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Europe’s Decelerating Drift

How serious is the continuing appeal of the far right?

Marine Le Pen of France’s National Rally party addresses the crowd at a rally before the European Parliament election, June 2, 2024, in Paris.,Artur Widak/NurPhoto via AP

There’s an old joke about European heaven and hell. In European heaven, the French are the cooks, the Germans are the mechanics, the Italians are the lovers, the English are the police, and it’s all organized by the Swiss. In European hell, the Germans are the police, the English are the cooks, the French are the mechanics, the Swiss are the lovers, and it’s all organized by the Italians.

Were last weekend’s elections for the European Parliament a step closer to European hell? Only a small one. The far right gained a bit of ground, but the gains were concentrated in a few places. Social Democrats and Greens lost big, especially in Germany, while the technocratic center was crushed in France. But the net swing to the far right overall was only about 2 percent.

The bloc of center-right and center-left parties will maintain a (slightly diminished) working majority of about 407 seats in the 720-member parliament, which means that European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, a German moderate conservative in the mold of former Chancellor Angela Merkel, is likely to be re-elected.

The French Renew Europe party of President Emmanuel Macron, an entirely personalist creation that rose and fell with Macron’s own fortunes, placed far behind the National Rally party of ultranationalist Marine Le Pen. Macron weirdly responded by dissolving France’s national parliament and calling a snap election for the French National Assembly, which Le Pen could well win. If she does, that would easily be the biggest aftershock of the elections.

In Germany, the SPD of Chancellor Olaf Scholz took a drubbing. Despite repeated scandals, which were supposed to hold down its relentlessly increasing support, the fascist AfD increased its vote from 11 percent in the 2019 elections to 16.5 percent this year. The AfD now has more seats in the European Parliament than the SPD.

In Italy, the EU’s third-largest member nation, the neofascist party of the popular prime minister Giorgia Meloni gained ground, winning about 28 percent of the Italian vote, doubling its representation. Meloni has been repositioning herself as more of a mainstream conservative.

The one large European nation where a progressive party is performing well and there is little support for the far right, Britain, is no longer in the EU thanks to the Conservative self-immolation in the Brexit crusade. The resurgent Labour Party might have sent scores of new deputies to the European Parliament, but Britain is no longer represented in Brussels.

Elsewhere, there were bright spots. In the Netherlands, the party of ultranationalist Geert Wilders, which placed first in Dutch national elections last November, picked up seats but placed slightly behind the Labor-Green alliance. In Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Spain, the far right lost ground. Even in Hungary, the far right was slightly weakened. In Poland, the governing Civic Coalition of the pro-EU moderate Donald Tusk maintained its lead over the nationalist extreme right. And in Hungary, while Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party gained the most votes, the opposition Respect and Freedom party, under former Fidesz regular Péter Magyar, made large gains, perhaps a prelude to a serious challenge at the next national election in 2026.

Even so, far-right parties govern in Hungary, Italy, and Slovakia, and are part of governing coalitions in Sweden and Finland, with the Netherlands likely next.

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WHY THE SLOW DRIFT TO THE EUROPEAN FAR RIGHT? One reason is the politics of immigration and refugees. Europe has a delicately balanced social contract in which citizens pay high taxes and get good public services. Large numbers of immigrants, who pay less in taxes but consume services, work for lower wages, and are culturally different, upends that contract. As social liberals, center-left parties have been more compassionate toward refugees, to their political detriment.

The more fundamental reason is the steadily worsening condition of Europe’s working classes and the general failure of mainstream social democratic and labor parties, which have been part of the neoliberal governing consensus, to provide fundamental relief. After more than a decade of austerity, the vote against the center-left and center-right is a vote against the status quo.

The failure of the far right to gain ground this time in Scandinavia may be due to the fact that Nordic social democracy, though weakened, still delivers substantial benefits to the citizenry. And in Finland and Sweden, where a conservative coalition includes far-right parties, a vote against the far right is, for now, a vote against the status quo.

History shows that the ultranationalist right gains when the mainstream abandons working people. Labor and social democratic parties in Europe have a long way to go before they win back the broad support of the citizenry.


Robert Kuttner is co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect, and professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School.