A steady increase in individuals leaning more towards the right-wing politically has been observed over the past years, with the upcoming European Parliament (EP) elections, scheduled for June 6th to June 9th, 2024. This is seen as a pivotal moment that may shift the entirety of the European Union’s (EU) politics in that direction. A recent survey, conducted in countries representing 96% of the EU’s population, found that right-wing parties are increasingly gaining support. Populist parties, particularly the radical right-wing, are expected to perform better than at any point since the EP was first directly elected in 1979, while ‘progressive’ left-wing parties are expected to see a substantial decline in representation.

A model by The European Council on Foreign Relations, that used the results of the survey, forecasts that a populist coalition of conservatives and radical right could, for the first time, win a ruling majority in the parliament. Political observers attribute the trend to the breakthrough of right-wing parties in several EU countries, including most of EU’s so-called Inner Six: Italy, France, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. The results are expected to impact core EU policies, including migration policy, EU enlargement, EU’s ambitious Green Deal, and support for Ukraine.

The importance of the European Parliament elections

While the EP is not the most significant EU institution, especially when it comes to foreign policy, the alignment of political groups after the elections, and the impact of the elections on domestic debates in member states, will have significant implications on the EU’s policy choices over the next five years. Political influence within the EP determines the composition of the European Commission, the executive body of EU, as the leadership of the Commission would go to the parliament’s largest group. The parliament has over the last decade become more fragmented as mainstream parties have been losing ground and the anticipated success of far-right parties has raised concerns about the EU’s policy direction. Back in December 2023, the head of the EU’s foreign policy, Josep Borrell, warned that the increasing support for right-wing populists could potentially make the EU ungovernable.

Right-wing representation in the European Parliament

Both anti-establishment right-wing political groups within the EP – Identity and Democracy (ID) and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) – are expected to grow their representation. ID, dominated by Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, is third in the polls behind the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D). Other members of ID include the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV), Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), and Portugal’s Chega. Each of these parties has already gained a lot of support in their respective countries, for example Geert Wilders’ PVV won the general election in the Netherlands in November 2023 by a surprising margin. The support of both Vlaams Belang and AfD is also growing, with the latter now the second-strongest party in Germany. In Portugal, Chega quadrupled its number of parliamentary seats in March this year.

Narrowly behind ID is the ECR, with the Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni seen as its de facto leader. The ECR includes Poland’s former ruling party Law and Justice (PiS) that bounced back in recent local elections from its national election defeat in October 2023. In February, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán signalled the prospect of Hungary’s ruling party Fidesz joining the ECR, having so far been the one non-attached major party in the parliament, with such a move possibly increasing the political weight of the ECR.

An alliance between the ID and the ECR could lead to the far-right becoming the leading political force in the next parliament, ahead of the conservative EPP, which has dominated it in recent decades. Meloni is arguably one of the EU’s most popular leaders at the moment and her party Brothers of Italy is expected to have its best electoral performance ever in the upcoming EP elections. However, while polls predict right-wing and Eurosceptic parties winning a record number of votes, the divisions within and between different right-wing EP blocks and the lack of a single, coherent policy platform, could weaken their influence, despite their record support ahead of the elections.

Rise in populism and right-wing parties in the EU

Populist and far-right parties have been growing their support across the wider EU, with the Brothers of Italy’s Giorgia Meloni becoming Prime Minister in October 2022 marking a crucial moment. Meloni, often seen as a right-wing populist and nationalist, has somewhat unexpectedly been conventional and pro-Western in her foreign policy, and pragmatic in her domestic policy, since assuming power. Meloni’s strategy after assuming office has been to grow Italy’s influence within Europe by collaborating with the EU, not fighting it. With Meloni seen as a conventional and rational politician, she has reportedly also been approached by the European Parliament’s central-right group, European People’s Party (EPP), possibly in preparation for a post-election collaboration.

Meloni’s approach sets her apart from Le Pen’s rhetoric as well as her past ties to Russia. Le Pen has been vocal in demonstrating how ‘Macron’s Europe,’ as she calls it, is failing people, even if she no longer openly supports a French exit from the EU. Her party has vowed to tackle ‘authoritarian’ EU bureaucracy and advocates for a reform of EU treaties that would deprive the European Commission of its power to initiate legislation, turning the EU into a loose cooperation of member states. As a consequence, Le Pen is still seen as ‘toxic’ amongst EU policymakers. Despite this, her popularity has been growing at home, with Le Pen increasingly perceived as having severed ties with her extreme-right predecessor. For many, the National Rally has become a right-wing populist movement along the lines of Giorgia Meloni’s coalition government that appeared to be more radical before assuming power.

The rise of the far-right in Europe has been upheld by various factors: eroding support for mainstream political parties and a feeling that the European Commission does not listen to or care about local issues and instead favours causes of a ‘noisy minority,’ for example environmental activism or the exploitation of polarising issues of ‘culture wars.’ There is a perception in many rural areas, but also among general populace, that left-wing parties and issues have held power for too long and that decision makers in capitals do not understand or care about the needs of individuals living in less central regions. Exploitation of such themes is fundamental behind increasing support for ideologies that seek to undermine the EU or, in their most radical form, advocate for its demise.

Anti-establishment parties have done just that to capture voters who feel forgotten by decision-makers at home and among the elites of the EU, by focusing their narratives on such issues. A recent analysis of election data from 11 countries found that far-right parties won the majority of their votes in rural districts, in a trend that is likely to continue. Additionally, a report by an expert group, delivered to the European Commission in February 2024, noted that ‘a geography of discontent’ has been rising in long-term declining regions of Europe, with the desperation not limited to economic hardship but also expanding to a feeling of being politically disenfranchised. France’s National Rally, Germany’s AfD, PVV in the Netherlands, Chega in Portugal, and other similar parties are all building on this feeling of isolation.

What a right-leaning European Parliament could mean

The ‘turn to the right’ is likely to have significant consequences for EU’s policies, affecting its foreign, environmental, immigration, and economic policies. On foreign affairs, such as EU support for Ukraine, the majority in the next EP is likely to continue supporting Ukraine, including military aid. However, there are likely going to be more members of parliament, particularly in ID, who are more sympathetic towards Russia.

The results are also likely to have major impact on EU’s migration policy, which has always been one of the most divisive issues in national and EU politics. The new EP will likely support much more restrictive policies than today. In fact, the current change in the political landscape is generally seen as triggered by immigration issues, with large numbers of the surveyed electorate believing that the EU has failed on migration policy. A recent poll suggests that just 16% of European voters believe that the EU is managing the issue of ‘irregular,’ or illegal, migration satisfactorily. The migration pact adopted by the EP on April 10th, 2024, has additionally been criticised by both the right and the left.

The Euroscepticism of the right-wing parties is also likely lead to the EP supporting more economic, fiscal, and regulatory freedom for member states. The possible right-wing bloc is likely to vote against enforcing common rules and instead side with the growing number of member states pushing for less EU interference in national policies. A decreased left-wing representation in the parliament will also mean that in policy areas in which the left has tended to win by small margins, a right-wing majority will now be more likely to win.

However, the biggest policy implications are likely to concern environmental policy. The next EP is unlikely to support the current parliament’s environmental policies, seen by many as increasingly leftist and caving in to noisy activist groups. This would significantly undermine the EU’s Green Deal framework and the adoption and enforcement of policies to meet the EU’s world’s most ambitious net-zero target that aimed for Europe to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. The EU’s environmental targets, seen by many as unrealistically ambitious, have also likely been contributing to voters turning away from the current mainstream parties.

Following the European-wide ‘tractor protests’, the EU has already recently downscaled on its environmental policies, in an attempt to quell months of protests by angry farmers. A major European Union plan was also indefinitely postponed in March 2024, demonstrating the influence of farmers’ protests across the EU on the politics of the bloc. However, the influence on such concessions on the voters remains to be seen. So far, the tactic of tapping into everyday concerns as well as anti-immigration sentiment in Europe’s less affluent regions appears to be carrying dividends for far-right groups, who have also been gaining the support of protesting farmers, who are angry with EU’s officialdom, often perceived as distant and arrogant.

Closing thoughts

The 2024 European Parliament elections are expected to mark a significant shift towards the right, with populist and radical right parties gaining votes across the EU. Early polling data suggests right-wing parties, including populist and far-right parties, are leading in a number of member states, including most of the EU’s so-called Inner Six. This shift could lead to a populist right-wing coalition achieving a majority in the European Parliament for the first time, opening the path for different policies to be implemented across the EU.

However, while polls predict right-wing and Eurosceptic parties winning a record number of votes, the divisions within and between different right-wing EP blocs and the lack of a single, coherent platform, could weaken their influence. Nevertheless, the rise of far-right parties is reshaping European politics and is likely going to have a profound influence on EU’s foreign policy, policies on immigration, but especially its environmental programmes such as the European Green Deal, due to the new majority being highly likely opposed to such measures.

To see how Silobreaker can provide relevant insights to your organisation, request a demo today.