EuropeEurope Letter

Downplaying the far right’s momentum is an exercise in wishful thinking

Election results across the European bloc illustrate a clear trend

Jack Power 12-06-24
What next for Europe? Illustration: Paul Scott

As results from the elections across Europe began to come through on Sunday night, an interesting narrative quickly grew, that the predicted surge of the far right had not really materialised.

Some observers and journalists pointed to countries where nationalistic populism had failed to make inroads, or where far-right parties underperformed on the day compared with opinion polling during the campaigns. As was expected, the existing majority of centre right, liberals and centre left parties in the European Parliament held up, a little narrower than before but still healthy.

That does not mean EU politicians and policymakers should put the feet up and relax. In France the surge of Marine Le Pen’s far right National Rally has caused a full-blown political crisis. There was no question of the opinion polls there having overestimated the support for Le Pen’s party, which took twice as many seats as Emmanuel Macron’s camp.

The fallout was immediate, with the French president dramatically dissolving the National Assembly. Macron is gambling that when the stakes are higher in these snap parliamentary elections, voters will back the centre over the far right. If he is wrong and Le Pen wins a resounding victory, that will seriously destabilise French national politics, possibly for years to come.


In Germany Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) came second in the elections, with huge support in the east of the country, despite a campaign that stumbled from scandal to scandal. Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom won the most seats in the Netherlands, as did the Freedom Party in Austria, while Vlaams Belang topped the poll in Belgium.

Hard-right populists and nationalists won the elections in Italy and Hungary, coming a close second in Poland and Latvia, while also gaining seats in Spain and Romania. Overall the hard right, from conservatives such as Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy to the far right AfD in Germany, will take more than a fifth of the seats in the next parliament.

Admittedly when you are dealing with 27 separate elections, with varying issues dominating the campaigns in different countries, it is always going to be difficult to fit the sometimes contradictory results into a neat narrative. And in some countries such as Finland, Sweden and Denmark, the extreme right wave did not materialise. The far-right Chega party also underperformed in Portugal, finishing third but failing to repeat its strong showing in parliamentary elections earlier this year.

Still, EU leaders would underestimate the momentum behind the electoral gains in France, Germany and elsewhere at their peril. The hard right had already succeeded on one really important front long before a single vote was cast. It had dragged the European People’s Party (EPP), and as a result the centre of gravity in the parliament, to the right.

European elections: The winners and losers, from Meloni to MacronOpens in new window ]

The centre right EPP, which is the political family of both European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and Fine Gael, remained the biggest group in parliament, bucking the trend that saw all other centre parties lose seats. In the past year the EPP’s strategy has been to ditch more progressive policies in areas such as climate and the environment, for fear of driving farmers and rural voters into the arms of more right-wing parties. Its strong election result means it is unlikely to change course in the next parliament.

In the Irish context, several right-wing candidates who took hardline stances on immigration polled strongly. Some outright far-right figures received more first preference votes than mainstream party candidates, with a handful winning council seats in the simultaneous local elections.

The only thing the European far right hates more than the centre and the left is each otherOpens in new window ]

The EU passed major reforms to toughen up asylum policy across the bloc earlier this year, which must be introduced across member states within the next two years. Far-right parties have said this migration pact does not go far enough. In the meantime, a voter walking past tents of homeless asylum seekers in Paris or Dublin in recent weeks will not have come away with the impression the system is coping.

The election results show the Irish Government and counterparts in capitals across Europe need to find a way to manage asylum that cuts off the oxygen the issue gives to anti-immigrant parties. How to do that without going down the route of adopting the same extreme position of the hard right is a circle EU leaders have been trying to square for the past 10 years, without much success.