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After the populist wave failed to materialise, what next for the EU's right-wing parties?

There are more right-wing and far-right parties enjoying success in European politics.

Marine Le Pen speaks after the results of the European elections.
Marine Le Pen speaks after the results of the European elections.
Image: ABACA/PA Images

THE STORY OF the European elections in Ireland might have been the “green wave”, but across the continent another story has been emerging – how right-wing populists failed to make a significant assault on the EU’s centrist parties. 

Ahead of last week’s election, Italian deputy prime minister and leader of the far-right League Party Matteo Salvini was promising a right-wing revolution in the EU, as he cultivated a pan-European alliances in a bid to extend his influence from Rome to Brussels. 

In the end, the much-expected revolution failed to materialise. While right-wing parties did pull off some remarkable victories across Europe – the Brexit Party in the UK achieved 32% of the vote, while Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally won 24% of the vote in France  – early indications suggest that the decades-long dominance of centre-right and centre-left parties in Europe is not going to end any time soon. 

And while it was not a great election for these centrist parties, the populist surge was surprisingly limited. Le Pen’s poll-topping performance, for instance, saw her defeat an embattled Emmanuel Macron by a few percentage points, while in the Netherlands the far-right Forum for Democracy failed to make significant headway. 

Speaking to TheJournal.ie by email, Prof Cas Mudde, a political scientist who specialises in populism and right-wing parties, said the result shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise: “The populist radical right won roughly in accordance with the polls.”

“The fact that it was lower than ‘expected’ is because the media yet again simply copied the propaganda of the far right rather than analysed the polls.”

Right-wing ripple

Ahead of the election, Salvini announced the formation of a right-wing populist group in the European parliament called the European Alliance of People and Nations. United by anti-immigration policies, the grouping included the far-right populist parties Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and the Danish People’s Party. 

Italy European Elections Italy's Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini after a big win for his party in the European elections. Source: Antonio Calanni/PA

“The European dream is being threatened by the bureaucrats and bankers governing Europe. They have been governing Europe for too long; it should really be a government of people,” he said

Yet when the results came in, the vision of Salvini and his allies had competition – just as in Ireland, green parties enjoyed sweeping gains across the continent, making them the likely kingmakers in the European parliament in the coming weeks. 

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Mary Whelan, a member of the Dublin-based Institute of International and European Affairs’s future of Europe working group, said she was cautious about drawing definitive conclusions from the election results. 

Generally, she said, the election was “not seismic for the far right”. 

But even if it wasn’t seismic, the party will still have a significant voice in the European Parliament for the next five years. Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Dr Emmanuelle Schon-Quinlivan, a European politics lecturer in University College Cork, called it the “power of nuisance”. 

With committee membership, speaking rights and the ability to propose amendments, right-wing parties might not be able to shape the direction of the EU, but they can certainly ensure their views are heard. 

This isn’t the only way right-wing populists have enjoyed success. “We see a penetration of other parties by populists, which you need to take into account,” Schon-Quinlivan said.

Most notable is Viktor Orban’s sway in the European People’s Party (EPP), the centre-right parliamentary grouping that includes German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Fine Gael. As one of the largest parties in the group, the Fidesz party – which has forcibly retired judges and imposed heavy restrictions on media outlets in Hungary – remains a key actor in the bloc.

Belgium Europe Summit Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban at a meeting in Brussels following the European election. Source: Francisco Seco/AP/PA Images

Fragmentation

Yet this also reveals one of the problems for right-wing parties. Not only do they not wield real power in the European Commission and European Council, but the MEPs elected do not form one homogeneous bloc. 

There is more “commonality”, Whelan said, between the more traditional, mainstream parties than right-wing populists. 

At the European Council level, major populist parties are part of different political groups, while in the parliament right-wing parties have diverse views, diverse interests and loyalties with differing blocs. 

For instance, while Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland and Fidesz in Hungary belong – at least for now – to two competing parliamentary groups, while Salvini has been unsuccessful so in his attempts to woo co-operation from some of the larger right-wing parties. Despite being united by immigration concerns, co-operation on other issues is not guaranteed.

This makes it difficult to foresee the right-wing parties achieving much from the floor of parliament. “If they don’t work together, structurally, either inside the same group or across groups, they will remain almost as inconsequential as they were in the last legislature,” Mudde suggested. 

The result, he said, leaves the far right “electorally stronger, but politically weaker… for now.”

 

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