Will the far right make significant gains in European parliament elections?

Politics in Europe has been reshaped by three events: the financial crisis of 2007-08, the migrant crisis of 2015 and the 2016 referendum in which the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union.
Sunday 19/05/2019
New bloc. (L-R): Manuel Vescovi of Italy’s League; Jaak Madison, deputy chairman of the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia; French far-right National Rally party leader Marine Le Pen; and Finns Party member Olli Kotro, a candidate in the European Parliament elections, give a news conference in Tallinn, Estonia, May 14.      (AFP)
New bloc. (L-R): Manuel Vescovi of Italy’s League; Jaak Madison, deputy chairman of the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia; French far-right National Rally party leader Marine Le Pen; and Finns Party member Olli Kotro, a candidate in the European Parl

Elections to the European Parliament usually have a low turnout and little media attention but the vote this month could be crucial to Europe’s future. Will the far right make significant gains? Will this prompt a realignment with the centre-right, taking xenophobia into the mainstream?

The European Parliament has powers over EU legislation and finance and elects the president of the European Commission. Its 751 members represent more than 512 million people from 28 members

Politics in Europe has been reshaped by three events: the financial crisis of 2007-08, the migrant crisis of 2015 and the 2016 referendum in which the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union.

All three are playing out in the far right’s campaign for the European elections. Fears over immigrants, especially Muslims, remain central, although a split has developed between fundamentalists and those promoting a more pragmatic course.

Among the pragmatists is Britain’s Nigel Farage, whose newly introduced Brexit Party has overtaken the Conservative and Labour parties in opinion polls for the European elections. Farage quit the UK Independence Party, which he had led through the 2016 referendum, after it took a blatantly anti-Islam agenda and forged links with far-right agitators.

Farage keeps a stiff line against the European Union, demanding Britain leave with no agreement. Other far-right European parties have taken their new-found pragmatism a stage further, giving up calls for withdrawal in favour of refocusing the European Union on immigration, security and “nation-first” economic policies.

Italy’s League, Marie Le Pen’s French National Rally, Germany’s Alternative for Germany, the Danish People’s Party and others have formed the European Alliance for People and Nations.

There is talk of a new right-wing bloc in the European Parliament, perhaps subsuming the European Conservatives and Reformists, the third largest after the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the centre-left Socialists and Democrats. This new bloc, advocates said, could use a stronger presence in the European Parliament to pressure the EPP, possibly with some kind of political arrangement.

“Populist, EU-critical MEPs will be able to shape the policy agenda,” wrote Simon Hix, professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics, in a report for the think-tank UK In A Changing Europe. “They’re also likely to win key policymaking positions in parliament, such as committee chairs… [working for] restrictive refugee and asylum policies, more spending on EU external border controls, more powers for national governments to run eurozone budget deficits and more protectionist trade policies.”

Firm borders remain a central notion. Matteo Salvini, leader of the League and Italy’s Interior Minister, regularly boasts of turning away migrant boats and denounces a migrant “invasion.”

In a BBC interview, Farage claimed the “Breaking Point” poster he unveiled in the Brexit campaign — showing Syrian refugees massed at the Slovenian border — had “transformed European politics.” The London Sunday Times recently highlighted Brexit Party activists’ social media posts calling Muslims “bacon dodgers” and bemoaning the “genocide” of white Europe.

The issue of migration will not go away. Asylum applications to the European Union fell from a peak of 1.3 million in 2015 (the highest number from Syria, Kosovo and Afghanistan) to 638,000 in 2018 but the far right is aware that public concern persists.

Lebanon’s leaders warn that without more support from Europe, its 1.5 million Syrian refugees might take to the boats and Iran has said that with US sanctions tightening its 2 million Afghans might follow them.

Centrists have rallied. Social Democrats and Christian Democrats, heirs of the architects of post-war Europe, realised how much they have in common and discovered that the far right, despite its nationalism, has its own international links.

Guy Verhofstadt, former Belgian prime minister and European parliament Brexit negotiator, has talked of reviving the “quiet pro-EU majority” in the United Kingdom. Ireland President Michael Higgins warned against “negative social forces” in the elections and called for effective European policies over climate change and global poverty.

However, the chief EU standard-bearer, especially with German Chancellor Angela Merkel standing down by 2021, is 41-year-old French President Emmanuel Macron, whose economic policies helped provoke the “yellow vest” protests in France.

Both the far right and sections denounce Macron’s “neo-liberalism” while “yellow vest” protesters share the far right’s scepticism over climate change. Political fragmentation across the continent — seen clearly in the British parliament’s paralysis over Brexit — stymies any co-operation against the far right.

In the European elections, the Greens are expected to vastly increase their representation, outpolling social democratic parties in at least France and Germany. Yet Bas Eickhout, Dutch MEP and the Greens’ candidate for European Commission president, promised hard bargaining over environmental and social policies for any future co-operation with the centre-right EPP. With the centre-left weakened, that could be enough to tilt the EPP towards the xenophobes.

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