As the European Parliament election looms closer in June, anxiety among European leaders continues to rise, fuelled by the persistent surge in support for far-right parties across the continent. The German AfD consistently polls above 20%, and Marine Le Pen's National Rally in France gathers momentum, prompting desperate calls for unconventional solutions.
In an unexpected move, Margaritis Schinas, Vice President of the European Commission, has suggested asking pop sensation Taylor Swift to raise awareness about the upcoming election. This endorsement comes amid warnings of potential governance challenges in the European Parliament, indicating the gravity of the situation.
The complexity of the EU election is compounded by the surge in far-right party support, largely rooted in concerns about migration and the entrenched cultural wars in mainstream discourse. Security promises from these far-right parties, emphasizing welfare chauvinism and stringent measures against asylum seekers, resonate deeply with voters across Europe.
However, it is crucial to acknowledge that mainstream European parties, particularly those on the centre-right, have been entangled with far-right ideologies for years. This normalization blurs the lines between traditional and right-leaning entities, presenting a significant challenge for the established political order.
Addressing the consequences of this normalization and countering the rising far-right threat before the election demands urgent action from the European centre-right. The dangers of overlooking far-right rhetoric and failing to take strategic measures to counteract the trend are evident, requiring a comprehensive and immediate reassessment of political strategies.
Ideological crises and unexpected collaborations
Centre-right political parties have strategically aligned their policy agendas with far-right ideologies, seeking to capitalise on the populist wave. A notable example is the controversial immigration bill in France, passed in December, which exemplifies this political manoeuvring. Facing internal divisions, French President Emmanuel Macron found himself in an ideological crisis, with the bill introducing alterations to the eligibility criteria for social security benefits for foreigners — a triumph for Marine Le Pen's far-right ideological stance.
Macron's acknowledgment, upon securing re-election in 2022, that his support stemmed from a strategic move to counter the far-right highlights the ideological vagueness within mainstream European politics. In Germany, Friedrich Merz, leader of the CDU, briefly considered collaborating with the far-right AfD at the local government level, signalling a significant departure from traditional conservative politics post-World War II.
Similar trends are observed in Spain, where the conservative People’s Party came close to forming a coalition with the far-right Vox. This unexpected alliance ultimately led to an unexpected left-wing victory, indicating the delicate balance mainstream parties must strike in navigating the shifting political landscape.
In Greece, the centre-right New Democracy is undergoing a notable shift away from its traditional roots. A wiretapping scandal has tarnished Mitsotakis' first tenure, and the government faces accusations of executing pushbacks at the borders. More recently, the party is grappling with serious resistance within its ranks, as its ultraconservative faction refuses to support the legalization of same-sex marriage, further underscoring the party's openness to far-right elements.
While domestic centre-right parties shift rightward, the European People’s Party (EPP) stands out for maintaining its commitment to its ideology. Rejecting negotiations with far-right groups like the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) or Identity and Democracy (ID), the EPP remains steadfast in traditional alliances, emphasizing its commitment to core values.
Substantial threat to the centre-right
Recent polls project the EPP and Socialists & Democrats (S&D) to secure 171 and 141 seats, respectively. However, nearly 25% of seats are expected to be claimed by far-right groups, posing a substantial threat to the traditional centre-right. It's crucial to note that this figure does not account for parties unaffiliated with them, such as the Hungarian Fidesz, which aligns with the ideologically diverse Non-Inscrits (NI) in the EU Parliament.
The danger of further blurring the lines between the centre-right and far-right in Europe is imminent, with the potential to infiltrate the parliament’s policy agenda. The gamble of opening to the far-right proves risky for centre-right entities, evident in the rise of far-right movements like the Neo-fascist Brothers of Italy and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands.
The upcoming European election serves as a pivotal test for established political forces in France and Germany, navigating uncharted territory since WWII. The looming threat of a surge in far-right influence in June presents a formidable challenge for Europe, with potential repercussions echoing across the continent. Navigating through uncharted political waters may reshape the European Union's landscape, introducing new challenges for the established order.
In this context, the urgency to address the far-right surge requires innovative strategies and a redefinition of political identity. Taylor Swift's potential role in raising awareness about the election highlights the need for unconventional approaches to counteract the rise of far-right ideologies. As the window before the election narrows, the European centre-right must urgently undertake the challenging process of rediscovering its identity to mitigate the far-right threat in the long run. The repercussions of a far-right surge could reshape the political landscape and introduce new challenges for the European Union as a whole, making this election a critical turning point in the continent's political history.
Dr Georgios Samaras is a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Public Policy at the International School for Government at King’s. He is a scholar with a keen interest in the political economy of media, as well as the implementation of policies for regulating social networking. In his forthcoming monograph, he delves into the emergence of far-right politics in Greece, examining the underlying factors that have led to support for extreme political entities.