Why the European Union may soak up the populist-right wave

Since 2019, when Europeans last went to the polls and heads of government appointed a new cohort of European Union leaders, the bloc has borne the brunt of a ‘polycrisis’: a pandemic, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and now, on its eastern flank, the Israel−Hamas conflict.

Alongside these external shocks has come a home-grown political disruption – the right-wing populists who have come to power in Europe. Their impact on June’s European Parliament elections and whether the EU will lurch to the right as a result has led to some hand-wringing, yet the future remains fluid.

Much has been written about Europe’s populist right, triggered by Italian elections in the autumn of 2022 that led to the hard-right government of Giorgia Meloni. Comparable figures fared well in national elections that followed in Finland, Sweden and Greece, as well as in Germany’s local elections that saw a renewed surge of the neo-Nazi Alternative for Germany (AfD). The inference some drew is that the same dynamic could unfold at the European Parliament elections next year, possibly leading to a new hard-right/conservative majority supporting the next leader of the European Commission.

A varied picture
The latest election results paint a more varied picture. The success of Geert Wilders’ PVV in November’s election in the Netherlands represents a political watershed. Whether this leads to a policy shift remains to be seen, as it will largely depend on what coalition government is formed and when. The Netherlands may still be in the midst of forming a government when Europeans vote in June.

In Spain, the much-feared rise of the hard-right Vox did not happen. The socialist Pedro Sánchez managed to cobble together a coalition government with Catalan nationalists, albeit controversially.

Don’t expect June’s European election results to differ widely differ from those of 2019.

In Poland, many assumed the Law and Justice Party would remain at the helm, perhaps radicalizing further were they to form a government with the even more hard-right Confederation. Instead, Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform coalition won a sound majority with a turnout of an unprecedented 74 per cent. Improved relations with the EU and the restoration of democracy, starting with the rule of law, were among Tusk’s main selling points.

In Slovakia, elections did lead to the return of populist Robert Fico as prime minister, who will no doubt join ranks with Viktor Orbán’s Hungary in trying to impede European support for Ukraine. However, Fico, while clearly a Eurosceptic populist, in theory at least hails from the left, and his party Smer used to belong to the European socialist grouping.

Next year’s presidential elections could bring some political balance (see sidebar). Furthermore, like Hungary, Slovakia is a small member state, with limited influence over the direction the EU might take.

National elections are national stories
Which is to say that national elections are, and will remain, predominantly national stories, defying generalizations about trends in European politics. The same holds, perhaps counterintuitively, for European elections.

Whereas European Parliament elections should be about the EU and European policies, they often translate into litmus tests for the popularity of government and opposition parties in different member states. This is not to exclude the risk of a rise of hard-right populist parties in next year’s elections; rather, those risks should be assessed member state by member state.

In government, the hard-right Giorgia Meloni has realized migration defies black-and-white answers such as naval blockades.

Take migration. It is a fact that migration flows are rising, having reached in 2023 the levels of 2015, at the peak of the so-called migration crisis. It is likely that migration, with the economic fallout of the energy crisis, may well have an impact on the European elections. For instance, in Germany, the government led by Olaf Scholz, a coalition of social democrats, greens and liberals, could be punished at the polls and the AfD could surge.

It is difficult to imagine the same dynamic playing out, for example, in Italy, however. There, the hard-right parties when in opposition vowed to stem the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean with extreme solutions such as a naval blockade; once in government, Meloni’s government has been forced to grapple with a complex question that defies such black-and-white answers.

As a result, don’t expect June’s European election results to widely differ from those of 2019. Relatively speaking, conservative parties may fare better and green parties worse. However, the overall majority that will vote in the next Commission president will probably be the same broadly as four years ago: conservative, socialist, liberal, green and pro-European.

A degree of continuity
Importantly, the heads of government around the European Council that will appoint the new leaders will hail from different political families. Of the largest member states, France and Poland will be represented by liberals, Germany and Spain by socialists and only Italy the populist right. Hardly a configuration pushing for a radical right-wing agenda. This would suggest a degree of continuity in the European policy agenda.

Europeans are likely to continue providing significant economic and military support to Ukraine.

The European Green Deal – with its aim of being the first climate-neutral continent by 2050 – may change pace and form. It will probably be discussed more in terms of green technologies, industrial policy and the socioeconomic costs of the energy transition, rather than climate as such. Particularly at risk are areas in which the business case in favour of the transition is weaker, such as agriculture reform.

The strategic direction of the energy transition is unlikely to change fundamentally, however. Energy security and the energy transition will continue to be seen as sides of the same coin.

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Slovakia’s presidential vote can curb Fico – or embolden him
Likewise, for all the talk of ‘Ukraine fatigue’, Europeans are likely to continue providing significant economic and military support to Ukraine – it is far easier to contemplate this scenario in the United States, unfortunately. Linked to this, enlargement policy will probably be one of the priorities of the next Commission.

And even if migration remains high on the agenda, it is difficult to see an alignment of the political stars that would enable a meaningful step forward in the EU’s migration policy, such as moving towards a common asylum and migration policy featuring relocation of migrants and asylum seekers across the Union.

What to conclude six months before the European elections? Given the heterogeneous national mosaics across the EU and the specific dynamics underpinning European politics and policy, continuity rather than upheaval is the safest bet.

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