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Tuesday, June 25, 2024 | Back issues
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It’s time to vote for a new EU Parliament and the far right looms large

In the world's only transnational elections, millions of people across the European Union's 27 nations head to the polls to elect a new European Parliament. The big question is how well will far-right parties do.

(CN) — Citizens across the European Union on Thursday will begin four days of voting in European Parliament elections expected to result in a shift to the right amid economic hardship, a backlash against green policies and angst over the war in Ukraine.

About 373 million people in 27 EU nations are eligible to vote between Thursday and Sunday in what are the world's only transnational elections. The outcome will help define the EU's political direction for the next five years.

A heightened sense of tension prevailed ahead of this ballot to pick 720 parliamentarians from across Europe because surveys show strong support for far-right politicians and a swing away from green and liberal parties, which scored big in the last elections in 2019.

“The far right are likely to gain, it just depends to what extent,” said Stephanie Luke, an expert on European politics at the University of Sheffield.

European elections can be hard to predict due to historically low turnout with many voters considering them less important than national elections, she said. In 2019, turnout was about 50% and a similar level of interest is expected this time. Often, voters use European elections to cast protest votes, and that's a factor that could favor the far right.

Despite the expected rise in far-right support, the balance of power of the European Parliament — and by extension EU policy making — looks set to largely remain with the traditional centrist big-tent conservative and social democratic groups that have dominated EU politics ever since the first European elections in 1979.

Those mainstream political families — the center-right European People's Party and the center-left Socialists and Democrats — are expected to respectively pick up the most and second-most parliamentary seats. Until now, these two groups have shared power in “grand coalitions” and advanced the EU's objectives.

In this election, the center-right group is on track to win 182 seats, up from 176, and the center-left one is expected to obtain 136 seats, down from 139, according to a projection by Euractiv, a European news service.

Nonetheless, the focus — and for pro-Europeans, the peril — of these elections lies with the possibility of big gains by a variety of hard-right parties across the bloc and, by contrast, a steep fall in support for green and liberal groups in the Parliament, a sign of backlash against pro-EU and pro-environmental policies.

In the European Parliament, most of the far-right parties, though not all, are affiliated either with the European Conservatives and Reformists, led by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, or with Identity and Democracy, headed by Marine Le Pen in France.

Together, the far right could make up about a quarter of the Parliament's seats and wield enough clout to not just influence but even direct some aspects of decision-making in Brussels for the first time in the EU's history.

This scenario has become even more likely because the European People's Party has shifted further to the right to fend off its rivals on the extreme right while also becoming more willing to join forces with the far right at local, regional, national and EU levels. These elections could even see the centrist “grand coalition” model getting eclipsed by a conservative alliance pushing the agenda in Brussels.

“The potential to have a more right-wing coalition is there,” Luke said. “It hasn't really been there previously and I think that's the difference here.”

This possibility has come to rock EU politics in the run-up to the election.

At a debate last month, Ursula von der Leyen, a European People's Party leader and head of the EU's executive branch, sparked dismay among her rivals in the center and on the left by saying she was open to working with Meloni and her post-fascist Brothers of Italy party.


“They are more willing to work with these parties and I think that is what is different and what makes this unique,” Luke said.

On the policy front, a more right-wing European Parliament might seek to water down even further the previous Parliament's ambitious Green Deal, a set of policies and laws to force industry and society to drastically reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change. Backlash against the Green Deal has exploded in recent months with farmers across Europe holding protests against measures to put farmland aside for nature restoration, cut down on pesticide use and reduce livestock herds.

Besides attacking green policies, a right-wing Parliament might push to pass even stricter measures to curb the flow of asylum seekers and migrants into the EU.

A potential shift to the right in Brussels comes as right-wing parties once considered too extreme for many European voters are either in government or doing very well in polls in Italy, Hungary, Austria, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Sweden, Spain, Portugal and elsewhere.

Lots of reasons are given for the rise of the far right, among them anxiety over immigration, economic stagnation, disillusionment with globalization and animosity toward ruling elites.

Since the last European elections five years ago, the EU has been clobbered by the coronavirus pandemic, damaged by the expanding trade war between the United States and China and shellacked by a cost-of-living shock and energy crisis caused by the outbreak of war between Russia and Ukraine.

“The cost-of-living crisis is something which these [radical-right] parties can use to fuel debate and say look: 'These center-left and center-right parties aren't doing anything for you in your lives,'" Luke said. “They offer a difference, an alternative.”

This time of crisis, then, has put wind in the sails of the far right and added weight to their talk of erecting stronger borders, putting national interests first and reviving homegrown industries, family life and cultural traditions.

“They very much want their own borders back, as the delightful phrase goes,” Luke said. “They offer human rights, but for a specific group of peoples.”

These kind of stances are what make the rise of the far right so worrisome for pro-EU forces.

Hard-right parties have long forged their brand of politics in opposition to the EU project and its logic of entrusting supranational powers to Brussels, which in turn rolls out bloc-wide edicts, laws and policies designed to promote human rights, free trade, economic fairness, social justice and the rule of law.

But in the language of the far right, the EU, its bureaucrats and its main supporters are demonized as the purveyors of a “globalist elite” agenda that does not have the interests of average, conservative-minded people at heart. And that message is finding fertile ground and shifting the political compass in Europe.

“We know that what the far-right parties stand for is inherently against what the EU stands for and that's the fear,” Luke said.

However, even more troubling may be the shift inside the European People's Party toward more radical-right stances, she added.

“It's the worry that the center-right, the EPP, has actually moved away from the core principles [of the EU],” she said.

There's another possible outcome to this election, she said.

It may lead to a more fragmented Parliament where the various political groups are unwilling to form coalitions and instead impede each other.

“The other potential is that there is political stalemate,” she said.

“We talk so much about the issues that could come up; but unfortunately, it might be they actually struggle to get things through.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow @cainburdeau
Categories / Elections, Government, International, Politics

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