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Mar 22, 2024

The Center Holds, But at What Cost?

European politics is braced for a potential right-wing surge at the 2024 European Parliament elections. The center-right European People’s Party (EPP) may face tricky decisions.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen celebrates after winning, accompanied by Manfred Weber, President of the European People's Party (EPP), President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola and others during the congress of the European People's Party (EPP) in Bucharest, Romania, March 7, 2024.
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One recurrent theme of several of the previous European elections has been the rise of right-wing populist, national conversative, and other far-right parties. In the 2019 European Parliament elections, together they reached around 25 percent of seats. During the current legislative period, building majorities in the European Parliament required at least three party groups, the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), the center-left Socialists & and Democrats (S&D) and the liberal/centrist Renew—plus occasionally the Greens. This “von der Leyen majority” enabled major projects such as the European Green Deal. Yet toward the end of the legislative cycle the EPP sought to assemble blocking minorities against specific proposals, such as the Nature Restoration Law, implicitly relying on far-right parties. This tactic failed for the time being, but could be a sign of things to come.  

For the June 2024 elections, polls (as of March 2024) indicate a substantial shift: taken together, the far-right Identity & Democracy (ID) group, the national-conservative European Conservative and Reformer (ECR) group and non-aligned far-right parties are projected to capture up to 30 percent of the vote. Either ID or ECR could become the third largest group in the EP. For the first time in the history of the EU, a (slim) majority of the center-right together with the far-right could be arithmetically possible. 

The Far Right Remains Divided

Such an alliance, however, is politically not viable for the EPP and the far right remains divided. On the one side, with many member parties in national government, the ECR has gradually become part of the EU’s compromise machine, despite its more nationalist-conservative touch, e.g. on migration, climate, or security policy. Internal division within the ECR are substantial, though, undercutting its reliability at the EU level. Members of the ECR include the Polish Law and Justice (PiS) party, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, the Spanish far-right Vox and Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala’s Civic Democratic Party (ODS). 

By contrast, the right-wing populist ID is a party of fundamental opposition, dominated by its three largest national parties, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN), the Italian Lega, and the German Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). So far, the parties that form the ID group have been excluded from governing coalitions at the national level, with the exception of the Lega and potentially the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV) after Geert Wilders’ election victory last year. For any working majority in the European Parliament, ID is clearly beyond the pale due to its hard euroskeptic and extremist stances in many policy areas. Moreover, ID is best described as an alliance of convenience with even more serious internal divides than the ECR. 

Meanwhile, the role of non-aligned far-right and/or right-wing populist parties in the EU remains unclear, most notably since Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz left the EPP in March 2021. For the upcoming legislative period, Fidesz is seeking to join a new group, with the ECR seen as the most attractive choice. With 12 MEPs, this could make the difference between whether the ID or the ECR becomes third largest group in the EP. However, the majority of the ECR parties are transatlantic oriented, pro-Ukraine, and confrontative toward Russia, whereas Fidesz and many in the ID group lean toward a pro-Russia stance. 

The Center Holds—on the Big Decisions

Hence, the center will likely hold by force of necessity as the current “von der Leyen coalition” of EPP, S&D, and Renew will remain the only working majority in the European Parliament. The center right to far right (EPP plus ECR and ID) lacks common ground, whereas a coalition of center/liberal right to national conservative (EPP, Renew, and ECR) would not be large enough, according to the current polls. In any case, both the European Council and the Council of Ministers still gravitate to the center, reflecting governing coalitions in most member states. 

Unless a dramatic surprise happens in the upcoming elections, a familiar “pro-European” center will make all crucial decisions. This includes both the EU’s Strategic Agenda—set by the European Council and given form in the European Commission’s work program—as well as the allocation of the EU’s top jobs, most notably the election of the European Commission president, with the current president, the EPP’s Ursula von der Leyen, as the frontrunner.

The Growing Lure of a Right-wing Blocking Minority 

Underneath this appearance of stability, however, political dynamics will change. The EPP will be able to shape the European Parliament’s position more forcefully than in the past due to three factors: First, it is expected to roughly keep its number of seats—whereas the liberals, Greens, and Social Democrats are set for significant losses. Second, it is profiting from the ongoing shift toward conservatively-led member state governments. And third, it can work with the ECR and some non-aligned parties on the right spectrum in order to weaken or block proposals that are deemed too progressive. 

The critical question is whether the EPP can actually hold this central position and stick to its core interests. Officially, the EPP has set three criteria for any cooperation partner—they should be “pro-Europe, pro-Ukraine, and pro rule of law” (according to the EPP’s parliamentary leader, Manfred Weber). However, the risk of any overtures is that parties to the right of the center steadily shift the discourse and political agenda in their favor. This dynamic has repeatedly played out at national levels.

In many policy areas, there is no clean line between the center right and far right anymore. According to the EPP’s election program, the EU’s role in matters of security should get a massive boost. While its pro-Ukrainian stance translates into proposals for more military spending and common EU procurement, other aspects of security policy appear far less principled. The newly adopted position by the EPP that asylum applications should be processed in third countries exemplifies this trend. Concerns about the eroding liberal, civilian nature of the EU and fundamental rights are increasingly sidelined. 

In this context, the EPP cannot credibly maintain an activist approach to defend the rule of law. While the new Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has already been amply rewarded by von der Leyen for announcing, but not yet fully enacting, domestic reforms to restore judicial independence and media pluralism, other important member states with conservative or right-wing governments give increasing grounds for concern, most notably Greece. 

More predictable is a growing convergence between the ECR and the EPP on blocking environmental legislation, such as the next 2040 CO2 reduction target or further rules on land use. The EPP is, together with parties to the right of it, also questioning core parts of von der Leyen’s Green Deal, such as the ban on combustion engine cars by 2035. Finally, the EPP and ECR could also align on both enlargement and reform of the EU treaties around a modified “British position”: Support for enlargement due to geopolitical reasons would come at the price of weaking EU supranational governance and a further redistribution of power away from the Franco-German axis. 

The Voters’ Choice

A substantial shift is in the making. The center left and center right, together with the liberals, will likely continue to serve as the backbone of the European Parliament by force of necessity. But the EPP can pressure the other partners within that coalition and will seek to win back voters from the expanding and discursively dominant far right. The EPP’s resulting shifts on migration, climate policy, and security will gradually, but substantially impact policy outcomes. 

In the long run, however, it puts the EPP into the same dilemma as the center right in many EU member states—does it want to uphold a firewall to the far right, and govern with a coalition of the center with compromises entailing progressive and/or green policies, potentially alienating its own voters? Or does it gradually open itself further to the right, thereby normalizing and helping the far right to power? Both strategies come with great risks, as in an increasing number of EU member states the center right has already been overtaken by the far right.

The final choice about whether and how far this shift happens belongs to the European voters. This will make the upcoming European Parliament elections the potentially most consequential in the EU’s history. Thus, the EU continues on the long trajectory to more open politicization and responsiveness to popular majorities, with all the opportunities and major risks this implies. 

Raphael Bossong is Deputy Head of the EU/Europe Research Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin.

Nicola von Ondarza is Head of the EU/Europe Research Division at the SWP.

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