Europe’s Center Right Is Enabling the Authoritarian Turn

Ahead of June’s EU election, we’re again seeing alarmist rhetoric about far-right insurgents. But the authoritarian turn is happening already — driven by the conservative forces at the heart of the European institutions.

Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni (R), European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen (L), and French president Emmanuel Macron (C) during the EU-MED9 summit on migration in Malta on September 29, 2023. (Ludovic Marin / AFP via Getty Images)

Over the past two decades, a persistent narrative has emerged in European politics, warning of the far right’s encroaching influence. From the late 2000s through the 2019 EU election, this narrative has been fueled by catastrophic predictions and alarmist rhetoric — painting a picture of the potential dangers posed by extreme voices gaining ground in the European Parliament.

Recent efforts have even seen certain European leaders reach out to pop icons like Taylor Swift for assistance in mobilizing young voters for June’s EU elections. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen further made headlines on February 21 with her statement that she would not engage in collaboration with far-right parties in the upcoming European Parliament.

Yet such theatrics and overly dramatic exchanges are entirely unnecessary. Over the past two decades, a deliberate normalization of far-right ideologies has already come to pervade European politics, with the tacit approval of top EU bureaucrats. This normalization has been actively endorsed and championed by traditional center-right forces, now grappling to uphold their diminishing authority as the pivotal EU election approaches.

Despite Von der Leyen’s bold claims of steering clear of far-right alliances, the stark reality within both EU policy and domestic politics reveals a tangled web of acceptance and influence. Over time, center-right parties have danced dangerously close with their extremist counterparts, inadvertently greasing the wheels for the spread of authoritarian-style politics and agendas throughout Europe.

A Decade of Normalization

Mainstream center-right parties frequently like to portray themselves as victims of the rise of far-right movements. In reality they are actively contributing to their emergence. In recent years, far-right parties have exploited evolving sociocultural divisions by focusing on contentious topics like migration, multiculturalism, and security. Center-right parties have in turn strategically leveraged these issues in their bid to hold on to their electoral space.

One concerning example is Greece under Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who has long been lauded in the European Parliament as a center-right reformist. In the past five years, Greece has garnered trust and robust support from the Christian democratic European People’s Party (EPP), as it pivots toward increased spending following a decade of harsh austerity measures. However, behind the scenes, a disturbing pattern has been unfolding.

Since 2019, Mitsotakis’s government has spearheaded relentless illegal pushbacks of migrants across the Greek-Turkish sea and land frontiers, leading to the torture and deaths of thousands of refugees. Typically, when queried about pushbacks, the EU opts for silence. But in February, a resolution garnered multiparty support in the European Parliament, voicing concerns about significant threats to democracy and EU values.

Utilizing highly advanced illegal spyware, Mitsotakis has shamelessly surveilled both opponents and allies, igniting a political maelstrom by reshaping the Greek media landscape — a tactic mirrored by Hungarian premier Viktor Orbán. Meanwhile, rampant corruption persists unabated, with major political scandals conveniently swept under the rug. What could possibly go wrong?

Sadly, millions of Greeks seem to crave more of this. In the June 2023 elections, three far-right parties secured seats in parliament, including through the rebirth of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn under the guise of “the Spartans.” Another far-right faction called Victory peddles an ultrareligious narrative, whipping up cultural divides. But so-called Greek Solution has emerged as the vanguard far-right party, staunchly supporting Mitsotakis’s government and together systematically dismantling key laws. It now polls above 10 percent ahead of June’s European elections, with a fourth far-right entity surfacing in recent surveys, to add to the chorus of hatred.

French president Emmanuel Macron’s track record appears to rival Greece’s. In April 2023, he enacted his government’s contentious pension reforms, raising the state pension age from sixty-two to sixty-four — a deeply unpopular move that was pushed through by bypassing any vote in Parliament. All of this was followed by relentless police violence and crackdowns against protests. When confronted about police abusing their powers, Macron blamed social media and video games for driving rioters into the streets.

Macron’s overhaul of migration policy in December 2023 was another case in point. It imposed stricter regulations on family reunification for migrants and delayed their access to welfare benefits. Marine Le Pen seized upon the bill, labeling it as an “ideological victory” for her far-right party.

In other EU states, including the Netherlands, Denmark, and Austria, far-right parties have been a growing force for some time, with some even cementing their position within coalition governments. In this last country, the once-rising star of the conservative right, Sebastian Kurz, forged an alliance with the further-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) in 2017. Despite Austria’s historical ties to ultranationalism and the shadow of the Third Reich, which initially prompted widespread political caution toward the FPÖ, this trend of integration has substantially fed its gradual normalization and acceptance over the years. Today, the FPÖ commands a significant lead in Austrian polls.

Bad Boys of the EU

In addition to the adoption of authoritarian practices within liberal democracies, some EU member states have undergone a complete transformation in their political landscape, as exemplified by Hungary’s democratic regression under the leadership of Viktor Orbán. An openly authoritarian strongman, Orbán has faced widespread condemnation for his subversion of democratic institutions and his policies regarding LGBTQ rights and academic freedom. Consequently, Hungary has faced penalties and the suspension of EU funds over the years in an attempt to curb further erosion of democracy.

However, it appears that the EU has now acquiesced to Hungary’s troubling reality. In December 2023, a partial release of earlier-withheld European funds was announced, ostensibly to coax Orbán toward cooperation with NATO and discuss the potential membership of new candidates. The result? Orbán has officially endorsed Swedish NATO membership and engaged with his European counterparts. Once branded a pariah, Orbán’s authoritarianism is now openly sanitized as he is embraced as a valuable member of the EU. Brussels even offered assurances to Orbán that the funds would be unblocked if he continues down this path.

The discourse surrounding democratic decline extends to Italy’s new leadership under Giorgia Meloni. Since 2022, her government has wasted no time in dismantling legal protections for same-sex couples, relegating them to a marginalized status. Additionally, her hard-line anti-immigration stance has garnered praise from numerous European counterparts, who have openly aligned with her during pivotal EU policy negotiations in the past year.

Her visible camaraderie with Von der Leyen ahead of June’s election, along with her alliances with top EU diplomats, underscores Europe’s unsettling embrace of Mussolini’s remnants. Meloni’s domination signifies a troubling trajectory for Italy, where fascist ideologies now steer the nation’s course. With the Left struggling to gain traction, there seems to be little hindrance to Meloni embracing Orbán-esque politics with gusto.

Toward a Far-Right Parliament

In the June election for the European Parliament, anticipation mounts as the Identity and Democracy (ID) faction, currently ranked sixth, is poised for a surge of forty seats. This could vault the group to ninety-eight members in the 750-member European parliament — potentially securing it the coveted third position presently occupied by the liberals of Renew. Notable members of ID include Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) in France.

Projections also indicate that the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) faction, presently in fifth place with sixty-seven members, may be boosted by around eighteen seats. This advancement could propel the ECR group, which is led by Meloni’s party, into fourth position in the European Parliament, eclipsing both the Greens and Renew. Moreover, with the inclusion of twelve members from Orbán’s Fidesz party, the combined clout of the ECR and ID factions is forecast to represent some 25 percent of seats. While ECR and ID encompass similar factions, ID seems to play a pivotal role in assimilating far-right groups that oppose migration and prioritize robust sovereignty for individual member states.

Despite warnings from center-right parties, it is apparent that mainstream forces are unwilling to confront the ideological reality underlying the surge in support for far-right politics. Instead, they seem intent on attempting to win back the confidence of voters drawn to far-right ideologies by adopting strikingly similar approaches and normalizing the most undemocratic practices seen across the region.

It seems increasingly unlikely that center-right forces will resist alliance with the far right, given the blatant ideological overlap between them. Even Von der Leyen and her cohorts who have spoken of rejecting such pacts may be compelled to reassess their stance, seeking a modus operandi that ensures cooperation without descending into chaos.

As the normalization of far-right ideologies continues unabated, Europe stands on the cusp of a seismic shift, with multiple far-right forces poised to assert their dominance within the European Parliament. This reality, despite all the warnings, underscores the impending convergence of center-right and far-right forces, now united in their resolve to shape the policy agenda for the next five years.