The Populist Radical Right in the New European Parliament

European Union flags against European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium.

The 2024 European Parliament elections have justified fears of the rise of the populist radical right (PRR) and a potential shift towards more right-wing policies over the next five years. While pro-European parties will still maintain a majority in the new parliament, the populist radical right has registered significant gains, however with varied performances across countries and regions.

By Emilia Zankina & Gilles Ivaldi

The 2024 European Parliament elections have justified fears of the rise of the populist radical right (PRR) and a potential shift to more right-wing policies over the next five years. While pro-European parties will still maintain a majority in the new parliament, the populist radical right has registered significant gains, however with varied performances across countries and regions.

A Good Day for the Populist Radical Right

Overall, populist radical right forces have won nearly 180 seats, making up 25% of all seats in the new European parliament. The largest contingents come mainly from France’s Rassemblement National (National Rally, RN), Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), the Polish Law and Justice (PiS), the German AfD and Hungary’s Fidesz. These five parties alone account for more than half of all far-right elected representatives.

Notwithstanding such magnifying effects, these results reflect the electoral consolidation and increasingly the mainstreaming of those parties across Europe. The current popularity of the populist radical right is rooted in the multiple crises to which EU citizens have been exposed since 2008 – the financial crisis, the 2015 refugee crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic and now the war in Ukraine and cost of living.

Ironically, some of the largest gains have come from the EU founding countries. Most striking is the win of National Rally (RN) in France with over double the votes of President Macron’s coalition. As a result, Marcon called snap parliamentary elections in an attempt to reaffirm a pro-European majority – a risky strategy that is already bringing political chaos that analysts compare to madcap reality TV– strikingly resembling David Cameron’s political gamble on Brexit 10 years ago.

In Germany, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) has come in second ahead of Chancellor Scholz’s social democrats. The Christian Democrats have registered a decisive victory, but at a cost of shifting their rhetoric to the right, especially on topics such as migration. 

As expected, Brothers of Italy registered a resounding victory, cementing prime-minister Giorgia Meloni’s position at home and making her a key player at the European level, a few days before hosting the G7 summit. While she has upheld a firm pro-European position on security and foreign policy matters, she has been critical of EU’s policies on climate, migration, and social issues.

Following the formation of a new coalition government, Geert Wilders Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands also placed second, just 4% behind the leading Green and Labor party. The Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) was the winner in the elections with a slight advantage over the Christian Democrats. Austria and the Netherlands have for long been a fertile ground for the populist radical right who have enjoyed not only representation in parliament, but also in government.

In Hungary, Viktor Orbán gained the most votes in a system that is ever less democratic, though, his Fidesz party showed the worst ever results in a European parliament election. Orban’s dominance was challenged by a former party member who ran on an anti-corruption platform. Péter Magyar’s Tisza party scored almost 30%, giving hope for democracy in Hungary. More to the right, Fidesz was also challenged by the rise of Our Homeland Movement (MHM) about 7% of the vote.

In Poland, the fragile government majority managed to maintain its upper hand over the Law and Justice party (PiS) which has systematically eroded democratic institutions over the past decade. Such good news notwithstanding, PiS will be sending a solid 20 MEPs to the European parliament, making it the second largest member of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) after Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia (24 seats).

In addition to these big wins, we witnessed a surge in the representation of smaller populist radical right parties across Europe. The Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR) came second (although far behind the leading pro-European grand coalition), as did the Latvian National Alliance and the Cypriot National Popular Front. The Slovak Republica and the Croat Homeland Movement came third, as did the Spanish VOX and the Portuguese Chega. In Bulgaria the Revival party surpassed the social democrats – the oldest party in the country, and the Swedish Democrats (SD) gained an additional seat. 

Together these parties could shift the European Parliament further to the right. The saving grace for the pro-European majority is that they are not united and split across three groups in the European parliament – the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) led by Meloni and the Polish PiS, the Identity and Democracy (ID) around Le Pen and Wilders, and the non-attached. Orbán, whose party was expelled from the European People’s Party (EPP), has urged Le Pen (ID) and Meloni (ECR) to join forces with his non-attached Fidesz party and form what would be the second largest group in the European parliament. The dynamics and negotiations in the coming weeks among these populist radical right actors will determine their overall leverage and likely impact on policy matters.

A Real Threat or Politics as Usual

The clear winner of the elections is the European People’s Party (EPP), which gained 12 seats for a total of 190. The Socialists and Democrats (S&D) secured 136 seats, only a few seats below their representation in the previous parliament. The big losers of the election are the liberals with Renew Europe losing 22 seats and the Greens who lost 20 seats. Still this gives the pro-European parties a majority of over 400 seats in the new 720-seat parliament.

Despite such majority, the populist radical right is likely to have greater influence over key policy matters. Although divided over security questions, economics, and the war in Ukraine, populist radical right parties are much more united in their positions on climate change, migration, and enlargement. While Ursula von der Leyen speaking on behalf of the EPP vowed to create “a bastion against the extremes,” it remains to be seen whether the EPP will seek support from the radical right on certain policy matters and whether we might notice an overall shift to the right in the European Parliament’s agenda.

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