainstream.

By Hans Kundnani

In the run-up to the European Parliament elections that took place on 9 June, the big question was whether the hard right would perform even better than five years ago, when they did better than five years before that. When the results came in, a complicated picture emerged. In France and Germany – the two largest member states of the EU that together are traditionally thought of as the “motor” of European integration – the hard right did very well. But elsewhere in Europe it did not do quite as well as many people expected – and feared.

In France, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National was by far the largest party – which prompted President Emmanuel Macron to dissolve the French National Assembly and call a snap election. In Germany, the Alternative für Deutschland, which is so radical that Le Pen recently had it expelled from the Identity and Democracy (ID) grouping in the European Parliament, came second after the centre-right Christian Democrats.

Overall, the hard right will be more powerful in the next European Parliament than it has ever been. The results were clearly a continuation of the long-term, Europe-wide rise of reactionary politics. But the two hard-right groupings, ID and the European Conservatives and Democrats (ECR), will only have a few more seats than they did before. Some concluded that this meant that the expected hard-right surge had not happened. “The whole narrative that this was going to be a radical-right landslide – it just didn’t materialise like that,” said Frans Timmermans, the former European commissioner, whose alliance of social democrats and Greens beat Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom (PVV) to win the most votes in the Netherlands.

However, the idea that “the centre held” in the European elections, as many people have put it, only makes sense if you ignore – or don’t care about – the way that the centre right has normalised and mainstreamed hard-right ideas during the last decade, especially on issues around identity, immigration and Islam. To understand the influence of the hard right on the EU, it is necessary to go beyond the raw numbers and to look at the way that it is shaping the agenda of the centre right. There has always been a way that the hard right could win without winning.

The upshot of the election is that Ursula von der Leyen will likely become European Commission president for a second term and that the permanent grand coalition that has always run the EU – a coalition of centre-right, centre-left and liberal parties – will continue to do so. In that sense, there will be no dramatic change. But the gradual move to the right that has been taking place in the EU during the last decade, driven by the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), will continue. As the Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde put it before the election: “The new power centre will not so much be the far right, be it ECR or ID, but the far right of the EPP, which will leverage the threat of a right-wing majority to push its traditional coalition partners further to the right.”

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The danger now is that the EPP will see the results of the European elections as a vindication of its strategy of getting even tougher on immigration than it has already become. After the Dutch election last November, when Wilders’s PVV emerged as the biggest party in the Dutch parliament, EPP leader Manfred Weber made it absolutely clear that he believed that, in order to see off the “populist” challenge, the centre right needed to show voters it could go even further to stop immigration. It is likely that the European centre right will now double down on this strategy of attempting to defeat the hard right by becoming the hard right, albeit in “pro-European” form.

[See also: Emmanuel Macron is gambling with France’s future – and Europe’s]

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