Europe’s right in free fall as socialists surge

Martin Schulz and his socialist counterparts around Europe have profited from dwindling support for the far-right. [Roman Yanushevsky/ Shutterstock]

Marine Le Pen and the German far-right are suddenly losing votes but it remains to be seen how long the strong socialist rise led by Martin Schulz and Benoît Hamon will continue. EURACTIV’s partner Treffpunkteuropa reports.

For a long time it looked like the far-right forces of Marine Le Pen and Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) were on an unstoppable upward trajectory.

But since October 2016, the far-right’s share of the vote is no longer on the up. Since the beginning of the year, the parties of the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group in the European Parliament have even begun to lose support.

The right’s waning star is thought to be a backlash following Donald Trump’s election victory and the subsequent shortcomings of his administration, as well as declining media interest in refugee and migration issues. Germany and France’s leading socialist candidates have caused a number of surprises in recent polls as a result.

If the current trend stabilises then the National Front’s (FN) Marine Le Pen, who is looking to be elected president of France in April-May, and Geert Wilders, who wants to propel his Party for Freedom (PVV) to political relevance on 15 March, then they stand to fail on both counts.

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The European far-right’s open fraternisation with now US President Donald Trump has played a not insignificant role. Many Europeans, even those leaning to the right of the spectrum, are thoroughly unconvinced by Trump’s time in office so far. Diminishing media interest in the refugee crisis has also robbed those parties of a drum to bang, born partly from falling numbers arriving due to the winter weather and column space saturation.

Far-right parties in both Germany and the Netherlands have employed radical Islamophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric to scare up support. The ENF group’s EU-wide share of the vote has fallen by one percentage point to 7.5% since the beginning of February.

The fact that this is not just an isolated national phenomenon is reflected in the performance of other ENF across Europe. Austria’s Freedom Party (FPÖ) has dropped by 1% to 31%, the AfD has fallen three points to 12%, the FN is down 1% to 26%, Wilders’ PVV has decreased by 2% to 14% and Slovakia’s SNS has dropped a point to 10%.

Italy’s Northern League has remained stable at 13% and no February data was collected for Belgium’s nationalist Vlaams Belang party.

Falling support for the right has also had the knock-on effect of boosting Europe’s social-democrats to new highs. Le Pen’s loss has been their gain and support has spiked from 20.5% to 23.5%.

Two individuals have been chiefly responsible for this fresh enthusiasm. Benoît Hamon’s unexpectedly strong showing so far in the French presidential race and Martin Schulz’s soaring popularity in his quest to unseat Angela Merkel as German chancellor have been a boon to social democrats around Europe, in Finland, Denmark and Sweden.

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The French candidate has seen his support climb from 6% to 14% since he secured the Socialist Party’s nomination.

The Schulz effect has contributed to a rise in support for the Social Democratic Party (SPD) from 23% to 31%. Again, Trump’s travails have done their part to bring people back to the fold. But how long Schulz, Hamon, et al’s fortunes will remain favourable is still unclear.

But their rivals, the European People’s Party (EPP), are weaker than ever. If European elections were held today then the group of Jean-Claude Juncker and Merkel would pull an estimated 21% of the vote.

Guy Verhofstadt’s ALDE group has seen its fortunes rise by half a point to 8.5% since last month and Nigel Farage’s nationalist EFDD group dropped a point to 6.5%.

The Greens and the Left (GUE/NGL group) each dropped half a point and are now polling at 4.0% and 7.5%, respectively. A similar fate has befallen the Conservative ECR group, which is now on 9%.

An estimated 6% of voters would support parties unaffiliated to any of the main groups and would therefore support the non-affiliated portion of the European Parliament. That includes 27 politicians from the left-liberal movement of French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, En Marche.

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Currently, 49 unaffiliated MPs would make up that group. It is unclear at the moment if En Marche would align itself to any of the groups at the next election.

The allocation of seats in the Parliament is not directly proportional but at 189 seats currently, the S&D group would be the strongest force and the top candidate for Commission president would come from their ranks.

A decision on who would stand will be made before the 2019 legislature begins and current Commission VP Frans Timmermans and S&D group leader Gianni Pitella are likely to be the favourites.

ALDE looks set to regain third spot from the ECR, which would take 85 and 81 seats, respectively.

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