Europe shifting further right

Parties on the extreme right are threatening to become the strongest force in nine EU countries in the upcoming European Parliament elections. Under von der Leyen’s presidency, close cooperation with some far-right parties is being discussed.

BERLIN/BRUSSELS (own report) - In next June’s European elections extreme right-wing parties threaten to become the strongest force in a third of member states and the second or third strongest force in another third. This finding comes from an analysis by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), a pan-European think tank. The latest polls predict a major shift in the make-up of the European Parliament. The far-right ECR parliamentary group and ID group will together be stronger than either the Social Democrats or the conservative EPP. The study indicates that the EPP parties and Social Democrats are about to face significant losses. Although they might mathematically still form a narrow majority in an alliance with the liberal Renew Europe group, such a parliamentary coalition would be unstable and unworkable in practice. This is the background to a debate in the EU on whether, under conservative EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, forces on the far right should be embraced as partners after the election. The focus is on cooperation with the ECR group, which includes the Sweden Democrats and Vox from Spain. In the European Parliament this group is led by the ultra-right Fratelli d’Italia under Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

A ‘grand coalition’ in decline

This year’s European elections will be held from 6 to 9 June. The political groupings that have traditionally backed the policies pursued by the European Commission are likely to suffer painful losses. This is the conclusion of a study by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) based on numerous national polls. The analysis predicts that the seats taken by conservative European People’s Party (EPP) will probably fall from 178 to 173, Social Democrat MEPs from 141 to 131, and those of the liberal Renew Europe from 101 to 86. The Greens, too, are expected to see their representation shrink, taking 61 seats instead of 71. These losses add up to a shift with consequences for coalition options in the Parliament. According to the forecast, the ‘grand coalition’ of EPP and Social Democrats, which had already lost its absolute majority back in 2019, will now slip from its current 45 per cent to 42 per cent of seats. A potential ‘super grand coalition’ that includes Renew Europe would reach 54 per cent, creating a mathematical majority. But in practice it would fall short of having the numbers needed for a stable coalition in the parliament. This, as the ECFR study points out, is because parties within parts the political groups in the European Parliament frequently refuse to vote with the majority, reflecting the divergent national interests involved.[1]

The far right is gaining

The ECFR analysis predicts that parties of various shades of far right politics will make significant gains. They are likely to become the strongest force [2] in nine countries and the second or third strongest [3] in nine others. They have already claimed the leadership of the Italian government, with Giorgia Meloni of the Fratelli d’Italia party as prime minister. They have prevailed in Netherlands, although Geert Wilders of the Partij voor de Vrijheid narrowly failed to become prime minister. The hard right now hold the post of deputy prime minister of Finland (Riikka Purra of The Finns party). They have participated in a coalition government in Austria in the form of the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ) and been tolerated in Denmark (Dansk Folkeparti). The radical-right spectrum also includes, according to the ECFR analysis, Hungary’s governing party Fidesz, with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and Poland’s only recently ousted ruling party PiS (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość) under Jarosław Kaczyński. In Germany, the far right is mainly organised within the AfD. In the European Parliament, the parties of the far right have so far been loosely united either in the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group or the Identity and Democracy (ID) group. The ECR, centred around the Fratelli d’Italia and the PiS, can hope to increase its number of seats from 67 to a predicted 85. The ID group, formed around Austria’s FPÖ, the Italian Lega and the French Rassemblement National (RN), is likely to be the big winner, growing from 58 to 98 seats. There is also a sizable number of mainly extreme right-wing MEPs who are not attached to any group.

Coalition options

If the ECFR forecasts are even close to coming true, the ECR and ID will hold around 25 per cent of the seats in the European Parliament, being jointly represented by more MEPs than either the EPP or the Social Democratic group. This trend means that new coalitions are slowly becoming feasible. If the EPP and Renew Europe decided to drop their cooperation with the Social Democrats and switch to an alliance with the ECR, they would have almost 48 per cent of the seats. If the EPP partnered with both the ECR and the ID, this alliance could unite 49 per cent of all seats, exceeding its current 43 per cent. And if at least a few non-attached MEPs from the extreme right are added to the mix, then a conservative ultra-right coalition would be at least mathematically possible for the first time in the history of the European Parliament. Regardless of the potential alliances, there is little doubt that the political climate in the European Parliament will clearly change. For one thing, we will see a further tightening of the continent’s defences against refugees. And there will be greater internal repression. Measures on climate change will be significantly weakened, following the existing pattern of vociferous rejection by parties on the far right.

The EPP-ECR dialog

In Brussels, the debate on future coalition options kicked off long ago. It seems clear that Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has excellent prospects of being re-elected. The conservative EPP, her base, will most likely manage to form the strongest group in the Parliament once again. This “centre-right” grouping admits to its “dialogue” with the ECR, ongoing for several years, including talks with the Fratelli d’Italia, the Polish PiS, the Spanish Vox party and the Sweden Democrats. Indeed, it is thanks to this relationship that the Latvian Roberts Zīle was elected as one of the Vice-Presidents of the European Parliament in January 2022. Zīle belongs to the ultra-right Latvian Nacionālā apvienība “Visu Latvijai!” – “Tēvzemei un Brīvībai/LNNK” (National Association “All for Latvia” – “For Fatherland and Freedom/Latvian National Independence Movement”), which works within the ECR. Italy’s Foreign Minister, Antonio Tajani, whose Forza Italia party is part of the EPP group anticipated a realignment back in May 2023, when he called for the EPP-ECR dialogue to continue after the 2024 European elections. In the Italian government under Prime Minister Meloni this dialogue has long been institutionalised, with Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia now playing a leading role within the ECR.[4] Observers of the EPP grouping speak of a systematic movement to the right.

The end of the cordon sanitaire

Over the last year Meloni, for her part, has engaged in very close cooperation with EU leader von der Leyen, focusing on preventing refugees from entering Europe. She travelled with the Commission President to Tunis in the summer of 2023 [5] and recently to Cairo [6]. Each mission had actually been initiated by Meloni and was designed to sign deals aimed at sealing off the Mediterranean from refugee boats. President von der Leyen recently came out with a first clear statement on possible coalitions after her likely re-election. She said she drew three “red lines” for membership of a right-wing coalition: she would only cooperate with forces that were firstly “pro-European”, secondly “respected the rule of law”, and thirdly supported Ukraine or “would fight against Putin’s attempt” to “weaken and divide Europe”.[7] As the example of Meloni shows, these lines will not exclude some of the ECR member parties. The Polish PiS and the Hungarian Fidesz are probably ruled out by the “rule of law” criterion. The Fidesz, which is currently not attached to a parliamentary group, is additionally ruled out due to its rejection of aid for Ukraine. Yet the “red lines” may not apply to other ECR parties. It is also unclear whether her formula might bring in the RN, whose leadership has now renounced Russia and no longer advocates leaving the EU. In any case, there is no doubt that the so-called cordon sanitaire, which has long been upheld as a virtuous block on the far right, is about to crumble – not only in national politics but also in the European Parliament.


[1] Figures here and below quoted from: Kevin Cunningham, Simon Hix, Susi Dennison, Imogen Learmonth: A sharp right turn: A forecast for the 2024 European Parliament elections. 23.01.2024.

[2] The nine countries in which parties of the extreme right may become the strongest force are Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Austrian, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary.

[3] The nine countries in which parties of the extreme right may become the second or thir4d strongest force are Bulgaria, Germany, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Portugal, Rumania, Sweden and Spain.

[4] Federica Pascale, Roberto Castaldi, Sonia Otfinowska: Italian FM says EPP-ECR dialogue should continue after EU elections. 12.05.2023.

[5] See also: Ab in die Wüste.

[6] See also: Geld gegen Flüchtlinge.

[7] Eleonora Vasques: Von der Leyen ponders conservatives parties joining centre-right in next EU Parliament. 22.02.2024.