What Europe Thinks ...

Mar 22, 2024

What Europe Thinks … About Who to Vote for in the European Parliament Elections

The European Parliament elections may augur whether the rest of the West will swing in a populist direction. 

A graph showing the projected results for the European Parliament election, based on polls taken in January 2024
Attribution CC BY

Some 400 million voters in the European Union are eligible to cast ballots for elections to the European Parliament this June. Judging by the polls, voters in the largest electorate in the world outside of India may swing sharply to the right, reflecting a broader populist shift in Europe.

A polling analysis carried out by the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR) in January predicts that the biggest winners in the elections, which will be held from June 6 to 9, will be the populist right. The think tank forecasts the far-right Identity & Democracy (ID) group will gain 40 seats out of 720 in total, and for the first time, be the third-largest grouping in parliament, with 98 seats. ECFR also predicts that the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) grouping will gain 18 seats, bringing its total to 85, and more if Fidesz, the party led by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, decides to join the grouping rather than remain unattached to any parliamentary group. 

Meanwhile, the centrist parties are expected to decline further. As with the last two parliamentary elections, the ECFR predicts that the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) will lose five and 10 seats, bringing their totals to 173 and 131, respectively. The centrist Renew Europe (RE) grouping is also expected to decline, from 101 to 86 seats. The EPP would therefore maintain its status as the largest party in the parliament, with the ability to put forward the next European Commission president, which, if the 27 EU leaders who form the European Council agree, will likely mean a second term for Ursula von der Leyen.

Polling has been remarkably stable throughout the past year. The Politico Poll of Polls aggregation shows little change since last September, when the S&D began to see support declining and the EPP and ID to show gains.

A Strong Far Right in Italy, France, and Germany

Looking at the individual member states, the populist far right is expected to expand its support in Italy, France, and Germany, reflecting the current domestic strength of the political right in three of the six original EU member states. According to the ECFR, in Italy the ECR, which includes Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, is expected to attract the most votes, increasing from 10 to 27 seats. In Germany, the EPP, with the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) as their constituents, is expected to lose four seats while the far-right ID, which includes the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), is expected to increase its seats in the European Parliament from nine to 20. The group also includes the French far-right party Rassemblement National (RN) led by Marine Le Pen, which is expected to win 30 seats, the most in France.

One of the most consequential policy impacts of this swing to the right would likely be on climate. ECFR expects the Greens/European Free Alliance (G/EFA) grouping to lose 10 seats, down from 71 to 61. The implementation of the European Green Deal would likely slow, while the deal itself would most likely remain intact (see also the CARBON CRITICAL column in this issue). For example, there might be more support for weakening rules for agriculture—appeasing farmers' protests which have rocked France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Poland. 

The polling shows a broader European trend: Much of the political energy now is on the populist right, rather than with mainstream centrist parties on the right and left. While the center-right EPP has been the largest party in the European Parliament since 1999, it has lost seats over the past decade, and their member parties have been struggling on the national level. 

Win Some, Lose Some

In Portugal—where the center-left socialists had governed for the past eight years—an election in early March saw a swing to the right, with a strong showing for the new far-right party Chega. Meanwhile in elections in the Netherlands the far-right Party for Freedom (PVV) emerged as the biggest party in November, although its leader Geert Wilders has since given up any hope of becoming prime minister. There are exceptions: In October, Poland voted out its populist right-wing government after eight years in power, though Prime Minister Donald Tusk's Civic Coalition—one of three groupings in a grand coalition—is affiliated with the EPP.

The energy is also on the far right in the most populous EU member states: Italy, France, and Germany. Some polls have shown Italian Prime Minister Meloni’s approval ratings as slightly below 50 percent, about 20 points better than Germany’s Social Democrat Chancellor Olaf Scholz or French President Emmanuel Macron (whose party is part of Renew). Macron’s presidency will end in 2027 as he cannot run for a third term, and there is a very real possibility he could be succeeded by a candidate of the far-right Rassemblement National (RN), either its leader, Marine Le Pen, or her 28-year-old deputy, Jordan Bardella, who is leading RN into the European elections.

Once considered to be too extreme by many French voters, Le Pen has cast herself as a fighter for the French working class and seems to be attempting to copy the successful normalization playbook of Meloni, who leads the far-right Brothers of Italy party. In Meloni’s campaign, despite being a career politician, she more often highlighted the fact that she is a single mom. She campaigned on moderation and responsibility and talked tough on Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom many far-right figures have embraced.

In Germany, the polls show the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) as being the second most popular party nationally with voters, behind the CDU/CSU. While its popularity did slip after mass anti-AfD rallies in January, the party remains ahead of Chancellor Scholz' SPD. 

“Ideological Victory”

The European Parliament election results could portend a future where mainstream conservative parties in France and Germany decide to work with or co-opt with far-right parties, after decades of shunning them. In France this December, Le Pen claimed an “ideological victory” after Macron passed a tough immigration law following the defeat of his own plan. While the German CDU/CSU has ruled out working with the AfD at a national level, it has joined with the AfD in regional parliaments to pass legislation.

It is possible that the current (informal) coalition—more fluid and less formalized than in many national legislatures—of the center-right EPP, the center-left S&D, and the centrist RE could continue in its current form, with its majority declining from 60 to 54 percent. However, a potential coalition of the center right and populist right, including the EPP, ECR, and far-right ID, would make up 49 percent of seats, based on current projections, an increase of 6 percent. With unattached far-right MEPs, this coalition would constitute a majority that could pass or halt legislation on issues like climate and migration.

2024 has been called the year of elections, as an estimated two billion people in 50 countries will head to the polls. But it is also a year which will determine the world order. Should the United States elect the populist right-wing Donald Trump as president again, he would likely downgrade US political and military presence in Europe, and possibly even end US participation in NATO. With such a broad electorate, the European Parliament elections may augur—as the Brexit vote in the UK did for Trump’s election in 2016—whether the rest of the West will swing in a populist direction. 

Luke Johnson is a journalist and political analyst living in Berlin.

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