What does it mean for Europe a move to the far-right?

Ovidiu Mircea Tierean is a senior advisor at PKF Malta

France chose far-right this weekend in a snap election called by president Macron, after poor results in the European Parliament elections last month. The first exit-poll results show that the far-right has won the elections, while the centre-right party of Macron is only in third place, after far-left party NFP. The far-right is distanced at this stage from the left alliance of the NFP (28.5% to 29.1%) and even more than Emmanuel Macron (20.5% to 21.5%), according to these first estimates. Marine Le Pen’s far-right party would obtain a large relative majority in the National Assembly or even an absolute majority, according to forecasts, in an election that was marked by the highest turnout since 1981.

These results come after a clear move to the right in European Parliament elections in early June, which saw the groups that host far-right members making gains to the detriment of the left parties. Thus, Conservatives and Reformists is now the third largest group in the European Parliament after winning 14 new seats (11.5% increase). Identity and Democracy won a further nine seats (8.1% increase). Macron’s Renew Europe lost 27 seats (10.4% decrease) and Greens lost 17 seats (7.5% decrease).

The map above shows how much the far-right has achieved in EU Parliament elections. These results are not a surprise. We know from literature and historical evidence that after economic crises, far-right political parties tend to gain increased electoral support and political power for several reasons:

  1. Polarisation and distrust in mainstream politics: financial crises are often perceived as failures of policies and regulation, leading to increased distrust in government and mainstream political parties. This environment of uncertainty and dissatisfaction creates an opening for extremist parties to gain traction by offering seemingly simple solutions and blaming minorities or foreigners. The Covid-19 pandemic with lock-downs and economic distress, followed by high inflation throughout the continent made mainstream parties lose confidence and shift political views to the right.
  2. Rise of right-wing populism: studies show that financial crises typically trigger creditor-debtor conflicts, rising inequality and unpopular bank bailouts, all of which give traction to right-wing populist ideas and rhetoric. These parties capitalise on economic grievances and cultural backlash against rapid social change. Increased government spending, increased public debt to keep economies afloat during the pandemic and soon after fuelled populism.
  3. Declining economic power of small businesses: increased market concentration and mergers following crises negatively impacted small businesses, leading their owners and families to reject mainstream parties and support non-incumbent far-right parties that promise protection against globalisation and corporate interests. In the end, it is voters in every EU country that cast their vote. From farmers to family businesses to SMEs, it is these employees that shifted their political views to the right.

This is not only happening at EU level politics. In fact, the results of EU Parliament elections are an effect of what has been going on in national politics for quite some time now: six EU countries – Italy, Finland, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia and the Czech Republic – have hard-right parties in government. In Sweden, the survival of the executive relies on a confidence and supply agreement with the nationalist Sweden Democrats, the second-largest force in Parliament. In the Netherlands, the anti-Islamic Geert Wilders is negotiating for ministries, having sealed a historic deal to form the most right-wing government in recent Dutch history. If things do not dramatically change over the next two weeks, France will join the list.

A quick look at the map above shows Malta having the lowest increase in far-right votes in EU. The two-party system absorbs any far-right and far-left ideologies in the political market.

One can only wonder how the legislation agenda will look like in an EU with higher far-right influence. We will probably see a weakening of EU institutions and policies. With more Eurosceptic leaders and parties in national governments, there will likely be increased attempts to weaken the EU’s policy and legislative powers in favour of national sovereignty. This could undermine the functioning of key EU institutions like the European Council and European Commission.

Another expectation is a tougher stance on immigration. Hostility towards immigration is a unifying policy for far-right parties. They will likely push for more restrictive immigration policies, the securitisation of borders and outsourcing migration management to neighbouring countries with poor human rights records.

To a lesser extent we may witness a rollback of climate and environmental policies. The far-right’s scepticism of the EU’s ambitious Green Deal and renewable energy targets could lead to a weakening of the bloc’s commitment to tackling climate change and transitioning to a green economy.

Last but not least important are challenges to rule of law and democratic norms. As seen in countries like Hungary and Poland, the rise of far-right populist parties can gradually erode democratic checks and balances, minority rights and judicial independence – posing a threat to liberal democracy on the continent.

Overall, the growing influence of far-right parties across Europe is likely to push the political agenda in a more nationalist, Eurosceptic and socially conservative direction, with significant implications for the future of European integration and liberal democracy. Centrist and pro-EU forces will face an uphill battle to maintain the EU’s current policy trajectory.

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