By Norbert Rebow
With the elections to the European Parliament set to take place next week much about the future of the European Union in the coming years is shrouded in mystery. One thing that seems relatively clear, however, is that the trend of an increase in the representation of parties to the right of the European People’s Party (EPP) in the Parliament is set to continue in these elections. The past five years have seen the emergence, strengthening and consolidation of support for right wing parties opposed to the EU establishment and the current direction of the European project. Whether these groups and their views will hold sway in the formation of the new Commission and the term of the new Parliament will depend much on the extent to which they are able to coordinate their actions. As the deputy prime minister of Italy and leader of La Lega, Matteo Salvini, tours Europe in search of allies, let us take a look at the likelihood of his goal of unity on the European right.
Before we start to make predictions about the new parliament, we should take a look at the current state of play. Three blocs sat to the right of the EPP in the outgoing European Parliament – the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) with 76 seats, Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy with 41 seats (EFDD) and Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) with 37 seats. The ECR was the third largest group in the parliament and taken together the total of 154 seats reached by the three groups together was still less than the second largest Socialists and Democrats grouping on 186 seats.
Why has there been this level of fracturing on the right? One thing that needs to be pointed out is that the ECR has been a distinct force, often calling themselves Eurorealists and being termed as soft Eurosceptics. For most of its existence, all the national parties that formed part of the group were committed to keeping their countries in the EU while often being critical of the direction the Union is taking and, in some cases, calling for powers to be returned to Member States. While this still remains the stated stance of the group as a whole, the largest party in it, the British Conservative Party began to support its country’s departure from the EU in 2016. While the group has been sceptical of transferring more power to Brussels it has also traditionally been a champion of the development of the single market, supporting initiatives and legislation that brings down barriers for businesses operate across the Union.
Meanwhile the EFDD and the ENF for most of this parliamentary term consisted of hard Eurosceptics with many of their constituent parties calling for referenda on the departure of their countries from the EU. With this key factor in common we may wonder why they never formed a united bloc. The EFDD formed around UKIP while the ENF was originally organised by the French Front National. Citing differences on economic policy and concerns about “prejudice and anti-Semitism” UKIP refrained from entering an alliance with Le Pen’s party in 2014. With any participation of the Brexit Party and UKIP in the new parliament set to be temporary, the partnership options for other hard Eurosceptic parties are now unlikely to make a choice to go with their British counterparts.
It is not only Brexit that makes today’s situation different. Some of the parties of the ECR, most notably Poland’s Law and Justice, have found themselves at odds with the European Commission and others over issues including migration. Meanwhile, some previously hard Eurosceptic parties have changed their tune. After her defeat to Emmanuel Macron, Marine Le Pen dropped her party’s demand for a Frexit referendum, instead seeking to shape fundamental changes to the EU. Similarly, in Italy Matteo Salvini has dropped his party’s proposals to take Italy out of the Euro while continuing to criticise the European institutions, especially over the migration crisis and its impact on Italy.
Could this seeming convergence in political orientation lead to a stable alliance of the right? It is not immediately obvious that it will. Matteo Salvini has certainly made great efforts to build a pan-European coalition, visiting leaders across the EU, most notably in Warsaw and Budapest and launching a new grouping last month. This new project has gathered the Lega with right-wing parties from Austria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland and Germany along with the National Rally in France. The absence of Law and Justice and Fidesz, however, is glaring in the context of building a bloc whose weight will be felt in the new parliament.
One problem facing efforts like Salvini’s is the question of Russia. Along with Marine Le Pen, he has argued against EU sanctions on Russia, seeking a better relationship with Moscow for Italy and the EU. This runs completely against the committed position of Law and Justice to a hard and united European position against aggression from Vladimir Putin’s government. Given Poland’s geopolitical position, Law and Justice is sceptical of movements toward a change of course which could make it difficult to make common cause with parties that downplay the threat from the Kremlin.
Another issue is the perspective with which the potential member parties approach the EU and the categories of success for a joint movement. Both La Lega and Law and Justice have come to describe their agendas in European terms – the goal of their proposed reforms of the Union are presented as improving the relationship of EU citizens with the institutions and ultimately ensuring the sustainability of the European project. Meanwhile, listening to a recent Euronews interview with Marine Le Pen in which she repeatedly bemoans the fact that the French state pays more into the EU budget than it gets out of it, it is difficult to escape the impression that behind the statement that she would now fight to reform the Union there is little willingness to make the compromises that would make such a movement for change work.
There is little doubt that the realities of European politics have changed massively over the past five years. Parties of the anti-establishment right will be stronger in the coming parliament than the last and that they are being pushed closer together as they seek a way forward without Britain in the EU and with support for Union membership rising among voters across Europe. These processes are still in flux, however, and continued disagreements may very well preclude a joint bloc forming when the new MEPs take their seats in July. These developments will not suddenly stop though and Matteo Salvini’s efforts may come to fruition in years to come.
Sources used in this article:
 https://www.france24.com/en/20190505-le-pen-hungary-poland-far-right-european-parliament-alliance-salvini-populists https://www.euronews.com/video/2019/04/04/le-pen-dreams-of-nationalist-supergroup-exclusive-interview