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There’s a much bigger problem in the EU than the rise of the far right

Millions of voters across Europe no longer think the EU represents their interests. There are two things it must do

Protesters at a demonstration against the far-right and racism in Place de la Republique in central Paris on Tuesday. Photographer: Nathan Laine/Bloomberg

For at least the third European election in a row the EU was destined to be overwhelmed by a surging far right. Or, at least, that’s what the panicked headlines of much of Europe’s political commentary predicted in the run-up to last weekend’s elections.

However, once again, newspaper headline writers everywhere were disappointed by the more prosaic results. The centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) increased its seats while the centre-left Socialists and Democrats group (S&D) remained stable. Rather than the political centre weakening, it was the progressive side of the chamber (Liberals and Greens) that haemorrhaged support (up to 40 seats) – a trend particularly apparent among younger voters in France and Germany.

The unpalatable reality is that it was these losses that drove the gains on the harder-right aisle of the European Parliament. The centre didn’t break; the progressives lost the fight.

In part, this election emphasised just how poorly the political dynamics of the parliament are understood. The simplistic assessment of the far right as a unitary and coherent political grouping overstates their potential impact and exaggerates their power and reach. It also ignores how across much of eastern Europe and Scandinavia the far right underperformed expectations.

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Everything to the right of the EPP is composed of three distinct groupings. These have divergent goals in Brussels and dissimilar attitudes towards the wider European integration process. Yet, understanding how to divide, engage, sideline and weaken these differing elements is essential to Europe in strengthening its centrist spine.

First are the “constructive Europeans” that make up a sizeable element of the current European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR). These parties are critical (but not hostile) to the European integration process (although they favour a Thatcherite vision of nation states, not the federalist dream of most Eurocrats), they assist Ukraine and back the fundamental importance of the rule of law. Many are also strong advocates of the transatlantic relationship while being traditionally conservative on social issues. These parties include Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia, the Flemish conservative party (NVA) and the Czech Civic Democratic Party (ODS).

The second grouping comprise the “destructive Europeans”. These parties aim to torpedo the wider EU project from within. They campaign with a clear anti-EU, populist flavour often based on deliberately false narratives about European policies (such as migration). Most closely associated with Viktor Orban in Hungary, Marine Le Pen in France or the conservative PiS party in Poland, these groups happily accept EU funding while simultaneously seeking to undermine the EU’s credibility. These parties are currently spread across the ECR, the further-right Identity and Democracy (ID) group and the non-aligned MEPs.

Finally, the “anti-everything Europeans” comprise a hodgepodge of extremist views, conspiracy theorists, pro-Putin fanboys and old-fashioned bigots hanging out in the ID group and non-aligned members. Lacking any discernible vision for Europe, they are best represented by the current AfD party in Germany. Like most hard-right parties, the AfD seamlessly shifted from its starting purpose in 2013 – opposing the euro currency – to using migration (and Islam) as a tool to whip up anti-immigration fervour. Although espousing the mass deportation of “unassimilated citizens” to “a model state in north Africa”, the AfD came second in the European elections in Germany. They were the biggest party in almost every part of the old East Germany (excluding Berlin). That fact alone should be enough to convince Brussels that a business-as-usual approach is no longer tenable.

Rather two distinct, but interlinked, strategies must be implemented by pro-European parties if the slow drip of right-wing populism is to be staunched.

The first is a political strategy within the parliament. There the centrist, pro-European parties – led by the EPP – must divide and conquer. They must engage with the constructive Europeans on a topic-by-topic basis, while acknowledging not every vision of Europe must be that of the Brussels bubble – liberal, progressive and dreaming of a federal state. It is here that those on the pro-EU left of the political spectrum must put pragmatism over dying on every ideological hill.

This, in turn, should be followed by a process of sidelining and weakening the destructive and anti-everything Europeans through the use of a pro-European supermajority in the parliament. A process built on a more realistic (and slimmed-down) legislative agenda.

Second, it’s important to acknowledge that millions of voters now see the EU as an impediment to their economic security or social value system. An integration behemoth perceived as preaching a one-size-fits-all approach on everything from social norms to climate justice. Whether perceived or real, the resulting alienation remains the same. Therefore, the EU needs to remember (and refocus) on its core ingredients. Creating jobs, wealth and affluence through the single market. Getting back to the basics of protecting from unfair global competition, implementing a more realistic climate transition and remembering that border security – just like food security – is now an essential prerequisite for many European citizens.

Brussels should keep its eyes on the prize – deconstructing and disempowering their far-right bogeymen.

Dr Eoin Drea is senior researcher at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies in Brussels, the think tank of the European People’s Party