How Far to the Right Will EU Voters Go?

How Far to the Right Will EU Voters Go?

Starting on June 6, Europeans will cast their votes for their representatives in the European Parliament, the European Union’s only democratically elected institution. The radical right is expected to perform better than ever before, renewing concerns about the retreat of global democracy.

Once a boring sideshow, the soon-to-be 720-member body has become a political force. By “co-preparing” laws on everything from artificial intelligence to the environment, the parliament doesn’t just affect the lives of the EU’s 450 million citizens – it also helps promulgate standards that sometimes become entrenched internationally.

This is why it matters that radical right parties are topping polls in nine of the 27 member states and polling second, third, or fourth in another dozen or so states. An outstanding case in point is France’s National Rally, led by Marine Le Pen, which leads with a 17-percentage-point ballot advantage over President Emmanuel Macron’s centrists.

A distinguishing feature of the radical right is a tendency to accept the essence of democracy while rejecting its liberal elements, such as minority rights. In Europe, its leaders are capitalizing on the self-perpetuating “populist moment” and assorted culture war-fuelled anxieties among voters. A big, juicy, low-hanging fruit is the EU itself, a technocratic and juristocratic institution that struggles to represent the interests of “the nation” and “the people.”

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In the EU Parliament, members elected from national parties join pan-European ideological groupings. The parties of the radical right break into two such entities: Identity and Democracy, which brings together the far right à la Ms. Le Pen’s National Rally; and the European Conservatives and Reformists, which includes the relative moderates, such as Giorgia Meloni’s “post-fascist” Brothers of Italy and Poland’s “national-conservative” Law and Justice.

This divide is of particular significance with respect to Europe’s east, where a Russian dictator is waging a hybrid war against the West alongside a war of conquest in Ukraine. European Conservatives and Reformists concur with the mainstream position that Moscow is the most significant threat to peace and security in the Euro-Atlantic area. Not so amongst their Identity and Democracy rivals. For them, a deal with Russia is needed to start freeing Europe from the vice-like grip of the American imperium.

Alignments in the EU parliament are known to fluctuate. Last week, Identity and Democracy expelled the far-right Alternative for Germany, citing the latter’s many scandals, including allegations that its leaders accepted bribes from Russia and China. Some key players are also staying out of pan-European groups at the moment, notably Fidesz, the party of Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose anti-Brussels, pro-Moscow government is taking over the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU on July 1. (And yes, Mr. Orban was in power the last time Hungary held the Council presidency, in 2010.)

The growing power and influence of the radical right is a key concern for pro-EU forces. Much as they disagree across various economic and social issues, the mainstream parties work together to protect the European project. Some centrists think parts of the radical right can be persuaded to do the same. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is one of them. Seeking to secure her re-election, she has repeatedly expressed a willingness to cooperate with Ms. Meloni’s party (but not with Ms.Le Pen).

This tactic of courting the radicals has been so normalized that many people don’t see it for what it is – a risk for liberal democracy and therefore for the liberal democratic rights of citizens. European conservatives have been aping far-right talking points for years, always in the naïve hope of winning back estranged constituencies. This gambit does not pay off because voters generally prefer the original to the copy, as the now clichéd refrain goes. As a consequence, the radical right has all but replaced the mainstream right in several countries.

The fact that modern autocrats do not always succeed in consolidating and maintaining power tells us that democracy is merely down, not out.


Does this mean we might be moving toward Mr. Orban’s vision of an illiberal, Christian democratic Europe? Rather than working to accomplish a series of Brexit-style national departures from the EU, most radical right leaders and parties are now increasingly interested in recasting the union into a kind of civilizational polity with its own unique blood-and-soil values and institutions.

This conclusion is premature. Far-reaching as they are, the attacks on democratic governance do not herald an era of “post-liberal” democracy, let alone of “post-democracy.” In Europe, as in Brazil, the United States, and elsewhere, citizens routinely demonstrate the ability and willingness to protect their hard-won rights and freedoms. The fact that modern autocrats do not always succeed in consolidating and maintaining power tells us that democracy is merely down, not out.

This blog first appeared in the Globe and Mail on June 3rd.

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