How strong is right-wing populism after the European elections?

Meeting between future EAPN members in Milan, shortly after the European Parliament elections. [Matteo Bazzi/epa] [Matteo Bazzi/ epa]

Following the European elections, a new right-wing alliance will be formed in the European Parliament. EURACTIV Germany looks into how influential right-wing parties will actually be from now on.

The fear of a shift to the right drove more voters to the polls in the European elections than we have seen in the past 20 years.

Right-wing and nationalist parties have gained a sizeable number of seats in the European Parliament. In Italy, France, Poland and Hungary they were even in the majority. The question now arises of how influential these nationalist groups will be in Brussels.

The European Parliament will be welcoming the European Alliance of Peoples and Nations, or EAPN. Initiated by Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, it is intended to gather a broad nationalist front in Brussels.

A “Europe of fatherlands” is the declared goal. On the weekend before the European elections, representatives of the planned alliance gathered in Milan and expressed their will to fight. The event was attended by tens of thousands of people.

Orbán in demand

Currently, the right-wing populist parties in the European Parliament are scattered in three different parliamentary groups. One of them, the EFDD faction dominated by the British UKIP, will dissolve if the UK leaves the EU.

Under Salvini’s plan, the new EAPN group will emerge from the “Europe of Nations and Freedom” (ENF) group. It includes nine parties that so far include the German AfD, the French Rassemblement National, the Flemish political party Vlaams Belang, as well as the Austrian Freedom Party FPÖ, and would bring together 73 parliamentarians.

Missing are the Polish PiS, which the EAPN has already refused to accept into the group, as well as the Hungarian Fidesz, which now sits with the European People’s Party.

Viktor Orbán, therefore, has a key role to play: he is still officially a member of Manfred Weber’s political group, the EPP. But, the group temporarily suspended Orbán’s party in March.

It is no secret that Salvini and Orbán get along well. In May, the Hungarian prime minister received his Italian colleague in Budapest, calling him “my hero and companion of destiny.”

But officially Orbán has not committed himself to the EAPN, possibly due to differences with Marine Le Pen, speculates Julian Rappold, a research associate at the German Society for Foreign Policy. Orban could also be joining his Polish colleague in the group of European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR).

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Divided on the issues

For the nationalist minority, it makes sense to form a group like EAPN, Rappold told EURACTIV. Anyone who sits in a parliamentary group and receives additional financial support is entitled to key parliamentary positions and is, therefore, more visible in the EU Parliament.

“But I am assuming that in the five years of the new European Parliament, we will be seeing the cracks with regard to certain issues, which could lead to tensions. And the overall voting power should be rather low.”

According to Rappold, there could also be clashes over the leadership role within the faction.

There is a broad consensus on the need to strengthen nation-states, the need to reform the EU and to limit its competences as much as possible.

But views differ widely on public debt, environmental protection, economic and social policy.

Italy is pushing for the distribution of asylum seekers among all member states, which the governments of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are strictly opposed to.

The AfD recently criticised Italy’s budgetary policy and is pursuing a liberal market course, something that is likely to be opposed by Le Pen’s Rassemblement National.

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And how far does one even want to be removed from the EU?

On the issue of how far one wants to be removed from the EU, there is no consensus even inside the national political parties. When AfD members initially called for a “Dexit” in their election programme, both party leaders Meuthen and Gauland intervened and softened the demand.

Disagreements between the nationalists are clearly reflected in their voting behaviours. In the previous legislative period, ENF parliamentarians were unanimous in their vote in only 69% of the cases, according to VoteWatch. Members of the political group Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) voted the same way in less than half of the cases.

As a point of comparison: the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament voted unanimously in 95% of the cases.

Battling for a majority

Even if the parties of the EAPN and the ECR were to settle their differences on certain issues, they would still be faced with a centrist pro-European majority – despite serious losses of votes by the two largest groups, the EPP and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D).

Parties in the European Parliament do not have to form firm coalitions but can form changing majorities depending on the topic, which is a special feat that characterises the institution. In this way, different majorities can always be formed.

“Of course, this will continue this way. But coalition-building will undoubtedly become more complex if a majority with different factions needs to be formed every time. You have to build bridges between the factions and that will delay the process. It could also be that more controversial issues are no longer on the agenda,” said Rappold.

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It is therefore very likely that the strengthened right-wing parties will at least be able to smash majorities on issues that are more controversial.

“So far, the goal of most populist parties has not really been to actively pursue politics. Instead, they have used the European Parliament as a stage to send their message back home to incorporate their issues on the political agenda. This will probably continue being the way they operate,” Rappold said.

Another challenge will be the people that take on the role of Commissioners. “The president of the Commission will have to use a great deal of diplomatic skill to ensure the Commissioners’ posts are filled. And large member states are insisting on a correspondingly important office,” Rappold said.

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Vetos in the Council of the EU

So what is the influence of right-wing populist parties after the EU elections?

On the one hand, the European Parliament is still controlled by a clear majority of pro-European forces. On the other hand, it will probably be more complicated to make decisions and more difficult to reach unanimity.

Particularly on issues such as climate protection, trade policy and security policy, the EAPN and the ECR could hamper majority voting.

In any case, Rappold sees greater potential for conflict in the Council, where individual states are capable of blocking decisions, for example on asylum policies, with a simple veto. This makes electoral victories of national populist parties in EU member states more dangerous for the EU than right-wing alliances in the European Parliament.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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