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What will it take for the European Parliament to turn right?

There is informed speculation about a possible shift to the right in the forthcoming elections for the European Parliament (EP), which will be composed of 720 seats from June 2024 onwards. If the shift eventually happens, it will be a big problem for liberal democracy in Europe. If Europeans cast votes in favour of far-right parties in larger numbers than before, then the mix and content of future EU policies, if not the composition of the next European Commission, will be affected. The EP and the EU, too, will turn to the right.

Too many premises for a far-right shift to materialise?

The speculation rests on many premises. The first is that the two far-right groups in the EP, the Identity and Democracy (ID) group and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), will see their electoral support increase so much, compared to the EP elections of 2019, that a coalition with the European People’s Party (EPP), the predicted winner of the June 2024 elections, will be possible. Second, the electoral performance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) will be so low that a coalition between them and EPP will no longer be possible – a new parliamentary majority will be necessary. Third, the EPP will be willing to enter a coalition with the two far-right groups. Fourth, the liberals, the Renew Europe (RE) group in the EP, will be too small to form a coalition with the EPP and the S&D groups.  And fifth, the two far-right groups will be willing to join forces in a coalition with the EPP.

None of these five premises is certain. And the possibility that all of them will occur together in 2024 is very debatable. First, the magnitude of the expected rise in the vote for the ID and ECR groups is unpredictable, and predictions may be unrealistic. Last December, an average of polls produced by Europe Elects indicated that the ID may see its parliamentary seats in the EP increase from 73 in the current EP to 93; and the corresponding rise for ECR seats is to be from 62 to 81. Then, in February 2024, EUI’s own Simon Hix, in collaboration with Kevin Cunnigham, using a different methodology, made a plausible forecast about the rise in the vote for the far right. Such a shift is well documented by now.

However, this April, the same average of polls indicated that ID’s seats may increase only to 84 (instead of the 93 seats predicted in December) and ECR’s seats may increase to 86 (up from the 81 seats predicted last December). Thus, the total count of the far right’s predicated seats last December was 174; this April, 170 seats. Not enough of a sustained increase to justify fears, let alone press headlines, about a massive turn of Europeans to the far right.

Second, while the S&D will probably lose votes, they will most probably finish second, far behind the EPP. Last December, the centre-left group was forecast to win about 141-142 seats, while this April, 140 seats. It will be a poor electoral performance, but not a true electoral debacle incapacitating the S&P in the EP.

Will the EPP lose its mind?

Third, it is unclear why in the EP that will come out of the June 2024 elections, the EPP, that is forecast to win about 182-183 seats, will rush to substitute two new partners for its traditional coalition partner. It will need to substitute the two far-right groups, that may finish third and fourth in EP elections, for the second runner, the S&P. With two new partners, the EPP will risk making the winning coalition in EP more volatile than before and will subject itself to two different potential sources of blackmail before crucial votes are taken in EP.

Fourth, all the above presupposes that the RE group, currently competing in the polls with the two far-right groups for third place in the EP elections, will voluntarily exclude itself from a possible collation with the EP’s centre-right and centre-left, its natural partners. This April, RE was forecast to win 86 seats in the EP, roughly as many as each of the two far-right groups. In other words, there is no prediction showing that the RE will become so small in size, that it will be unworthy as a coalition partner of the EPP; nor is there a message from RE that across all policy issues, it will gladly stay in opposition to a parliamentary majority under EPP, if it can join it.

And fifth, the premise that the two far-right groups are rock solid companions in European politics, a debatable premise anyway, has just become shaky. In late May 2024, France’s far-right party National Rally (RN), a major protagonist of the ID group, split ranks with the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the other large party belonging to the ID group. The offered justification was a statement by a leading AfD official that not all SS members were criminals in Nazi Germany. The RN announced that it can no longer belong to the same EP group as the AfD. This may be a move to appease French voters who are suspicious of Marie Le Pen’s right-wing populist profile. But it is also an indication that the impact of the projected increase in the influence of the far right on EU politics after the June 2024 EP elections is far from certain. Such an influence is not only undesirable but also avoidable, depending, of course, on the outcome of the elections and on a far from certain abandonment of the strategy of “cordon sanitaire” that parties of the center-right and the center-left can still spread around EP’s far right.

Dimitri A. Sotiropoulos is Professor of Political Science at the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece. He was a visiting fellow at EUI’s Robert Schuman Centre from October 2023 to February 2024. He is a member of the Greek team contributing to EUI’s “EU&I”, the Voting Advice Application (VAA) for the forthcoming European Parliament Elections.

All opinions expressed in the blog section are solely of the authors.