What to Make of Europe’s Far-Right Spike

Elections European Union
What to Make of Europe’s Far-Right Spike

UTRECHT, Netherlands – At last Thursday’s election party for the Netherlands’ left-wing coalition, not losing felt almost as good as a dominating win.

The crowd erupted into cheers when Europe’s first exit polls projected the GroenLinks-PvdA would only drop one combined seat in the European Parliament. This fairly new alliance between the Greens and center-left Labor lost Dutch national elections in November to the populist far-right Party for Freedom (PVV), led by Geert Wilders. Even before the preliminary returns from the European vote, party faithfuls mingling at the GroenLinks-PvdA election night headquarters suggested that holding steady would count as a good result. 

Then the results for the PVV appeared on the jumbo screen: a likely gain of six seats, up to seven total. It put the GroenLinks-PvdA one seat ahead – though these being exit polls, the margin of error had the left and radical right practically tied. You wouldn’t know it from the raucous whoops and fist pumps in the room. Turns out, even better than not losing badly is the radical right not surging as much as you fear. (The PVV now looks on track for six seats total after the more formal count.)

The picture across Europe became a bit more complicated by the time the other 26 member-states tallied their votes late Sunday. The radical right made gains, especially in the big countries Americans pay attention to. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally came in first, soundly defeating President Emmanuel Macron’s party and prompting him to call snap elections. In Germany, the even-too-fascist-for-Le Pen Alternative for Germany (AfD) came in second place, ahead of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s center-left Social Democrats and the two other parties (Greens, Free Democrats) in the governing coalition. The left, especially the Greens, will see its power shrink in the European Parliament, largely on the backlash to national and European climate policies.

But overall, the center – especially the center-right – held in Europe. Yet the general vibe of these European elections feels a bit like those at the GroenLinks-PvdA party: a win of any kind feels like a relief against the perceived ascendance of the radical right. 

The Not So Bad, the Bad and What’s Next

These EU elections reconfirm that the far-right is a political force in Europe, as they are across democracies in the West (cough, cough). But Europe’s right is also not a monolith. Nationalistic spoiler parties sometimes struggle to work well with others, and disagreements on ideology and tactics divide these parties. That has hampered the far-right’s ability to wield power within the European Parliament in the past. Where the right is most dangerous is influencing policy, as the presence of these parties may push Europe to scale back its climate ambitions and swing toward even harsher migration policies

That will reverberate into national politics, especially in Germany and France where the far-right’s EU election results are challenging centrist leadership. The result is shocking because of the power and influence that these countries have in Europe (which also means they have a lot of parliamentary seats to give). But the results are also not exactly that shocking: the polls and political moods in these places long forecasted this outcome. 

Le Pen’s party steadily widened her lead against Macron’s Renaissance in France in the months before the elections. Macron has struggled in his second term, as he is beleaguered by protests and a low approval rating. Macron is almost as unpopular as Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz

Scholz leads a “traffic light” coalition of his Social Democrats, the Greens, and the liberal Free Democrats, and all are facing headwinds right now because governing with three quite different parties is difficult, and that has contributed to a sense among voters that the government is dysfunctional and failing to address important issues, like the cost-of-living crisis. That put the center-right Christian Democratic Union in a position to clean up in the EU elections, which it largely did. 

Meanwhile, the far-far-right AfD has tried to capitalize on the disillusionment with Germany’s political establishment. The AfD had dipped from its polling peak earlier this year after the party was connected to a plot to mass deport foreigners, but it was still sitting at around second place in the polls despite mass civil society protests against the party and the revelations that one of its European Parliament members took money from China and Russia. Not to mention the fact that Le Pen kicked the AfD out of her far-right coalition in the European Parliament because they were too crazy even for her

“People are looking for a symbol against the established parties, as the AfD calls it, but they still think it’s not going to do any harm,” said Laura-Kristine Krause, Germany Director at More in Common, a nonprofit that focuses on polarization, before the vote. (I spoke to Krause, along with other experts and officials, as part of a delegation of journalists observing the EU elections in Germany and the Netherlands, hosted by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.) 

Which also means, even though these are Europe-wide elections, the results aren’t divorced from domestic political dynamics. There is no neat, one-size-fits-all narrative when 27 very different countries vote. The far-right did okay in places like the Netherlands just months after a stunning election win, but it did not do so great in places like Portugal. In the Nordic countries, the left gained, including in Sweden where the anti-immigration party lost ground. In Hungary, Viktor Orban’s Fidesz won, of course, but it still underperformed against a new opposition. Volt, a pan-European party, won five seats total from the Netherlands and Germany.

Experts and elected officials – even actual candidates or members of the European Parliament – tend to call European elections “second-order” (or even third-order) elections. Voters see them as less important than national, and sometimes local, elections. The stakes don’t feel as high. That may make voters more likely to stay home or make them feel loose enough to cast a protest vote, something they might be less willing to do in a national contest. 

Exactly how real that phenomenon is in these elections is a bit hard to say, but, again, national frustrations echoed out in the final European results, bolstering the far-right in some places and undermining it a bit elsewhere. There are certain trends brewing in Europe, as in other democracies: a frustration with the high cost of living, especially energy in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Migration is an issue, though it’s a bit complex: some places people are worried about newcomers, but others, including in southern Europe, are more distressed about people leaving, while some countries are concerned about both. Far-right parties have weaponized themes like migration and climate, and as long as they feel it’s working for them – and the mainstream parties seem to believe that is the case — it may only get harder to overcome. 

Frans Timmermans, the leader of the GroenLinks-PvdA, said after the elections that the results revealed that “a majority in the Netherlands wants to strengthen Europe and certainly not destroy it.” Tens of thousands of people across Germany joined demonstrations to protest the AfD on the Saturday before European elections, urging people to vote against the far-right.

And most did, in the Netherlands, and Germany, and across the continent. But Europe’s established parties, particularly on the left this time around, are struggling to vanquish these parties. The risk in Europe – and elsewhere – is ceding influence to the far right, rather than figuring out how to convince voters from flirting with the fringes. 

Europe’s democratic center remains intact. The question is how solid it actually is. 

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