European Parliament at crossroads as right-wing parties triumph in EU vote

While the centre-right European People’s Party remains the largest bloc, analysts say a shift to the right is likely to set the agenda.

The ground beneath the feet of European Union leaders has shifted after voting across the 27-member bloc delivered a clear turn to the right in the European Parliament, shaking up governments in member states and leaving mainstream groups at a crossroads.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen claimed victory after her centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) maintained the most seats of any single group in the legislative body.

But so did far-right, eurosceptic and populist parties, including Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, whose triumph prompted a surprise call by French President Emmanuel Macron for snap elections.

The crushing blow inflicted on the liberals in France and the Greens in Germany look set to make it tougher for a mainstream centrist alliance to set Europe’s course for the next five years, compromising key EU projects, including the Green Deal, analysts said.

“Under this parliament, it will be hard to read a clear strategic agenda other than some of the core principles around security and the economy,” Susi Dennison, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), told Al Jazeera.

“What we will see emerging is deal-by-deal policymaking,” she said, adding that the far right would “play hard” to hold sway in Europe’s decisions.

INTERACTIVE European Union parliamentary elections_results-1718009796
(Al Jazeera)

A hard-right conundrum

The EPP scored a clear victory in the elections, tightening its influence in the European Parliament with 185 of its 720 seats.

“We won the European elections, we are by far the strongest party, we are the anchor of stability and people recognised our leadership during the last five years,” von der Leyen told supporters on Sunday as ballot counting was still under way.

Together with other groups, the EPP will “build a bastion against the extremes from the left and from the right. … We will stop them. This is for sure,” she said.

But it remained unclear which groups would be considered “extreme” and whether the hard-right European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group – led by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whose Brothers of Italy party has its roots in the post-World War II neo-fascist Italian Social Movement –  would be among them.

Despite the EPP winning about a quarter of the seats, its previous “super grand coalition” with the liberal parties in the Renew group and the Greens failed to retain a working majority of MEPs, leaving the centre-right bloc in need of allies.

Von der Leyen is also seeking a second term as president of the powerful European Commission, for which she needs a “qualified majority” of the leaders of the 27 EU countries and a majority in the European Parliament.

Before the elections, von der Leyen indicated she would be open to a deal with the often staunchly eurosceptic ECR, which is more palatable to the centrists than Europe’s far-right political bloc Identity and Democracy (ID), led by France’s National Rally. She set two conditions for working together, namely support for Ukraine and the rule of law.

But the EPP will have to pick carefully who to side with.

Mainstream left-wing parties, including the Socialist and Democrats (S&D) and the Greens, ruled out working with the EPP if it continues cozying up to the ECR.

Meanwhile, Meloni welcomed the EU election results, saying there were “opportunities to change the European picture that have never existed before”.

According to Gregorio Sorgona, lecturer at the Normale University in Pisa, Meloni was successful in mobilising voters to turn out for the European elections, which saw only one in two Italians head to the polls, and in confirming the status of her party as Italy’s most popular, improving its performance from 26 percent in the 2022 general election to 28.8 percent.

Meloni, who personalised the electoral campaign by putting her name down for the European Parliament, has now positioned herself as one of the most powerful figures in the EU.

The dialogue between the EPP and Meloni, however, is bound to be problematic on both sides, Sorgona said. Meloni’s party is in an alliance at home with the League of Matteo Salvini, which joined the ID group in the EU and will likely not look favourably on Meloni helping the EPP in sidelining the far right.

Meanwhile, the EPP is also not likely to find common ground with the ECR on issues including the civil rights of migrants on European soil and reforms to tackle climate change and move Europe towards a green transition.

On the other hand, cutting the hard right out of the equation may give the big losers of these elections – Renew and the Greens – roles as kingmakers, according to the ECFR’s Dennison.

“The risk in that strategy is that it plays into the argument of the far right about the centre being antidemocratic and not respecting the will of the people,” the analyst said.

Rise of the far right

Far-right parties topped polls in several European countries, but nowhere was the blow as stinging as in France, where National Rally won 31.5 percent of the vote, more than twice that of Macron’s Renaissance party.

“This great victory for patriotic movements is in line with the direction of history, which is seeing throughout the world the return of nations,” Le Pen said, adding that her party was ready to lead the second largest EU economy after early elections expected on June 30 and July 7.

Overall, Europe’s ID group won 58 seats as of Monday, up 8.1 percent from the previous EU election in 2019.

Alongside the National Rally’s performance in France, the ID group was bolstered by the victory of the Freedom Party of Austria, which scored more than 25 percent of the vote, and the strong performance of the Netherland’s Party for Freedom with more than 17 percent.

In Belgium, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo announced his resignation after the defeat of his Flemish Liberals and Democrats party, which trailed behind the Flemish nationalist Vlaams Belang party.

Despite being the subject of scandals, the Alternative for Germany party (AfD) came in second in Europe’s largest economy with 16 percent of the vote, ahead of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s party, the Social Democrats, and up 5 percentage points from 2019.

“The weak performance of Scholz’s coalition further increases the pressure on his government” before budget negotiations in the coming weeks, York Albrecht, researcher at the Institute for European Politics in Berlin, told Al Jazeera.

“The strong turnout of the AfD, especially in the east German states, shows that the party increasingly establishes itself in Germany’s party system,” Albrecht added. “However, its results are lower than polls earlier this year, which could show that some scandals turned voters [away].”

The AfD did not join one of Europe’s recognised political groups after being expelled from the ID group after its leading candidate said not all members of the elite Nazi SS unit were war criminals. One aide was also charged with spying for China while another candidate faced allegations of receiving bribes from a pro-Russian news portal.

Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, was an outlier amid a rising trend for the far right as it delivered one of the biggest surprises of the elections. As the newly founded Tisza party scored 30 percent of Hungary’s vote, Fidesz received its worst ever result in a European Parliament election, claiming 44 percent.

If far-right and hard-right parties were to unite in a single group, they would become Europe’s largest force behind the EPP. But analysts said this is unlikely with the war in Ukraine being the main dividing line between the Atlanticist ECR and the Russia-leaning ID.

“Debates about unifying the groups are not relevant,” Albrecht said. “What we will see is cooperation and coordination between the MEPs” with far-right and hard-right groups operating in unison on common issues, including a tougher stance on migration and measures that free Europe of environmental regulations.

Source: Al Jazeera