Europe and the right, again

Five years ago, I wrote a piece deflating slightly the claims of a far-right surge in the European elections. It’s time to do it again.

The narrative about last week’s elections for the European parliament (at least from what I’ve seen – I’m in China, so some media are inaccessible) has not been as simplistic as last time. Commentators have pointed, correctly, to the importance of the rise of the Greens and to the loss of the joint centre-right/centre-left majority.

Both of those to my mind, especially the latter, are good news: the control exercised in the past by an informal coalition of the two major groups has been one of the things most preventing the parliament from functioning like a normal legislature.

But the media have also been keen to push the idea of a far-right surge. And indeed it’s not without foundation: and when threats to democracy are concerned, over-alertness is generally to be preferred to complacency. Still, it’s worth looking at the actual numbers.

In the previous parliament, there were three groups that sat to the right of the mainstream centre-rignt group: European Conservatives and Reformists, whose main components were the British Conservative Party and Poland’s Law & Justice; Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy, whose biggest parties were the UK Independence Party and Italy’s Five-Star Movement; and Europe of Nations and Freedom, which was dominated by France’s National Rally (formerly National Front).

There was also a small number of ungrouped members (called non-inscrits) even further right, such as those from Greece’s Golden Dawn and Hungary’s Jobbik.

Parties and individual MPs shift groups from time to time, so it’s important to try to compare like with like. I’ve used the official results from last week’s election and compared them with the position immediately following the 2014 election, except that I’ve included the parties that subsequently formed ENF under that heading.

I’ve also created a separate heading for FIDESz, the governing Hungarian right-wing party, which was a member of the main centre-right group, the European People’s Party, in 2014 but was recently suspended. It may or may not join one of the further-right groups, but it clearly cannot be meaningfully called “centre-right”.

So here are the numbers:

ECR: 70 seats in 2014, down to 62 in 2019.

EFDD: 48 seats in 2014, up to 54 in 2019.

ENF: 41 seats in 2014, up to 59 in 2019.

FIDESz: 12 seats in 2014, up to 13 in 2019.

Others: 8 seats in 2014, up to 14 in 2019.

Grand Total: 179 seats in 2014, up to 202 in 2019.

Note that the increase in “others” is somewhat illusory, since it includes new far-right parties (such as Spain’s Vox, with three seats) that will probably join one of the other groups. (Although Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, technically a new party with 29 seats, I have allocated to EFDD with the old UKIP.)

Country by country, of course, there are ups and downs. Nonetheless, the overall increase of 23 seats is exactly the increase in the representation of Italy’s League (formerly Northern League), a member of ENF, which jumped from five seats to 28.

So Italy has a big problem. Also represented in the above totals is Brothers of Italy, with five seats, formerly part of the mainstream centre-right but now in ECR, as well as the Five-Stars, who lost three seats to drop to 14. All up that’s 47 seats, almost two-thirds of Italy’s contingent.

But elsewhere, the right-of-centre-right parties are basically static. The Conservatives lost heavily, accounting for ECR’s decline; Law & Justice was up seven seats; Alternative for Germany, which has moved from ECR to EFDD, picked up three seats; National Rally was down a seat, as was Austria’s Freedom Party (also in ENF).

The Dutch Party for Freedom has been wiped out (partly replaced by a more moderate right party), and Jobbik fell from three seats to just one. The Danish People’s Party lost three of its four seats.

It’s not clear whether all three groups will be able to continue in their present form. None of them have a problem with the required minimum of 25 seats, but they also have to represent at least seven member countries. EFDD is currently well short of that, and will be worse off still if Britain leaves: it may be able to poach some individual MPs from other groups, or there may be a more general reshuffling.

ECR’s future must also be in some doubt; the decline of Britain’s Conservatives (and their possible exit in any case) leaves it bereft of any claim to be “centre-right”. It is dominated by Law & Justice, with a sprinkling of other parties, many of which would seem equally well suited to ENF. But perhaps FIDESz could be accommodated there if the EPP is firm about keeping it out.

League leader Matteo Salvini went into the election with hopes of being the leader of a major far-right bloc that would transform EU politics. As far as his own country went, he has done all that could be expected. But his call has not been heeded elsewhere.

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