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As the European Union (EU) steadily approaches the  2024 elections scheduled for June, attention is focused on the likely formation of a coalition between the conservatives (EPP) and the socialists (S&D). However, amidst this political landscape, a chorus of concern is emerging about the EU’s tendency towards authoritarianism, underlined in particular by democratic backsliding in Hungary and Italy (Pietrucci, 2023).

Projections indicate a potential consolidation of influence by two far-right factions, namely the Identity and Democracy (ID) and European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), alongside the independent Hungarian Fidesz, amounting to a considerable 25 per cent share of parliamentary seats (Wax, 2024). Concurrently, the proliferation of radical ideologies within the EPP poses a significant challenge to the wider European sphere, with potential ramifications that could threaten the stability of the Union.

This article explores the manifestations of far-right ideology in the European Parliament and highlights the conspicuous absence of robust countermeasures from the incumbent leadership, which appears poised for a further rightward shift in the forthcoming quinquennium. Despite explicit disavowals and refusals to engage with far-right elements, the EPP’s actions have brought it closer to factions with which it supposedly disagrees, blurring the lines between the far-right and the centre-right.

Democratic backsliding

While numerous scholars often assert the absence of authoritarian tendencies within the EU (Aprino and Obydenkova, 2020), a nuanced examination of this claim becomes imperative in the first quarter of 2024. Undoubtedly, the EU represents a mosaic of vibrant democracies, but the question looms: does this plurality equate to robust democratic health within EU member states and EU institutions?

In a seminal analysis, Katsambekis (2023) elucidates the concept of “mainstreaming authoritarianism” and sheds light on the current trajectory of democratic regression within the EU. The tacit acceptance of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s influence, evidenced by the adoption of her policy proposals, as well as the cordial relations with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, epitomise the EU’s recognition of and collaboration with leaders who espouse democratic distortions.

At the same time, a plethora of policies are openly facilitating the erosion of democratic freedoms in the aforementioned countries (Lendvai-Bainton and Szelewa, 2020). From the removal of legal protections for same-sex unions to the adoption of draconian migration policies, including pushback strategies and the curtailment of democratic institutions, the question inevitably arises: how does the EU intend to foster cohesion and ensure its continued viability in the face of such breaches of law within its fold? Moreover, the convergence of Italy and Hungary with the supposed values espoused by the EU warrants critical scrutiny.

The recurrent inability to address such states extends to the emerging tolerance and even accommodation of authoritarian tendencies within ostensibly liberal democracies across Europe. In particular, the case of Greece underscores the symbiotic relationship between the EU leadership and the incumbent New Democracy government, where concerns about violations of media freedom (Papathanassopoulos et al., 2021), secret surveillance of politicians and journalists, and the controversial pushback policy at borders (OLOF, 2022), marked by reports of deaths and mistreatment of migrants, have been met with a notable lack of EU intervention.

New European dynamics

The resurgence of the far-right since the end of the Second World War has occurred in waves (Mudde, 2014), but has so far been largely inconsequential in shaping policy agendas. However, if current predictions are borne out, the influence of far-right parties in the EU Parliament could wield considerable sway over policymaking processes, marking a watershed moment in which their voices gain unprecedented prominence.

Despite President von der Leyen’s insistence on non-cooperation with these factions, recent developments suggest a different trajectory (Guardian, 2024). Notable examples include the cordial rapport with Italy’s government and the collaborative efforts with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to address Sweden’s NATO membership issue (Reuters, 2024), which subsequently facilitated the unfreezing of EU funds for Hungary. These developments underline the extent to which EU leaders are willing to engage with ostensibly divergent authoritarian strongmen.

Furthermore, the future looks increasingly bleak for the EPP. The revelation of the party group’s new manifesto in March 2024 confirmed fears (Gwyn Jones, 2024), with the official endorsement of a migration scheme reminiscent of the UK’s Rwanda plan (Limb, 2022), aimed at “fortifying Europe’s borders”, alongside a notable shift to the far-right. Concurrently, there is a clear tendency to dismantle environmental policies, with significant far-right opposition to von der Leyen’s Green Deal. EPP now seems to be adapting to this new reality by courting far-right voters with anti-environmental views.

Instead, the EPP manifesto is dominated by an increased emphasis on strengthening defence and augmenting support for Ukraine, indicating the EPP’s capitulation to internal pressures. The palpable metamorphosis of the EPP underscores a shifting landscape in which political dialogue with far-right contingents within the European Parliament is no longer out of the question.

A pivotal moment

Amid these developments, it is important to recognise the strategic role that the socialists in the European Parliament can play in shaping overarching policy trajectories. They have the potential to bring coherence to the parliament’s deliberative processes, potentially mitigating the prospect of a chaotic legislature from 2024 to 2029. Some of the S&D’s red lines extend to the protection of marginalised groups, including migrants, and to environmental policies. Cooperation between the two parties could therefore prove difficult, particularly given the EPP’s ideological shift ahead of the next elections.

Regardless of the electoral outcome, two salient observations deserve attention. First, European conservatism is moving inexorably to the right, influenced by domestic political dynamics and the rise of the far-right across the continent. At the same time, European bureaucrats are tacitly acquiescing in this shift, often resorting to fearmongering about the far right while simultaneously engaging in alliances or acquiescence that subtly normalise the policies and rhetoric espoused by such factions.

Second, the transformation of the centre-right spectrum is leading to a drift towards more pronounced far-right positions, resulting in a blurring of ideological boundaries that could strengthen extremist factions into increasingly formidable positions of influence. The spectre of conservatism looms large against the backdrop of a discernible trend towards far-right electoral behaviour, posing formidable challenges that can only be mitigated by a concerted effort by centre-right parties to avoid the mainstreaming of far-right ideologies.

In conclusion, the upcoming EU elections have profound implications for marginalised communities and disenfranchised groups, who are left vulnerable by the dominant policy trajectory of the EPP. At this pivotal electoral moment, mainstream political entities must strengthen the foundations of democracy and staunchly reject authoritarian tendencies in European politics.


Note: This article reflects the views of the author and not the position of the DPIR or the University of Oxford. 



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