Are we heading towards a far-right European Union?

We always assumed European unity would imply greater cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism. With the recent rise of the far-right, that may not be the case.

Netherlands' Prime Minister Mark Rutte, European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen, Tunisia's President Kais Saied and Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni
Left to right, Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte, European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen, Tunisia President Kais Saied and Italy Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni attend a news briefing at the presidential palace in Tunis on July 16, 2023 [Tunisian Presidency Press Service/Ho/AFP Photo]

The far right is on the rise in Europe.

In Germany, support for the hard-right AfD is surging. In Spain, the far-right Vox party is expected to be the kingmaker in the upcoming snap election. Far-right parties are also either in government or supporting the government from within parliament in Italy, Poland, Finland and Sweden.

Undoubtedly, there is some truth to the analyses pointing to a backlash against multiculturalism, “woke” culture wars, or the ever-deepening cost of living crisis as the reasons behind the far right’s entry into mainstream politics across the continent.

But ultimately, what we are witnessing today is the result of European leaders’ insistent failure to meet the people’s collective demand for protection and control in the face of many – real and perceived – threats pushing them into precarity.

Amid a climate emergency and a new era of global conflict, the need for Europe to politically unite is self-evident. Small and relatively powerless European nation-states are uniquely misplaced to steer an independent course and give their citizens a sense of security and stability in this age of planetary challenges and emergent superpowers. And yet, European elites appear reluctant to take the necessary steps towards political union.

As a result, Europeans are now discovering what it means to be the objects and not the subjects of history. A green transition is desperately needed, but for the least well-off not to be left behind, there is also a need for massive investments. As the climate crisis and conflicts continue to push people towards Europe, the need for effective and humane migration management is also urgent. Meanwhile, war has returned to the continent, so people are demanding a new security paradigm. Unfortunately, there is no single actor in Europe that can steer these issues and not be steered by them.

Some have tried to make Europe into a united force that can once again decide its own course. At the beginning of his tenure, French President Emmanuel Macron often spoke of the need of building a “Europe that protects” – in his landmark 2017 Sorbonne speech he called for “a sovereign, united and democratic Europe” – but the German government and his peers elsewhere in Europe responded to his federalist overtures with indifference, if not contempt.

More recently, the European Commission has tried to lay down ambitious plans for joint climate financing, responding to Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act. That effort has been torpedoed by the supposed “national interest” of the most fiscally liquid member states.

As the soft-spoken nationalism of mainstream European parties made it impossible to integrate the continent and erect a continental public power that would respond to the many worries of Europeans, the far right has stepped in with its overt, aggressive ethnic nationalism, offering the masses intimidated and confused by the problems of the modern era a familiar place of shelter: the ethnic nation.

The question today is not whether the far right can achieve political power in Europe, but what it will do with it once it does.

In the recent past, during their stints in relative power, many of Europe’s far-right politicians proved to be more interested in securing populist points than implementing policies that deliver results and help keep their movements in power. For example, Italy’s Matteo Salvini ordered Italian ports to block a rescue ship carrying a few dozen migrants, attracting international criticism and even condemnation in exchange for nothing but a round of applause from his devoted supporters.

So, one may be excused for expecting the far right to take power, divide an already divided continent further, fail to inflict any change, and retreat back into the political fringes in a relatively short time period.

However, the European far right has evolved significantly since Salvini’s migrant rescue boat bravado in 2019. And now, its leaders appear to have much more potential to do what is necessary to implement policies that could keep them in power, as well as reshape their countries and the European Union according to their own agenda.

Italy’s far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, for example, has demands that are not that different from those of Salvini, who is a deputy prime minister in her government: curtailing migration, achieving economic sovereignty, protecting and promoting traditional Christian values and “Western civilisation”. And yet, Salvini’s loud but ineffective showmanship and populist aggression are nowhere to be found in her administration, replaced with a desire for pragmatic coalition building and intergovernmental bargaining.

Consider Meloni’s recent high-profile visits to Tunisia, accompanied by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Dutch Prime Minister Marc Rutte, which led to the signing of a migration deal that is in many respects comparable to the controversial “cash for migrants” agreement the EU made with Turkey in 2016 under the leadership of then German Chancellor Angela Merkel. However morally dubious it may be, this deal reinforces a common European border policy and even aims to lay the ground for a European policy towards North Africa.

Meloni’s eagerness to collaborate with her European peers to secure an EU-level deal that is beneficial to her national agenda perfectly encapsulates the recent metamorphosis of the far right in Europe. As opposed to the superficial Euroscepticism of its previous incarnations, the new European far right increasingly uses Europe, its institutions and its superior negotiating power to its own advantage.

There is, of course, every reason to expect any cooperation between far-right governments like Meloni’s and European institutions – as well as their alliances with fellow far-right governments – to eventually collapse, as they all prioritise the national interests of their respective countries over the continental good. We have recently witnessed the limitations of such alliances when Meloni’s attempt to reform European asylum policy failed due to a veto from her far-right colleague, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

But could this new brand of pragmatic far-right actors manage to act collaboratively long enough for them to become a genuine force towards a more united Europe? Could they pave the way for more integration, especially in areas like defence, external borders and economic policy, which would help them deliver on their promises to their constituents?

And, if so, could they – perhaps unintentionally – help strengthen the European Union and its place in the multipolar world?

Take the issue of Ukraine and Western Balkan countries’ accession to the EU. The far-right governments in both Poland and Italy want the union to expand to include these countries. Of course, the expansion of the EU from 27 to 35 or more members will require the European institutions to go through a significant transformation, including a move from unanimous to majority voting as a large and diverse Union cannot function if every country has the right to veto collective decisions.

If Europe’s far right takes the lead in this transformation, it would become instrumental to what is possibly the most consequential advance in European unity in recent decades and a momentous step towards building a continent-wide political power.

Paradoxically, the far right is positioning itself as the champion of a strong European identity, albeit one premised on the ethno-nationalist idea of a white, Christian, and Western civilisation.

We always assumed that European unity would imply greater cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism. But what if a united Europe turns out to build what Hans Kundnani calls an “ethnoregionalism”, or the appeal to the defence of a European “civilisation”?

Ultimately, the question is this: Could the far right leave behind its old-fashioned, petty nationalism and embrace new “European nationalism” that would further unite and strengthen the continent, even if at the cost of making it uglier?

The way Meloni and her peers answer this question will determine whether the new episode of far-right rule in Europe will result in yet another show of impotent extremism, or pave the way for a new political hegemony on the European continent.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.