August 10, 2023 - 3:00pm

According to a Politico report, “Right-wing and Eurosceptic parties are set to surge in the next European election at the expense of centrist parties.”

Politico‘s polling analysis predicts that parties belonging to the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group could come third in next year’s European Parliamentary elections — they’re currently neck-and-neck with the liberal Renew Europe (RE) group, which is predicted to lose seats.

The European Parliament is presently controlled by a grand alliance of moderate pro-European conservatives, social democrats and the aforementioned liberals — which sounds like, and indeed is, an establishment stitch-up.

However, the rise of the populists means that an alternative grand alliance is conceivable — one that junks the social democrats and unites the Right. This really would be a breakthrough for the populists: having already ascended into government in a few member states, they now have a chance to remake the whole of the EU in their image.

Although national populism has re-emerged from its mid-Covid slump, it is nevertheless a long way from conquering all before it. For instance, the recent Spanish general election resulted in a major setback for the Vox party. Santiago Abascal’s abrasive campaign did not go down well with voters — and his party lost 19 of its 52 seats. It was such a poor result that the expected coalition with the mainstream conservative party ended up well short of a majority.

But, arguably, it’s when they do reach power that the populists really come unstuck. For instance, in Italy Giorgia Meloni ran on a promise of cutting immigration, but as Prime Minister she has felt compelled to accept increased levels of legal immigration to supplement the greying workforce. There was a further humiliation this week, when her attempt to introduce a windfall tax on the country’s banks was watered down.

But perhaps the greatest threat to the progress of the European Right is its own ideological incoherence. In the European Parliament, the grouping is split between two main alliances — the ECR and the more extreme Identities and Democracy (ID) group.

The key point of contention is over Russia. The ECR tends to be strongly pro-Nato, while the ID group is more sympathetic to Moscow. Since the invasion of Ukraine, the likes of Marine Le Pen have tried to downplay this aspect, but other ID parties — especially the AfD in Germany and the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) have leant into it.

FPĂ– MPs even went so far as to stage a walkout when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the Austrian Parliament — a move that hasn’t harmed the party in the polls. It is currently on track to be the first ID party to win a general election in Western Europe.

At a European level, establishment conservatives have declared themselves willing to work with some populist parties, but not others — thereby reducing the likelihood of a grand coalition of the Right. Meanwhile, within member states, rival populists often find themselves fighting one another for the same voters. There’s Le Pen and Éric Zemmour in France, for instance — and no fewer than five populist parties in the Netherlands. 

European populism, therefore, is an unseemly mess, incapable of uniting to get things done. Which may be the most European thing about it.


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

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