After Euroscepticism

European parliamentary elections mean different things to different people. For the Brussels press corps, they are an occasion for feverish speculation about who will get the ‘top jobs’ – the presidencies of the Council and Commission, the head of parliament, the High Representative for foreign policy – after days of horse-trading and backroom deals. For leaders of member states, they are an opportunity to increase their party’s share of MEPs and possibly lead a parliamentary grouping – winning power and prestige, plus negotiating leverage with other European nations. For opposition politicians, the EU parliament provides a useful (and lucrative) way to bide one’s time until political opportunities open up at home. Italy’s current foreign minister, Antonio Tajani, spent more than two decades there; Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage were also long-serving MEPs.

For the bloc’s citizens, meanwhile, the significance of the elections often lies in crystallizing national political struggles. The 2014 ballot marked the breakthrough of Podemos and the Five Star Movement, and allowed Syriza to push Pasok aside and become Greece’s leading electoral force on the left. In the UK, the 2019 vote functioned as a de facto second referendum on Brexit. In 2024, we were supposed to witness a reactionary sorpasso on a continental scale: a moment when populists and extremists would tear down the parliament’s mainstream political formations. Ursula von der Leyen, standing for a second term as Commission President, doubted whether she could maintain her ‘grand coalition’ of centrists and liberals, and reached out to Italy’s Giorgia Meloni ahead of the vote – signalling the prospect of a deal with the far right.

Yet, when the vote was held last week, talk of a landslide turned out to be exaggerated. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom gained six seats but was beaten by the centre-left and green coalition. Germany’s AfD surged from nine to fifteen seats, but lagged far behind the CDU–CSU alliance, which won a hefty 29. In Spain, Vox gained two seats but its vote share remained under 10%, while the Partido Popular claimed victory, coming four percentage points ahead of the governing PSOE. The True Finns also won less than 10% of the vote and lost a seat, while the Swedish Democrats gained one but finished in fourth place, behind the country’s mainstream parties and the Greens. The dominant groupings in the EU Parliament have also proven relatively resilient. The centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) gained nine seats, bringing its total up to 185, while the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) lost just two, bringing them down to 137. The biggest losers were the liberal Renew Europe and the Greens, shedding 23 and 19 seats respectively.

The two main far-right formations only gained thirteen seats between them; the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) now have 73, while Identity and Democracy (ID) have 58. There is little chance of the two uniting, and it is still unclear where the AfD – unaffiliated to either – will fit in. The ECR was set up in 2009 by the British Conservatives, who felt the EPP was becoming too pro-European. It represents the more moderate wing of the far right, and is not subject to the cordon sanitaire that excludes radical right MEPs from powerful positions in the parliament. Its members include Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia as well as Poland’s Law and Justice party. ID, by contrast, is considered beyond the pale, hosting Le Pen’s Rassemblement National and Matteo Salvini’s Lega as well as Estonia’s Conservative People’s Party.

What is taking place in the EU, then, is a rightward shift in the composition of the parliament, though at a slower-than-expected pace, with populist-nationalist groupings afflicted by deep divisions. The election results indicate that business-as-usual will continue. Von der Leyen has insisted that ‘the centre is holding’ and that her coalition will live to see another day, perhaps propped up by the Greens. The bloc’s main political currents seem willing to put aside their differences in order to maintain their hegemony. Yet, as many in Brussels are aware, this strategy of the grand coalition is liable to make the political centre look even more like an undifferentiated mass of power-hungry politicians, fuelling support for their opponents and causing problems further down the line.

The most exciting national contests were those that seemed to presage political developments on the domestic front. The strong performance of Péter Magyar – a Fidesz insider turned opponent and whistleblower – was interpreted, perhaps prematurely, as a sign that Viktor Orbán’s dominance was on the wane. In Poland, Law and Justice continued to decline, losing five seats and ceding further ground to Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform. Meloni ran a remarkably personalized campaign, telling her supporters to write ‘Giorgia’ on their ballot papers, and coming away with just under 30% of the vote along with 14 extra seats. Scholz’s SPD was meanwhile surpassed by both the main opposition and the AfD, prompting speculation about how much longer he can last in office.

It was France, however, that won the prize for the most drama at the national level. The Rassemblement National cast the elections as a referendum on Macron’s second term and won more than double the vote share of the president’s electoral formation. The Parti socialiste’s Raphaël Glucksmann emerged as a new figure on the centre left, winning thirteen seats – the same number as Macron’s party – for his new joint list. The other parties of the fractured NUPES alliance generally fared badly, although La France insoumise picked up 10% and nine seats. In light of the results, Macron has dissolved parliament and scheduled new legislative elections for 30 June and 7 July. This looks like an attempt to call the RN’s bluff. The far right says it is ready to govern – but should it win the upcoming ballot, its leader Jordan Bardella may well become Prime Minister, and Macron knows that it is difficult to maintain one’s popularity in that position.

Less commented upon is what all this means for the principle division in European politics: between the EU’s supporters and its critics. The political scientist Peter Mair once observed that the peculiar structure of this supranational body made it difficult for citizens to shape or contest individual policies. As a result, opposition to them necessarily took the form of opposition to the EU tout court. While Euroscepticism was prominent on the left throughout the postwar period, it became associated with the sovereignist and nationalist right from the 1990s onwards – emblematized by UKIP in the UK and the Freedom Party in Austria. This shift reflected both the implosion of the continent’s communist parties as an electoral force, as with the spectacular decline of France’s Parti communiste, as well as the wider left’s abandonment of the principle of national sovereignty, vividly captured in Pasok’s journey from arch critic of European integration in the 1970s to a loyal supporter by the end of the 1980s.

This year, while far right parties have made the most significant gains in the history of the EU, the elections also reflected the extent to which they have accommodated themselves to the institution. Strident Euroscepticism has been replaced with tepid reformism, exemplified by Meloni’s campaign slogan: ‘Italy Changes Europe’. Wilders, once an advocate of leaving the EU, swiftly abandoned this position as the campaign got underway. Le Pen likewise argued for ‘Frexit’ in the 2014 European elections but has since embraced a policy of ‘change from within’.

Western Europe’s far right parties have, in this sense, begun to replicate the strategies of their counterparts in Central and Eastern Europe. Law and Justice has been at loggerheads with Brussels for years, yet it never seriously floated the idea of ‘Polexit’. Fidesz frequently clashes with the EU over its treaty obligations, but it will not contemplate jumping ship. An exception to this reformist trend would seem to be the AfD, which still takes a hard line on leaving the Euro area and reintroducing the Deutschmark; yet this is by no means the party’s raison d’être, nor the cause of its success, which owes much more to its role in fomenting Germany’s culture wars.

One reason for this moderating tendency is Brexit: an event that, by provoking a constitutional crisis and failing to cut inward migration, taught Europe’s far right to be cautious about the merits of leaving the EU. Another is the continued support for the bloc among the populations of most member states. With groups like the RN and Fratelli d’Italia seeking to displace the traditional parties of the right by courting swing voters, anti-EU positions have become an electoral liability. Though the leaders of such parties are often presented as unflinching ideologues, in reality most of them are flexible pragmatists. Those that are too rigid, such as the AfD’s Maxmilian Krah, have typically found themselves marginalized. In recent years, Europe’s populist forces have been slowly assimilated into the Brussels hierarchy. This election may not have seen them rise to its apex, as some predicted. But it has shown that they are willing to ease their ascent by parting ways with Euroscepticism.

Read on: Christopher Bickerton, ‘The Persistence Of Europe’, NLR 122.