“‘Fuck AfD [Alternative for Germany]’ reads a placard at a German demo against the far-right party, which in 2023 secretly advocated for ‘remigrating’ millions of German citizens (Photo: Unsplush)


The European far-right: reasons to be pessimistic — and optimistic

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From June 6 to 9, citizens of the European Union's 27 member states will elect the 720 members of the world's most powerful supranational parliament. Many political analysts anticipate that the recent far-right mobilisation in member states will now more directly influence the European Union's policies and politics 

Here are five reasons why and how the far-right will shape the next half decade of European integration, and five reasons to remain (cautiously) optimistic. 

The far-right is on the rise across Europe 

Over the past three decades, 'cultural' issues (often with significant economic implications) have gained prominence across Europe. Among these, immigration and multiculturalism are the most important. Other examples include gender equality and diversity, perceptions of climate change, attitudes towards European integration, and even views on vaccination and Russia. Despite the seemingly disparate nature of these issues, they are connected to underlying values and identities, which are increasingly influential in European societies. The primary beneficiaries of this trend are far-right parties, which try to keep political debates centred on these questions. 

The far-right is branching out 

'Far-right' serves as a convenient shorthand encompassing three distinct groups of parties, united by nativism — a paranoid form of nationalism rooted in (perceived) ethnicity that views non-native persons and ideas as a threat to the nation. This ideology often merges with a populist worldview, pitting the (ethnically) 'pure people' against allegedly corrupt elites. 

Extreme-right parties openly reject democracy, while more modern radical-right parties target its liberal and deliberative aspects, such as minority rights, the court system, and the media. The latter approach often yields greater success, inspiring (or infecting) a third group of formerly centre-right parties to adopt radical-right policies and rhetoric. A prominent example is Viktor Orban's Hungarian Fidesz party, which started as a liberal-conservative party in the 1990s. Across 31 European countries surveyed by the PopuList project, (populist) far-right parties have approximately doubled their vote share since the 1990s. 

The far-right is coming for the big(ish) member states 

Under the principle of degressive proportionality, the four most populous EU member states — Germany, France, Italy, and Spain — collectively hold nearly 45 percent of the seats in the European Parliament. Recent polls indicate the far-right as the leading party in France and Italy (where Georgia Meloni's Fratelli d'Italia [Brothers of Italy] governs alongside Matteo Salvini's Lega [League]), and securing second place in Germany. Although far-right support in Spain has waned since its peak in 2022, Vox still remains tied for third place in most polls. Additionally, the far-right is making significant strides in states with slightly smaller populations but substantial delegations, ranking second in Poland and Romania, and first in the Netherlands. 

Social media (and malign actors) make everything worse 

Many citizens still perceive European Parliament elections as second-order contests with seemingly low stakes, making them vulnerable to disinformation campaigns by far-right parties, affiliated organisations, and their supporters outside the EU. While major players like Google and Meta have stepped up their efforts to combat disinformation, Twitter's new leadership disbanded many moderation teams and reinstated some formerly banned far-right actors. Other platforms like Telegram, a key channel for the far-right, lack effective content moderation. Additionally, the availability of affordable generative AI allows the mass production of propaganda and disinformation on a scale unimaginable just three or four years ago. 

The pro-integration core will (somewhat) erode 

For decades, the European project has been shaped by an informal coalition of centre-right and centre-left parties. In 2019, this coalition lost its majority in the European Parliament for the first time. However, robust performances by Green and liberal parties, coupled with low party cohesion, maintained support for further integration. In this cycle, however, centre-left, green, and liberal parties are expected to lose seats, resulting in a reduction of the core of MEPs supporting integrationist and progressive legislation. 

And now for the good news.

The projected gains of far-right parties are relatively modest 

Models from Europe Elects and the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) suggest that the combined seat share of the rightwing European Conservatives & Reformists (ECR) and far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) groups may increase from 18 percent in the current parliament to 24-25 percent in the next. While this would be an impressive feat, it's hardly a far-right takeover of the European Parliament. The centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) is poised to maintain its status as the largest group, holding around 25 percent of the seats, followed by the centre-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D) group, which is expected to suffer some moderate losses. 

The centre will (mostly) hold (but there is a catch) 

Collectively, the centre-left, centre-right, and liberal parties are projected to still hold more than 50 percent of the seats in the parliament. Despite anticipated losses, the Greens are likely to retain most of their seats, too, ensuring the continuation of a broad pro-European majority. However, legislative behaviour in the European Parliaemnt is characterised by fluidity, and less cohesion, than in many national parliaments, with coalitions forming on a per-issue basis. As the left-of-centre camp shrinks, the EPP and the liberals may align more frequently with the rightwing and far-right, bringing about a marked rightward shift in certain policy fields (e.g. environment). 

The far-right remains politically divided 

Due to their inherent xenophobia, collaboration among far-right parties in the European Parliament is often fractious. Currently, some far-right MEPs are unaffiliated, while eight far-right parties form the (nationalist and eurosceptic) Identity and Democracy (ID) group, and 20 ideologically more-diverse parties sit as the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). Orban's Fidesz is considering joining either group, but potential disagreements over Orban's stance towards Russia may lead some current ECR members to leave in that scenario. And there is even speculation that the (mainstream right) European People's Party (EPP) could offer membership in the club to Meloni's Brothers of Italy. 

The presence of far-right MEPs in the chamber shows that European democracy actually works 

For four decades, spanning from the early 1950s to the early 1990s, "Europe" operated as an elite project with minimal public involvement. Paradoxically, the increasing levels of far-right mobilisation against and within the EU can be viewed as evidence that European integration has become so politicised that it can no longer proceed by stealth. In any case, it forces the pro-European parties to take a stand and effectively campaign for their vision of Europe. 

The rise of the far-right is not unstoppable 

Three decades of research indicate that the gradual decline of the centre-left and centre-right, coupled with the ascent of the far-right, is structurally rooted in the transformation of European societies and economies. Nevertheless, this research also underscores that the voter potential of the far-right is not limitless, and that mainstream parties retain substantial agency to influence the political process to their advantage. 

Author Bio

Kai Arzheimer is a professor of political science at the University of Mainz, specialising in the extreme and radical right vote in Europe.

“‘Fuck AfD [Alternative for Germany]’ reads a placard at a German demo against the far-right party, which in 2023 secretly advocated for ‘remigrating’ millions of German citizens (Photo: Unsplush)


Author Bio

Kai Arzheimer is a professor of political science at the University of Mainz, specialising in the extreme and radical right vote in Europe.


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