An all-too-familiar spectre is haunting Europe, one that reliably appears every five years. As citizens head to the polls to elect a new European Parliament, observers are once again asking whether far-right anti-European parties will gain ground and unite to destroy the European Union from within.
To be sure, sceptics of this doomsday scenario have always argued that the far-right will remain divided, because nationalist internationalism is a contradiction in terms. But it is more likely that specific policy disagreements – mainly over the Ukraine war – and drastically diverging political strategies will prevent Europe’s various far-right parties from forming a “supergroup.”
Before the last parliamentary elections in 2019, Europe was transfixed by the idea that Steve Bannon, an American political operative promoting himself and the dark arts of populism, was going to work his magic to unite the bloc’s far-right parties. But most observers failed to realise that the alliance envisaged by Bannon and his acolytes was, in fact, illegal. And while the far-right performed well at the polls that year, it remained split between two major groups in Parliament: Identity and Democracy (ID) and the slightly less Europhobic European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). Predictions that the far-right would paralyse Parliament – similar to the Republicans who regularly threaten to shut down the US Congress – proved unfounded.
At the same time, the conventional wisdom that stridently nationalist parties cannot unite across borders reflects historical ignorance and political complacency. In the 19th century, anti-imperialist liberals from across Europe coalesced around the principle of national self-determination and helped one another in various struggles against the Habsburg and other empires.
True, if chauvinistic nationalism were ascendant in every EU member state, negotiations in Brussels would likely be harder than they already are. But far-right parties are converging on a vision of the EU itself and, after the debacle of Brexit, have disavowed plans to leave the bloc. Instead, they seek to minimise the role of the European Commission, making its president into a mere “employee” of the member states, as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban put it last year. This almost Gaullist vision of a “Europe of fatherlands” is far more acceptable to voters who fear that drastic measures like quitting the EU would lead to chaos.
But fundamental policy differences stand in the way of a unified far-right. Orban, who has been pushing for “occupying” rather than divorcing Brussels, is advocating an alliance between French opposition leader Marine Le Pen, whose National Rally party is the driving force behind the ID group, and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, the heavyweight figure in the ECR. But Le Pen is infamously soft on Russian President Vladimir Putin, while Meloni has gained international standing by being a staunch supporter of Ukraine (which has blunted criticism of Meloni’s authoritarian domestic policies).
Furthermore, Orban, who withdrew his Fidesz party from the mainstream conservative European People’s Party (EPP) in 2021 to avoid being expelled, is closely aligned with Putin – more so than Le Pen. So, it is difficult to imagine Fidesz, which is eager to join the ECR after the elections, having a harmonious relationship with Meloni and Poland’s stridently anti-Russian Law and Justice party.
There is also the problem of diverging political strategies. Le Pen, her sights set on the 2027 French presidential election, is continuing her strategy of dédiabolisation. To “de-demonise” her National Rally party – formerly called the National Front – and render it acceptable to the mainstream requires making it look more like a reputable centre-right party than a fringe nationalist movement (while simultaneously blaming the political chaos in the fractious French parliament on the far-left).
As part of this effort, Le Pen has been distancing herself from the historical revisionism of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party’s previous leader who notoriously called the Nazi gas chambers a “detail” of history. So, when Maximilian Krah, the leading candidate for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, claimed that not everyone who wore a Nazi SS uniform was a criminal, it was a gift for Le Pen. By insisting on the AfD’s expulsion from the ID group, she could prove her party’s intolerance for revisionists.
But not every far-right party seeks de-demonisation. Politicians who bet on radicalisation usually want to draw the mainstream closer to them, not the other way around. After all, conservatives and Christian Democrats have been increasingly willing to form coalitions with the far-right. Even those who refuse to work with these parties often adopt their rhetoric, giving legitimacy to their positions.
It seems unlikely that Europe’s far-right parties will unite (although if they did somehow manage it, their group would be the second-largest in the European Parliament). But the continued mainstreaming of the far-right means that these parties will almost surely remain influential. This reflects more the centre-right’s weakness and opportunism than the far-right’s strength. As the Dutch scholar Cas Mudde has emphasised, if the EPP’s right flank continues to court Meloni – or even threatens to abandon a mainstream coalition with Renew Europe and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats – far-right parties might realise their goals, from abolishing asylum to weakening the European Green Deal, even if they never officially come to power. – Project Syndicate
  • Jan-Werner Mueller, Professor of Politics at Princeton University, is the author, most recently, of Democracy Rules (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021; Allen Lane, 2021).