Nightmare scenario for European elections is now on the cards

Fracturing of European People’s Party presents opportunity to far-right

With elections to the European Parliament looming in May 2019, the plenary this week in Strasbourg, the beginning of the last session before MEPs face the people, was inevitably dominated by a determination to make the place appear relevant, energetic and sensitive to popular concerns.

But underlying much of the discussions was the recurring theme of the seemingly irresistible electoral rise of the populist, nationalist right and the neo-fascist far-right. That reality was confirmed by the success of the Sweden Democrats last weekend, although the party’s gains were less dramatic than predicted .

Parliament’s fightback was reflected in a first for MEPs, the move to invoke against Hungary the EU’s Article 7 disciplinary procedure to deal with member states who stray from European values and the rule of law. It saw the country’s defiant and combative prime minister, Viktor Orbán, come here to engage with MEPs in person.

As MEPs voted on Wednesday by a substantial majority to invoke Article 7, what was clear was the depth of anger at both Orbán’s determination, in the name of Christian purity, to keep out migrants, and his attacks on freedom of the press, NGOs, educational rights and democratic values.


That is the case even within the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), where the membership of Orbán’s Fidesz is a cause of serious embarrassment.

The party's expulsion from the EPP is now believed inevitable. Manfred Weber, the EPP's group leader and Spitzenkandidat (candidate for the European Commission presidency), warned that "We expect the Hungarian government to make a move towards their EU partners ... Fundamental values must be respected by all."

The EPP's reluctance so far to deal robustly with the Hungarian problem is in no small measure a function of the political landscape emerging for the European Parliament elections and notably the growth of the right. The Spitzenkandidat system, under which European Parliament party groups name their lead candidate for the commission job and then expect reluctant national leaders to forsake their own prerogative to endorse the candidate who emerges with the largest vote, is a natural fit for the EPP as the parliament's largest force.

Salvini recently met Orbán to discuss a joint anti-immigrant front and claimed they were 'walking down the same path'

But with the emergence of Emmanuel Macron in France eclipsing its French member-party, Les Républicains, the loss of the Hungarian bloc could also squeeze the party electorally and jeopardise its position, not to mention Weber's ambitions.

Indeed a nightmare Spitzenkandidat scenario is being widely touted – that a cross-Europe alliance of the nationalist and far-right parties around their own Spitzenkandidat could, with a fair wind, pass out the EPP and other parties to present the European leaders with a Eurosceptic commission president nomination.

Some suggest that a candidate best able to carry that flag for the right would be Italy's deputy prime minister and interior minister, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the Liga anti-immigrant party, which is in coalition with the Five Star Movement.

Salvini clearly has a European vocation and, observers suggest, could easily be prevailed on to stand. He recently met Orbán to discuss a joint anti-immigrant front and claimed they were “walking down the same path”.

He then signed up in Brussels to join "the Movement", the organisation that US alt-right, former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon hopes will provide a forum for Europe's divided far right.

We should not let Europe slide back into the past

An expanded populist representation in the parliament will make building legislative alliances more difficult and would promise a turbulent term. But a victory for their Spitzenkandidat nomination, whether Salvini or another, would certainly prompt a major political crisis. Such a candidate would prove completely unacceptable to European leaders, who would certainly find another candidate for the commission job.

The parliament has pledged, however, that it will not ratify any commission president who does not emerge from the Spitzenkandidat system. How a centre right/left majority of MEPs, which will certainly emerge from the elections, will execute a dramatic U-turn to block a Salvini-like commission candidacy will prove interesting.

This week in Strasbourg also saw an impassioned appeal from the Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, to "progressive" parties to form a common platform for the elections. Tsipras said it "will be more than just one more election, it will be a combat on the basis of principles and values", with pro-EU forces squaring off against "extreme neoliberalism and far-right populism".

“We should not let Europe slide back into the past.”

His call is unlikely to be heeded.