Why Europe is lurching to the right

BERLIN, GERMANY – JUNE 09: Members of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) political party, including co-leaders Tino Chrupalla (C-R) and Alice Weidel (C-L), as well as leading member Beatrix von Storch (L, in red), celebrate at the AfD election evening gathering following the release of initial election results in European parliamentary elections on June 9, 2024 in Berlin, Germany. Elections to the European Parliament have been taking place since June 6 across European Union member states and are concluding tonight. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

This year’s European Parliament elections saw a rightward turn, but the effect that will have on the bloc’s policies might be less significant than its impact on the internal politics of the European Union’s individual member states.

Case in point: French President Emmanuel Macron called a snap parliamentary election in his country because his party did so poorly, and the notorious far-right German party AfD won more seats than German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats did.

The bloc’s rightward shift isn’t that surprising if you’ve been watching European politics closely. If anything, this weekend’s results highlight how the rightward shift has been going on longer — and in more complex ways — than can be exemplified by a few well-known extreme parties gaining seats in the Parliament. 

Europeans did vote in more right-wing politicians in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Spain, and Italy, among others. But part of the rightward push is also driven by centrist politicians moving further to the right on migration in particular, operating under the premise that immigration is a major concern for voters and that promising harsher policies would help the center retain power.  

Other major issues included the economy, cost of living, defense, and the environment; besides immigration, the right wing was especially able to capitalize on environmental policies because of large-scale protests by European farmers, especially in France and Germany, about the economic effects of the bloc’s climate change policies. 

In the European Parliament elections, individual countries’ parties fit within one of nine different overarching groups, two of which are definitively associated with the right: the Identity and Democracy (ID) and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). With the results now in for all 27 member states, the two combined hold 131 of 720 seats, an increase of 15 seats from the last election, and other unaffiliated parties, including the far-right Fidesz, will hold 100. The centrist Renew Europe (Renew) group — the party of French President Emmanuel Macron — lost a stunning 23 seats while the more left-wing Greens/European Free Alliance lost 19.

The centrist parties, the center-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D), which lost four seats, and the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) still have the largest number of seats; combined with Renew, the center still holds the majority of seats. But the rise of the far-right groups means they could have more influence than ever over things like the EU budget and defense policy.

The rising tide of the European right, explained

The rise of the right in Europe is of a piece with increasing authoritarian and non-democratic trends throughout the world, certainly. And the right has been building toward this moment over the past 15 years: Right-wing parties have been steadily gaining influence in Europe since the AfD started in 2013, and Marine Le Pen of France took over leadership of National Rally (formerly National Front) in 2011, toning down the party’s most noxious and hateful ideologies, particularly about migration, to make it more palatable.

For decades after World War II, though right-wing parties existed they were quite fringe and were deeply associated with fascism and Nazism. Over the past decade especially, though, as that time becomes more remote and Europe has faced multiple overlapping crises including the failure of its immigration system and the Covid-19 pandemic, that has created space for these parties to take hold — and, over time, normalize themselves within their societies. 

“They are doing everything to be more acceptable to have a broader set of constituencies, because that’s the secret to winning,” Patrick Chamorel, who researches populism, political movements, and fractures in Western democracies at the Stanford Center in Washington, told Vox.

But it’s also important to remember that elections are often rejections of the incumbent, especially when people are struggling with daily cost-of-living expenses; inflation remains elevated, especially in countries like Austria, and sanctions on Russian fuel have driven up energy costs. That means these elections weren’t just about embracing the right, but voters wanting to rebuke centrist and left-leaning policies they felt weren’t working for them.

This weekend’s elections followed that rule — yes, far-right groups like ID and ECR won a larger number of seats than they had in the previous election five years ago. But the left and Green parties also lost seats, and centrist parties like the EPP — which still has the largest number of seats of any party — moved to the right ideologically in some ways, like on immigration policy, to cater to right-leaning voters. 

“The immigration crisis, to the extent there is one, it’s just one of five or six big crises, which have rocked the European Union over the last 15 years,” Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Vox. “The picture is different from country to country. So if you look at countries like Poland or Estonia, the biggest driver is the Ukraine war. If you look at Germany, it is immigration. But in places like France and Denmark, it’s the climate crisis, which has the widest constituency. And in a lot of southern European countries, it’s still the economic crisis” of 2008 and 2009. 

Therefore, it was difficult for any party to campaign on one marquee issue, like many on the right previously did on Euroscepticism or pulling out of Europe. And that is one thing that separates today’s ascendent right from the early days of the movement: It isn’t trying to gain power in order to dissolve the European Union.

“Brexit — many British voters regret it, so I think that [far-right parties] don’t want to go through that experience,” Chamorel said. “They’d rather influence the EU from inside. So that’s true for most European far-right parties with the exception of Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party in Hungary.”

The war in Ukraine also made it much more difficult to imagine breaking from the union and having to face a threat like Russia alone, although that’s a more significant concern for countries closer to Russia like Sweden and Finland than it is for Western European nations like France and Germany. That means the far right is more likely to use its new power to try to reshape EU policy. How much influence it will actually have, however, remains an open question.

What will this mean for European policy?

These results don’t mean that the right suddenly has control in the European Parliament or that policy is set to shift dramatically all of a sudden. But there will likely be policy changes over time, especially where it concerns the EU’s climate change policies, migration, and to an extent, defense. 

“The center of gravity is definitely going to move to the right but they [don’t] have a majority; the majority will stay with the kind of mainstream parties, but on different policies, you are going to see a shift,” Leonard said. “And I think that’s particularly going to be the case on migration on anti-Green things, and also on questions to do with national sovereignty,” a new spin on Euroscepticism that, without advocating leaving the EU, does insist on more autonomy in areas like defense, the economy, and staying in the Eurozone.

On immigration in particular, the right had already achieved some of its aims, pushing that rightward turn from the center, as exemplified by the Parliament’s new immigration policy, approved in May. That new policy includes a mechanism to expedite asylum cases in order to remove unsuccessful asylum seekers to their home countries more quickly, among other concerning elements. This could be a space where some of the far-right parties, especially AfD and National Rally, will be able to coalesce ideologically, and it’s likely to be a space where the right attempts to make use of its new numbers to enact further changes to immigration policy. 

One other place the right may be able to leverage its electoral gains is on climate policy. As exemplified by the farmer protests of the past year, vocal swaths of European farmers believe the EU’s enactment of important policies to combat climate change has come without sufficient support for individual farmers transitioning to more expensive agricultural methods. Those protests saw farmers in France, Germany, and Belgium march against not only their own governments but Brussels, the seat of EU power. And that phenomenon, which had both national and cross-border organizing power, was co-opted by right-wing parties who may hope to combat new green policies, if not roll them back.

Interestingly, because right-wing parties do have more nation-specific complaints and policies, rather than a unifying desire to take on the EU, that makes them less cohesive in a collective space like the European Parliament, which could make it more challenging for them to create coalitions and move as one to enact new policy. Ultimately, the right’s emphasis on the policies of individual countries makes the EU elections a harbinger of what could happen inside member states in the coming years.

France and Germany are perhaps the most trenchant examples of this. National Rally’s victory in the elections is deeply alarming in the short term, as Macron’s snap-election strategy could put more far-right legislators into the National Assembly and set the party up for further gains or even victory in the next election in 2027. Anti-immigrant Le Pen has been making increasing gains against Macron over the past two elections, and the possibility that National Rally could lead France is now closer than ever.

The AfD is now the second-most powerful German party in the Parliament, despite mass protests against them earlier this year, an active police investigation into the party, and scandals rocking party leadership just weeks ago. 

Even if right-wing parties can’t form strong coalitions within the Parliament, their rise in the elections indicates that there’s a problem — but a bloc-wide shift to the right isn’t the answer. 

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