Should we fear a far-right resurgence in Europe?

Situation in France and Germany is not reassuring, but there are silver linings.

Marine Le Pen, President of the French far-right National Rally
Marine Le Pen, President of the French far-right National Rally party parliamentary group, and Jordan Bardella, President of the French far-right National Rally party and head of the RN list for the European elections, attend a political rally during the party's campaign for the EU elections, in Paris, France, June 2, 2024 [Christian Hartmann/ Reuters]

When Emmanuel Macron decided to enter the French political fray in 2016, he did so by launching a new centrist-liberal political party called “En Marche” (On the Move). Eight years later, however, it is embattled President Macron’s far-right nemesis, Marine Le Pen, who appears to be marching forward to power.

At the June 6-9 European Parliament elections, Le Pen’s National Rally secured 31.5 percent of the vote, more than double the meagre 14.6 percent Macron’s party, since renamed “Renaissance”, managed to get.

What is more, the National Rally is projected to win a plurality of votes in the forthcoming snap legislative election Macron called in reaction to the debacle at the EU elections.

As a result, France may be on the cusp of electing a far-right government promising to clamp down on immigration, to further suppress the rights and liberties of French Muslims, and to push back against what they deem to be EU impositions. Liberal pundits are already lashing out at Macron for making a gamble that could backfire in a big way, comparing his move to call snap elections to then-British Prime Minister David Cameron’s 2016 decision to hold a referendum on Brexit.

Since the European Parliament elections, the situation in France has come to dominate Europe’s headlines, and led to fears of a far-right resurgence on the continent. Looking at the larger picture, and the political composition of the new parliament in Brussels, however, could help calm nerves, at least for now.

As was the case in previous European elections, mainstream forces – the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), The Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, the liberal Renew and the Greens – secured a majority in the European Parliament this month. In other words, the centre held and the EPP does not need to seek support from the far right, including Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni whose deputies form the largest caucus within the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) grouping.

This means, at least for the next five years, business will continue as usual in Europe, with the mainstream most likely remaining in control. EPP’s Ursula von der Leyen could secure a second term as head of the European Commission, Socialist former Prime Minister of Portugal Antonio Costa, could become the president of the European Council, and so on.

Yet the concerns over a far-right resurgence are not entirely without merit. It is not only France where the far right is on the rise, but also Germany. At this latest European election, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) came second with 16 percent in Germany, beating Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats. The anti-immigrant party drew massive support in the former East Germany and among young voters. AfD is so radical that even Le Pen’s National Rally cannot stomach some of its positions and statements. National Rally recently demanded, and secured, the German party’s expulsion from the Identity and Democracy (ID) grouping in the European Parliament partly in response to positive comments one of its bigwigs made about Hitler’s Waffen SS.

With two major EU states – France and Germany – are experiencing a far-right surge, a far-right takeover of Europe through national politics appears entirely plausible. A potential Trump victory in the US presidential elections will only embolden nationalists and populists across the EU to seek more power and influence in both member-states and in Brussels.

There is, however, still much cause for optimism. Beyond continued centrist control in Brussels, the situation in the eastern EU is not looking promising for the far right either. In key countries like Hungary and Poland, the right-wing populists are now on the back foot.

This is somewhat unexpected given the historical record. The states that joined the Union in 2004-2007 have been a breeding ground for nativism and far-right politics. Viktor Orban’s Hungary championed “illiberal democracy” – the rule of a strongman dismantling checks and balances, clamping down on civil society and the free media and defying the EU mainstream. He has an international following, too – from Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico, to the Georgian Dream governing in Tbilisi, all the way to Donald Trump and the US Republicans.

In Hungary, the European Parliament election saw Orban suffer setbacks. His FIDESZ party failed, by the thinnest of margins, to re-capture the capital Budapest in a local election bundled with the European vote. The governing party’s vote share went down from 52 to 44 percent compared with the last EP polls in 2019. Respect and Freedom (TISZA), established by a prominent former FIDEZS member, Peter Magyar, secured 30 percent. Orban celebrated a victory but in reality, he is bleeding support to a youthful and dynamic challenger who can peel off conservative voters.

In Poland, Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s Civic Coalition (KO) finished first with 37.1 percent of the vote. KO overtook Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice (PiS) by about one percentage point, but the symbolism of the victory matters. Last year, Tusk came to power by winning 30 percent but then building a coalition government with the left and a centrist bloc. The conservative PiS, under whose rule between 2015-2023 Poland shifted into an illiberal and anti-EU direction, still secured the largest number of MPs. But like his ally Orban, Kaczynski is clearly losing popularity at home.

It is easy to dismiss Hungary and Poland as secondary players in the EU. Many believe it’s what happens in France and Germany that really matters in the grand scheme of things. However, there is also a lesson to be learned. Even in places where far-right populists seize power and capture the state, democracy could prove resilient. Elections matter and they could provide an opportunity to clip the wings of illiberal politicians and would-be autocrats. Or indeed force them to compromise and, in some cases like, like Meloni in Italy, move towards the centre.

This, of course, is small consolation if Le Pen wins in France – and even goes on to succeed Macron as president in 2027. Thanks to integration, domestic politics in EU member states have become intertwined and co-dependent. What happens by the banks of the Seine in the coming weeks will have knock-on effects across Europe.

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