Comment

The far-right in the European Parliament: fragmented and divided

Richard Corbett / Apr 2024

Photo: Shutterstock

 

There is much commentary on a possible breakthrough for the far-right in the June European elections. But, if it materialises, we are unlikely to see them play a crucial role in the next European Parliament.

This is because they are not a coherent or cohesive force. They are fragmented, volatile, and have major disagreements on key issues and differ about tactics.

This has been strikingly illustrated by the remarkable disarray of the various right-wing parliamentary Groups that have, over the years, appeared and disappeared, or been re-created with new permutations, often after acrimonious divorces.

Whereas the 5 political Groups on the left, the centre and the moderate right in the European Parliament have all (except the Greens, established in 1989) had continuous existence for over 50 years, dating right back to the first European elections in 1979 (and even before), by contrast, on the right and far-right of the political spectrum, there has been a bewildering set of unstable permutations, with no fewer than 16 Groups created, some very short-lived:

  • European Democratic Group (1979-92)
  • European Progressive Democrats (1979-86)
  • European Right (1989-94)
  • European Democratic Alliance (1986-95)
  • Forza Europa (1994-95)
  • Europe of Nations (1994-99)
  • Union for Europe (1995-99)
  • Union for a Europe of Nations (1999-2009)
  • Europe of Democracy & Diversities (1999-2004)
  • Independence/Democracy (2004-09)
  • Identity, Tradition & Sovereignty (Jan-Nov 2007)
  • European Conservatives & Reformists (2009-now)
  • Europe of Freedom & Democracy (2009-2014)
  • Europe of Freedom & Direct Democracy (2014-19)
  • Europe of Nations and Freedoms (2015-19)
  • Identity & Democracy (2019-now)

Even when a Group has existed for several years, its composition has often varied as their members squabble, fall out, and leave to join another Group. The trajectories of some national parties has been striking. Lega, from Italy, has been in no fewer than 7 political Groups (plus 4 years when they were “non-attached”, not in any Group). The AfD from Germany, only in the EP since 2014, has already been in 3 different Groups. The “Finns” have been in four. The PiS from Poland in two. The FN from France in 3 (and a long spell as non-attached).

The current two Groups to the right of the EPP (European Conservatives & Reformists (ECR) and Identity & Democracy (ID)) might give the appearance of a consolidation into two broad factions: a more moderate one and a more extreme one. But even this is an illusion – after all, who would classify the PiS or Vox as “moderate”? And Orban’s Fidesz party is reportedly wanting to join the ECR, not the ID, after the elections.

Nor are the two Groups particularly cohesive. They regularly split in parliamentary votes. According to EUMatrix (formerly VoteWatch), they are the least cohesive of all the political Groups.

Similarly, outside Parliament, national political parties on the right and far-right have come together in at least 13 European Political Parties, again with shifting alliances, splits, and re-configurations:

- the Alliance for Europe of the Nations (2002-09)

- the Movement for European Reform (2006-09), renamed Alliance of Conservatives &     Reformists in Europe (2009-19) and (from 2019 onwards) European Conservative & Reformist Party

- the European Christian Political Movement (2005 onwards)

- the Alliance of Independent Democrats in Europe (2005-08)

- the EU Democrats, later called Europeans United for Democracy (2006-17)

- Libertas (2008-10)

- the Alliance of European National Movements (2009-19)

- the European Alliance for Freedom (2010-16)

- the Movement for a Europe of Liberties and Democracy (2011-15)

- the Alliance for Direct Democracy in Europe (2014-16)

- the Movement for a Europe of Nations and Freedoms (2014-19), renamed the Identity and Democracy Party (from 2019 onwards)

- the Alliance for Peace and Freedom (2015-17)

- the Coalition for Life and Family (2017).

What accounts for this volatilty?

Certainly, personalities can play a role, but essentially it is because the various national parties of the radical right have major differences on many key issues and on strategy:

Most are economic neo-liberals, but others, such as the French RN, the Polish PiS, the Danish DPP and the Finns, are protectionist and interventionist.

Some are reactionary “culture warriors” (opposing women’s equality and LGBTI rights), others not (some, such as the Dutch PVV and the Swedish SD, even justifying their anti-immigration position on the ground that immigrants don't accept equal rights)

They have a range of views on climate change, some (such as the AfD and the PVV) denying that man-made causes of climate change even exist, most opposing mitigating measures such as the EU’s Green Deal as too costly or inconvenient, while some (such as the Swedish SD) accept that action against climate change is needed.

Some harbour historical national grievances which clash with others (e.g. the Austrian and Italian far-right fell out over the status of the South Tyrol, the formerly Austrian German-speaking area of northern Italy).

They have various gradations of euro-scepticism. Some are opposed to the EU as such (though, after watching the UK’s experience with Brexit, practically none of them now advocate that their country should leave the EU), while others are simply anti-federal or anti-euro or opposed to joint-EU borrowing), though all this fluctuates (e.g. Le Pen is no longer calling for France to leave the euro).

Most are anti-immigration, but with differences: some overtly racist, some radically islamophobic, others focussing on numbers and costs.

Some are pro-Putin, others not (and some have shifted on this). Indeed, at the moment, that seems to be the main dividing line between the ECR and the ID Groups, with most of the former being supportive of Ukraine, and most of the latter being far less critical of the Russian invasion. Several of these parties have received support from Russia in the past, and some may still.

Besides policy differences, they also have different strategies, some now seeking to portray themselves as mainstream parties and disassociating themselves from each other ("they're extreme, we're not"). Some have been in governing coalitions, and have tempered their language and rhetoric (though not necessarily their views) and find some of the utterances of their fellow right-wing parties to be unhelpful (as in the recent spat between Le Pen and the AfD). Some (such as the Italian far-right parties) are in, or aiming to be in, coalition with traditional centre-right (largely EPP) parties, while others (such as the FN) regard such parties to be their mortal enemies.

Consequences

All this points to significant incoherence among the parties and Groups to the right of the EPP. This in turn makes them an unreliable partner for any other Group contemplating deals and alliances with them.

In the next European Parliament, if current opinion polls are correct, there may be a theoretical possibility of majorities consisting of the EPP and the parties to its right. In practice, this looks unlikely, except perhaps for particular ad hoc votes. The EPP would have to calculate (in addition to reputational damage) whether it could rely on votes from the Groups and parties to its right. Even if there might be convergence on some issues (especially with the EPP continues its rightward trajectory), it will find that the numbers of votes actually delivered will almost always be lower than the total membership of these Groups.

For any sustainable and reliable deal-making, the EPP will, as before, have to seek compromises across the centre, negotiating with the liberal Renew and socialist S&D Groups, sometimes supplemented by the Greens.

There will not be a right-wing coalition in the next Parliament.

Richard Corbett

Richard Corbett

April 2024

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