This Spring, European Right-wing Populists Could Become Stronger Than Ever Before

  • Tomáš Hošek
  • 6.2.2019 08:10

There is still about three months until the elections to the European Parliament on the 24th and 25th of May. However, we can already observe negotiations and alliance forming, which foreshadow significant transformations in the EP following the elections. Though populists and nationalists will likely not secure a majority of the seats, their success might still undermine the coherence of the EU project.

During a press conference in the first half of January, Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán expressed his hopes for the creation of a new supra-national anti-immigration majority following the May elections to the European Parliament, the only directly elected body of the EU. Orbán praised Matteo Salvini, the Italian Minister of the Interior, deputy PM and leader of the populist right-wing Lega. At the same time, Orbán labelled liberal politicians as “the number-one enemy of freedom” in Europe. Right at the start of the year, the Hungarian PM thus clearly outlined the central question of the coming elections – that is, whether the EP will be once again able to resist the frontal attack of populist Eurosceptics, who seem to be stronger and more inclined to cooperation than ever before.

Salvini and Orbán have long been exchanging praise and an alliance between their parties seems entirely logical given their shared hard-line stance on immigration. However, the Hungarian secretary for European affairs confirmed this Wednesday that Orbán’s Fidész is not planning to campaign jointly with the Lega in the European elections. Instead, Hungarian Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) will push for a hawkish stance on immigration as members of the European People’s Party (EPP), which is predicted to gain the biggest number of seats in the EP despite a significant decrease in support.

Viktor Orbán has an optimistic outlook on potential cooperation with the recently nominated EPP Spitzenkandidat Manfred Weber.

Assuming such a position is undoubtedly logical for Fidész. Instead of becoming members of one of the purely Eurosceptic factions and getting their hands dirty through cooperation with small unpredictable radical parties, Orbán can stay as a member of the strongest supra-national party, which still tolerates Fidész, despite frequent criticism from its own ranks. Furthermore, the Hungarian PM has an optimistic outlook on potential cooperation with the recently nominated EPP Spitzenkandidat Manfred Weber, a member of the Bavarian CSU, who defeated the centrist Finnish ex-PM Alexander Stubb. By nominating the conservative Weber to the position of Chairman of the European Commission, many EPP members wish to steer the EU towards a tougher stance on security and migration and return their party to the traditional ideals of Christian democracy. According to Orbán, the Christian Democrat EP faction should achieve its aims by cutting ties with the pro-European socialists (S&D) and liberals (ALDE), in favour of more intense cooperation with the Eurosceptic factions, which have until recently stayed on the sidelines of European politics.

The situation of the Eurosceptics has also seen some interesting development. The aforementioned Salvini visited Poland in January to negotiate closer cooperation with the ruling Polish Law and Justice (PiS) party, for example through possible involvement of Polish MEPs in Salvini’s Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) faction. These negotiations between the Italian deputy PM and the most powerful man in Poland, Jarosław Kaczyńsky, have not produced any definite results yet. If a deal is struck, a potential “Rome-Warsaw Axis” could counterbalance the Franco-German tandem, which has traditionally been the main driving force behind European integration. Salvini’s Lega is not the only Italian party seeking allies in Poland in the wake of the European elections. Lega’s coalition partner, the Eurosceptic Five Star Movement, is currently working on fine-tuning the details of its cooperation with the Polish anti-establishment parliamentary party under the leadership of Paweł Kukiz.

The French National Rally and the Alternative for Germany are much closer in ideological terms than during the last European elections in 2014.

Other populist heavy-weighs, namely the French National Rally (FN, formerly known as the National Front) and the Alternative for Germany (AfD), are also searching for allies. Representatives of the Afd and the NF debated possible post-election cooperation last Friday. As in the other cases, no definite deal has been agreed upon yet, but these parties are much closer in ideological terms than during the last European elections in 2014, when the AfD (before its transformation into an anti-immigration nationalist party) supported ENF’s rival faction under the leadership of the prominent British Eurosceptic Nigel Farage. The current situation gives the ENF, whose members, apart from the Lega and the FN, also include the Austrian ruling party FPÖ, a unique opportunity to unite European nationalists and create a strong and coherent faction with considerable influence over the European Parliament’s decision-making process.

The May elections will thus be characterized by questions such as: Will the populist nationalists and critics of the European project across Europe be able to repeat their domestic success in the EP? The main pro-European force made up by the EPP, S&D and ALDE will likely retain its majority, but it will be at the cost of significant losses, especially on the side of the socialists, who could lose as much as 60 of their current 191 seats. The ALDE faction, on the other hand, is poised to gain votes, as they have managed to recruit a strong ally to their side in the form of Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche movement. However, the tense domestic situation in France is weakening the appeal of a multinational liberal pro-European initiative. It is, therefore, possible that the greatest portion of the 79 French MEPs could be represented by members of Marine Le Pen’s RN.

Many of the populist parties have already become members of national governments and thus already have a significant say in European politics.

Any predictions of the results of the coming European elections are still purely in the realm of speculations. The elections into the European Parliament have always been regarded as second-order in terms of relevance, and the results are shaped by low voter turnout and the current domestic situation in the individual member states. The coming three months could bring unexpected developments in the field of European politics. As before, we can expect talk of a “populist wave” engulfing Europe. Moreover, many of the aforementioned parties have already become members of national governments and thus already have a significant say in European politics. Therefore, the EP elections are merely a way of strengthening their position as a part of the political mainstream.

In conclusion, it is important to mention that nation-states on the soil of the European Council still retain the biggest influence over European affairs. The Council has final say over all legislative proposals and also over naming the next Chairman of the European Commission. Though the EP is comparably weak in contrast to national parliaments, the May elections should not be taken lightly. Viktor Orbán himself stated that the overtaking of the EP by anti-immigration forces could become the first step on the way to achieving a complete political transformation of Europe. The Commission is the next in line, followed by the European Council and with it, the individual states.

About author: Tomáš Hošek


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