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Far-right surge shakes European establishment but center holds

The E.U.'s rightward shift makes it harder to pass new laws on climate change, security, and industrial competition.

Amsterdam residents cast votes.
Amsterdam residents cast votes. AN/CC-BY-4.0:©European Union2024-Source:EP)

BRUSSELS (AN) - The European Union's parliamentary elections concluded with a significant surge in support for far-right parties, sending shock waves through the political establishments of France and Germany, the bloc's most powerful nations, and raising concerns about the E.U.'s future.

As the final results came into picture on Monday, Europe's conservatives were cheering their resounding victory in Sunday's European Parliament election. The rise in popularity of far-right parties, many with neo-fascist roots, poses difficult questions that cut to the heart of the European Union, a project rooted in post-World War II peacemaking to stave off fascism.

Marine Le Pen's extraordinary performance in France and the far-right's victories throughout Europe captured the headlines, but another story quietly unfolded in the background: Europe's political center held, barely.

The conservative European People's Party, or EPP, and Socialists and Democrats, S&D, remained dominant, providing a path, albeit a narrow one, for European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to secure a second term as the E.U.'s most powerful official. The EPP, S&D, and the liberal Renew group – the core groups in von der Leyen’s ruling coalition – were projected to hold 402 of the 720 seats in Parliament.

"We won the European elections. We are by far the strongest party,” von der Leyen told supporters. “We are the anchor of stability and voters acknowledged our leadership." 

Von der Leyen expressed confidence in securing a second term as E.C. president. Her coalition-building efforts focus on negotiations with the S&D and Renew groups set to begin on Monday. When asked about potential partners, she emphasized her willingness to engage with parties that are "pro-European, pro-Ukraine, and pro-rule of law."

European Parliament 2024 - 2029 election results
European Union

Green Deal rollbacks

Before the elections, von der Leyen and the EPP had begun laying the groundwork for collaborating with the hard-right European Conservatives and Reformists, or ECR alliance led by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. The centrist alliance's strong performance in the elections has made this partnership less likely, however, as they may not need to rely on the ECR's support – an outcome feared by many E.U. observers. 

Informal talks with the Greens could also give that party a pivotal role in the centrist coalition despite the major losses it suffered in the elections. While working with the Greens would require compromises on climate policy, partnering with the ECR would mean concessions on immigration.

Under von der Leyen's leadership, the E.U. has already rolled back much of its flagship European Green Deal legislation – the centerpiece of her first term in the E.U.’s top post – and taken a harder stance on immigration, externalizing its borders and knowingly funding controversial measures like pushing migrants back into the Sahara desert, as reported last month by The Washington Post.

Parliament's 720 members, each serving five-year terms, have a significant say in shaping E.U. policies on finance, climate, and agriculture. They approve the budget, which funds critical projects, subsidies, and aid to Ukraine, and can veto European Commission appointments.

The rightward shift in Parliament is expected to make it more challenging to pass legislation on critical issues such as climate change, security, and industrial competition. The success of conservative and centrist parties suggests that, for now, support for Ukraine is not at immediate risk.

As the dust settles on the elections, the newly elected E.U. lawmakers, set to be inaugurated on July 16, will have the crucial task of electing the European Commission president as their first order of business. 

Von der Leyen and her team are aiming for her confirmation on July 18, but the vote could be delayed until September, after the E.U.'s annual summer recess, if she fails to assemble a coalition in time. 

A primary concern for E.U. lawmakers, and a central argument put forth by von der Leyen's supporters, is Donald Trump's bid to regain the White House in this year's U.S. presidential election. Should von der Leyen's election be postponed, the E.U. risks facing a leadership crisis at a critical moment if Trump regains power.

Some countries bucked E.U.-wide trends, with pro-European and climate parties emerging victorious in Denmark and Sweden's far-right party suffering a major defeat. 

Other pillars of the E.U.’s current leadership constellation also emerged unscathed. Estonia's center-right party, led by Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, a key E.U. statesman and leader of the bloc's policy in the Ukraine war, topped the list.

In Poland, Donald Tusk's pro-E.U. government made gains against the far-right, anti-E.U. Law and Justice party, reaffirming the country's shift back towards the European Union. The defeat of Law and Justice in Polish elections last fall was seen as a critical test for the country and the E.U. as a whole.

"We won to unite Poles and all of Europe around safe borders. This must be a common national game. There is no room for party egoism," he said.

In Belgium, home to the E.U. and its capital, fears that a far-right party that aims to dismantle Belgium would gain a majority failed to materialize.

E.C. President Ursula von der Leyen (AN/CC-BY-4.0:©European Union2024-Source:EP)

Shock waves in France and Germany

Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement Nationale, or RN, secured a stunning 31.5% of the vote in France, more than double the support for President Emmanuel Macron's Renew party. The result marks the strongest showing for the far-right in France since Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie, founded the Front National in 1972.

Macron responded to the crushing defeat by dissolving the French National Assembly for the first time in 30 years. Fewer than 10 close advisors were privy to the French leader's plan, Le Monde reported, which stunned the nation and set the stage for the most crucial election in decades, just three weeks away.

“I’ve decided to hand back to you the choice over our parliamentary future through a vote,” Macron told French voters on Sunday. “This decision is serious, heavy. But it is above all an act of confidence … in the French people to make the right choice.”

The French election will determine the fate of the "cordon sanitaire," a decades-old practice in which mainstream parties unite to block the far-right. A breach in this pact would be a watershed moment for France, which has resisted far-right rule throughout its republican history, with the sole exception of the Nazi-controlled Vichy regime during World War II.

Germany's far-right Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD, also achieved its strongest result ever at 16.5%, despite recent scandals. The AfD finished far behind the conservative CDU, however, and Chancellor Olaf Scholz ruled out calling snap elections, even as his coalition partners trailed behind the CDU and AfD. 

The AfD party's lead candidate, Maximilian Krah, was forced out after downplaying Nazi crimes, while another top candidate, Petr Bystron, is under investigation for suspected corruption linked to a pro-Russian disinformation network. One of Krah's staffers was also arrested for allegedly spying on behalf of China.

Despite these issues, the AfD benefited from the election opening to 16- and 17-year-olds for the first time, with 17% of voters aged 16-24 choosing the party, matching the support for the conservative CDU/CSU alliance among the same age group.

The far-right's success among young voters extended beyond Germany, with right-wing populists in France, Belgium, and Portugal also making unprecedented gains among young voters. Other parties that have previously performed well with young voters, such as the Greens, saw their support drop significantly.

The collective strength of far-right parties has raised concerns, as they would theoretically represent the second-largest bloc in Parliament if they were to unite. While traditionally Euroskeptic, these parties have shown an increasing willingness to engage in European politics, moving away from their purely obstructive role.

Divisions among these parties, however, may hinder their ability to coordinate effectively. Key decision-makers like Italy's Meloni and France's Le Pen actively reject the AfD over its extreme views. Much of Europe's far-right also disavows support for Ukraine, yet powerful figures like Meloni remain staunch allies.