Europe’s Center Is Holding — by Integrating the Far Right

This weekend’s European elections saw a swing to the right, including big gains for anti-immigration parties. In most cases, far-right forces have abandoned calls to leave the EU — but they are increasingly able to set the bloc’s own agenda.

Friedrich Merz, chairman of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and Ursula von der Leyen, lead candidate of the CDU for the European elections and president of the European Commission, arrive at a press conference after the CDU Federal Executive Committee meeting in the Konrad Adenauer House, Berlin, Germany, June 10, 2024. (Sebastian Christoph Gollnow / picture alliance via Getty Images)

Would Giorgia Meloni prefer to partner with the “mainstream pro-European” Emmanuel Macron or else the “far-right outsider” Marine Le Pen? Ahead of this weekend’s elections to the European Union’s parliament, much punditry on the EU’s future speculated on the next moves by the Italian prime minister — deemed a potential “kingmaker” in Brussels coalition-building or else a partner in a new nationalist international. Rival far-right candidates accused Meloni of sucking up to the French president (and to the EU’s top official, Ursula von der Leyen); some more proudly Europeanist commentators hoped Macron and Meloni could “join forces to save Europe.” But now, with Macron calling snap elections that could easily vault Le Pen’s party into the national government, perhaps Meloni won’t have to choose one over the other after all.

International media veneration of Meloni as a pragmatic actor in EU politics generally relies on a near-indifference to specific policies, so long as the overall European project holds together. Her party is by this point committed to changing the EU from within, and also relatively stable at home. It scored 29 percent in Sunday’s vote, beating its 2022 general election score and outclassing its often-disruptive coalition partners in the Lega (8 percent). The results also confirm that Italian prominence in EU politics reflects the weakness of the bloc’s usually central French-German pairing and the tailing-off of its postpandemic economic relaunch. In France, Macron’s list scored 15 percent, versus 31.5 percent for Le Pen’s Rassemblement National. In Germany, scandals over Nazi-indulgent views in the Alternative für Deutschland (which rose to 16 percent) did not stop it defeating the ruling Social Democrats (14 percent), whose coalition partners (Greens on 12 percent, Free Democrats on 5 percent) also scored abysmally.

In general, the far right increased its numbers, though the language of insurgent outsiders ill befits what is now an established part of the EU political landscape. In fact, looking at the election as a whole, the change was pretty incremental. Overall seat totals suggest that in the new 720-member parliament, which has grown by fifteen seats since 2019, the center-right European People’s Party gained about nine seats, the Social Democrats lost two, the Left lost one, Greens and Liberals lost about twenty each, and the various strains of the far right added on about thirty or so, mainly in France and Germany. In Italy the far right came first, but this wasn’t new: the fourteen seats gained by Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia were all at the expense of the Lega. The center left performed well, while Macronesque extreme centrists like Matteo Renzi lost out. In Spain, Meloni’s allies Vox gained two seats, but the mainstream parties’ vote also held up; in Poland, Law and Justice lost out, to the benefit of both the softer right and the harshly nationalist/right-wing-libertarian Konfederacja.

Still, if these comments put the far right’s advance in relative terms, the events in France look like the most important, for now at least. Macron’s government had, already since June 2022, lacked an absolute majority in parliament. Now reaching the nadir of its support, he seeks yet another duel with Le Pen, often his chosen political adversary in forming his own “antipopulist” coalition. Yet, critics have also seen this as a double act in a different sense. Before his initial election seven years ago, graffiti across Paris proclaimed “Macron 2017=Le Pen 2022,” expressing the left-wing belief that — far from a “barrier against populism” — Macron and his neoliberal-hawk policies would feed social grievance and thus help the Rassemblement National to eventually triumph. We’d already seen him at work as economy minister in François Hollande’s disastrous center-left government, and he promised that he would turn France into a “start-up nation.” His language of entrepreneurial dynamism expressed contempt for “slackers” but also working people who expected to hang on to a stable job and then get a good retirement at the end of it.

In this sense, Macron’s attacks on the French social model have been unsurprising, as has the police authoritarianism against protesters like the gilets jaunes or opponents of his pension “reforms.” This surely explains part of the far right’s rise. Le Pen’s party denounces Macron’s antisocial measures but also the protests against them — and benefits from the despair and cynicism that results from their defeat. But there is more to it than this. Macron ministers’ efforts to capture part of Le Pen’s agenda — damning “Islamo-leftists” and welfare-scrounger immigrants, or accusing the far-right leader of going “soft on Islam” — have surely gone further than was expected of a nominally liberal government in promoting the far right’s talking points and easing its path to the mainstream. The snap elections that Macron called last night could well produce a so-called cohabitation, an often-conflict-ridden situation where France’s president and the prime minister belong to different political camps. But in policy terms — including an immigration bill passed in December thanks to Le Pen’s votes — such coexistence has been long in the works. If the far right does surge, we would likely see a push-me-pull-you between a weakened head of state and a Rassemblement National seeking to dominate the domestic agenda.

Learning to Get Along

In France, establishment center-right admirers of Meloni have often contrasted her positively with Le Pen. These include the likes of businessman Alain Minc, who claims that while the Italian premier has “entered the circle of reason” and “fallen into line” with the nostrums of support for NATO and respect for EU-monitored budget balancing, the French far-right leader remains less easily contained. Surely, some in the Rassemblement National, notably lead European candidate Jordan Bardella, have responded to this by seeking to place the party on a more respectable and Atlanticist course; the party is in any case today far from the kind of anti-euro sentiment that it promoted in the mid-2010s in the era of adviser Florian Philippot, and has over the last decade recruited a handful of candidates from the historically more mainstream Gaullist right. Civil servants and business leaders are surely hoping to prepare a “soft landing” as Le Pen’s party approaches power, and the election called by Macron — perhaps bringing the Rassemblement National into government well before the 2027 presidential election — could help grease the wheels.

It seems as if Le Pen’s party has the wind in its sails. Ever less anathemized, it draws on an increasing share of the wider right-wing vote, as it also expands into more middle-class parts of the electorate, especially in small-town France. Its victory in the June 30/July 7 snap election is hardly certain: there are also counterforces on the Left, and the two-round electoral system continues to put up barriers to Le Pen winning outright majorities. But in France as across Europe, there is no firm cordon sanitaire between the bourgeois right and the parties that were until a few years ago labeled a threat to democracy itself. In calling this election Macron is, quite obviously, not afraid of letting Le Pen win. Lacking a clear project for the EU other than a return to austerity, unable to chart an independent course in foreign policy, and frightened by the possibility of a Trump victory in November, Europe’s establishment is finding ways to integrate bits of the far right, first with Meloni, seemingly next with the Rassemblement National. This process has moments of conflict — as will any cohabitation between Macron and a far-right prime minister, or some “independent” chosen by Le Pen. But the “pro-EU liberals vs national populists” framing is clearly ever hollower.

Asked in a preelection TV debate why his party used to want a referendum on leaving the EU but has now abandoned this objective, the Rassemblement National’s Bardella said “you don’t quit the negotiating table when you’re about to win.” The same could be said of the far right also in other countries, and the general decline of “euro-exit” type forces in the 2024 EU election. Whatever their many differences, these parties can also find their own ways of talking about Europe, compatible with the EU institutions. In a campaign ad, the Sweden Democrats praised the different parts of European culture seen as under threat from immigration. It was an homage to a continent of cars, cold beers, and short skirts, all imperiled by the gang wars and pro-Palestine protests brought by Muslims. The video, from a party that once favored quitting the EU, was a love letter to Europeanness — and ended proclaiming “My Europe Builds Walls.” This is the continent as a way of life, a civilization under threat, perhaps a bit like what EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell called a “garden” that needs protecting from the “jungle” of the outside world.

Meloni’s experience in government has shown that the far right can indeed find its place within this “garden,” indeed as one of its ardent defenders. In recent years there was much hand-wringing about national populists who threatened to break up the EU, whether by design or through ill-costed spending plans. But after this campaign, it looks increasingly like these forces will accommodate themselves to it — and that the establishment will find out that they have ways of working together.