Europe’s Far Right Seeks Banner Election in Spite of Mishaps

(Bloomberg) -- Far-right parties in Europe are projected to make sizable gains in Sunday’s parliamentary election. But infighting and scandal have left some nationalist groups in disarray, potentially limiting their political influence and giving the mainstream parties — which are still on course to win a solid majority — some breathing space.

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Around 360 million people in the European Union are eligible to vote in the bloc-wide election, which will decide the 720 lawmakers in the parliament for the next five years. The assembly adopts and amends EU legislative proposals and, importantly, votes on who will become the next European Commission president.

This year’s campaign season was thrown into disarray for the right-wing Alternative for Germany, which has suffered a number of setbacks over the past few weeks.

A series of scandals shook the party, ranging from a conference on the planned deportation of asylum seekers as well as naturalized Germans to a bribery and spying affair. The incidents tainted the party’s lead EU candidate, Maximilian Krah, and his deputy, Petr Bystron, a member of Germany’s lower house of parliament.

The AfD leadership told both candidates to stop campaigning, but things got worse from there.

Two weeks ago, French nationalist Marine Le Pen publicly distanced her National Rally from the AfD after Krah said that not all members of the Nazi SS paramilitary organization were criminals. The Identity and Democracy alliance in the European Parliament, which includes National Rally, voted to expel the German party.

Unlike Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who leads Italy’s hard-right Brothers of Italy, AfD co-leader Alice Weidel has failed to move her party more into the political mainstream. Plus, it’s unclear whether the AfD will be able to join a political group again in the newly elected EU parliament.

As a result of this series of mishaps, the AfD has lost its momentum in the polls. In the most recent national EU poll from the Insa institute, it dropped from a peak of 23% in July 2023 to 16% on June 1. But it remains the second-most popular party in Germany, ahead of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats.

Without the AfD, ID is projected to win 68 seats in the assembly, according to a polling average compiled by Europe Elects. That would be down from the December projection when it appeared on track to win 93.

In spite of the surge projected by the polls, European officials remained skeptical that the results would lead to a far-right tide that some have predicted.

In the Netherlands, which voted Thursday, the far-right party of Geert Wilders only managed second place according to early exit polls — in part because of many of his voters stayed home.

There are seven political blocs in the current parliament. The largest is the center-right European People’s Party, an alliance of 84 parties from 44 countries whose members include Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Together with the Socialists and centrist-liberal Renew, they hold an absolute majority in the chamber and are expected to retain it, although possibly by a smaller margin.

The number of seats gained by the far right, and whether they are able to form broad alliances, will dictate if they can follow through on their policy priorities.

“The expected poor performance of left-wing parties and the potential rise of radical right parties are leading to questions about the potential emergence of a right-wing majority that might slow down or even block legislation on certain issues,” Antonio Barroso, deputy director of research, wrote in a recent note.

And while Europe’s right-wing parties vary greatly in their beliefs, they tend to agree on restricting migration into the EU, watering down EU control on rule-of-law issues and rolling back European initiatives aimed at slowing down climate change.

Political Capital

One of the most important aspects of the election will be the process of choosing who gets the top EU jobs. Typically, the role of commission president goes to the group that wins the most seats, and the EPP’s von der Leyen remains the front runner.

“To build a strong Europe we need a strong majority in the political center — this means pro-EU, pro-Ukraine, pro-rule of law,” von der Leyen told several reporters while campaigning in Porto, Portugal, this week. “Extremists from the far left and the far right are trying to divide us, we will not let this happen.”

But von der Leyen needs parliament’s approval to seal her bid for a second term, and last time she secured the assembly’s backing by just nine votes. She’s has raised the prospect of a rightward shift in EU policy by signaling she’s open to working with parts of the ECR group, which includes Meloni.

Some national leaders, including Germany’s Scholz, have warned her not to seek the support of populists.

“A commission president must always rely on the democratic parties of Europe, on a platform including the Social Democrats, the Conservatives, the Liberals,” Scholz said earlier this week. “There must not be any far-right or right-wing populist parties.”

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