London, United Kingdom – In September 2016, the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, stood before the European Parliament and declared that the European Union was “facing an existential crisis” in a gloomy address to parliamentarians as they returned to work.
“Never before have I seen national governments so weakened by the forces of populism,” said Juncker, who is the former president of Luxembourg.
Earlier that summer, 52 percent of British voters had opted to exit the EU.
In Hungary, meanwhile, Prime Minister Viktor Orban is running a propaganda campaign against Brussels.
It is not unusual to see posters featuring Juncker and Hungarian American philanthropist George Soros, implying the pair is planning to overrun Hungary with refugees.
But Orban and Juncker are part of the same centre-right group of national parties, the European People’s Party (EPP), currently the largest bloc in the European Parliament.
There are eight pan-European political groups that MEPs can choose to join.
Alongside the centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S and D), it has been dominating European politics for decades.
That dominance could falter at the European Parliament elections on May 23-26, taking place against the backdrop of a rising far right and the chaos of Brexit.
Eurosceptic, mostly far-right, parties, are projected to gain about a third of seats in the new parliament.
Orban’s party in Hungary, Fidesz, was suspended from the EPP in March over its failure to respect the rule of law.
Stopping short of expulsion ensured the Hungarian prime minister is not, for the time being, seeking an immediate alliance with a disparate but growing contingent of far-right and nationalist parties that Italian Interior Minister and co-Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini will attempt to bring under one family – the European Alliance of People and Nations, after the elections.
Salvini told reporters at the project’s launch in Milan in April that he is “working towards a new European dream.”
Other parties who attended the event – the anti-Islam Alternative for Germany party (AFD), the Danish People’s Party and the Finns – laid out that dream: a white, Christian Europe which can protect itself against the “ideology of multiculturalism.”
Previous European elections, which happen every five years, have been marked by low turnout.
In 2014, 42.6 percent voted.
Just 13 percent of eligible voters showed up at polling stations in Slovakia, the lowest turnout across the EU.
The European Parliament elections have in the past been seen as second-class polls used by politicians to take the pulse of public opinion, and by citizens to vent their frustrations with national governments.
In some countries, however, May’s vote has generated a level of debate normally reserved for the national stage.
The vote in 2014 was not short on drama either; it paved the way for the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) with Nigel Farage, a chief Brexit backer, at its helm.
Farage’s new Brexit Party, launched last month, has leaped ahead in opinion polls.
Britain is expected to take part in the elections after failing to leave the EU by the March 29, 2019 deadline.
But while far-right sentiment may be growing, even the staunchest anti-European parties such as Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party (RN) in France, have recalibrated their message.
Instead of calling for an exit from the bloc, they aim to change Europe from within.
“They want to create a looser Europe rather than exit, which they used to support previously,” Daphne Halikiopoulou, an associate professor in Comparative Politics at the University of Reading, told Al Jazeera. “And that has a lot to do with how Brexit has unfolded.”
The European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank said if parties loosely identified as right-wing populists were to be successful in forming a united coalition, it would become the largest group in the European Parliament. But it also says that 97 million voters across Europe remain confused and undecided.
Far-right and nationalist parties have gained traction all over Europe in the last few years.
They are in power in Italy, Poland, Hungary and Austria, and have seen a surge in popularity in France, where Le Pen’s RN is about neck-and-neck with En Marche!, French President Emmanuel Macron’s party.
In countries including Germany and Norway, far-right parties are no longer on the fringes.
In Spain, newcomer Vox – which is anti-feminist and anti-immigration – made historic gains at the April general election.
“The far-right umbrella consists of parties that are ideologically divided,” said Halikiopoulou. “A lot are unaffiliated because no one wants them in their group, like the Greek Golden Down, a more blatantly nazi organisation. Some will remain unaffiliated, and some that belong to the more moderate conservative groups won’t want to join [Salvini’s] coalition because they don’t want to be branded as far-right,” she said.
“Trying to pursue nationalist goals through a transnational platform is paradoxical.”
The ECFR study also said migration is not the first concern of European voters, with the exception of Hungary.
Europe-wide, they identify “Islamic radicalism” as voters’ greatest concern, while the economy and migration follow on an equal footing.
“[Far-right] parties have been able to capitalise on the various insecurities that drive various voting groups,” Halikiopoulou explained.
“Some people are worried about the economic consequences of immigration, some are worried about the labour market consequences. Some see immigrants as competitors for public services. Some people indeed see them as competitors for the cultural consensus in society,” said Halikiopoulou.
Where is the left?
When Juncker talks about populism threatening the existence of the EU, he makes no distinction between right- and left-wing populism, seeing both as “anti-establishment” and aimed at wrecking the EU.
Some parties such as the Five Star Movement in Italy have built their success on a claim that right and left no longer exist.
The movement, founded by comedian Beppe Grillo, is struggling to hold on to its voters as the League, its junior partner in the governing coalition, is now the first party in Italy.
So-called “left-wing populism” is also struggling.
Jean-Luc Melechon’s Unbowed France party has lost support and the Spanish Podemos (“We Can”) struggled in the recent election.
Andrea Mammone, a lecturer in modern European history at Royal Holloway, University of London, warns against labelling all parties that embark on radical critique of the EU as populists.
“[Some of those left-wing forces] want a more social Europe, more rights for workers, [a union] less centred on banks. The right-wing wants a return to the nation-state,” Mammone said. “The problem is that everything that is against the mainstream is considered something other. In so doing, we accept there is only one ideology, the neoliberal one, and that it cannot be contested.”
Meanhwile, although they’re not expected to gain much ground at this stage, two transnational movements have also entered the scene: Volt was launched in 2016 by a group of EU citizens in the UK in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum and Greece‘s former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis has put together DiEM25, which aims at the radical democratisation of Europe.
The party is fielding candidates across Europe, while Varoufakis himself is running in Germany.
Mammone argues that the line between pro-European and anti-European forces might be blurrier than presented, and alliances after the vote will be a determining factor.
“The main issue as I see it today is that within the so-called pro-European forces, you find nationalist and even far-right forces,” Mammone said. “Between the two wars, centre-right conservatives thought they could keep Mussolini and the rest under control.”