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A populist surge is coming

Anti-establishment parties could be about to transform European politics.

Dominic Standish

Topics Politics World

The polls are projecting big wins for Europe’s right-wing, populist parties in this week’s European Parliament elections. While a lot can still change between now and polling day, a political sea-change in the EU is almost certain.

Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s prime minister and leader of the Brothers of Italy party, will likely have a pivotal role to play in any right-wing post-election groupings in the European Parliament. As it stands, Meloni is president of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group. It currently includes Spain’s Vox, the Sweden Democrats and Poland’s Law and Justice Party.

Ursula von der Leyen, currently seeking a second term as European Commission president, clearly thinks that Meloni is already in a powerful position. She herself is a member of Germany’s conservative Christian Democratic Union and the centre-right European People’s Party parliamentary group. Over the past two years, von der Leyen has been cosying up to Meloni on issues from Ukraine to migration. She clearly sees Meloni and the ECR as a valuable source of support.

Meloni is also being courted by Marine Le Pen, the parliamentary leader of France’s right-wing National Rally (RN) party. The RN is part of the hard-right Identity and Democracy (ID) group in the European Parliament. ID includes parties like Italy’s League and, up until its expulsion last month, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

Meloni has so far resisted Le Pen’s overtures to merge the ECR and ID. Instead she has talked vaguely of von der Leyen’s EPP, her own ECR and the ID groupings working together in a more loose arrangement. She has said that her objective is to form a ‘centre-right majority [in the European Parliament] which will send the left into opposition in Europe’. This week’s elections, sending a raft of new right-wing MEPs to Brussels, could help Meloni realise that objective.

In some ways, the rightwards, populist trajectory of European politics is no surprise. Anti-establishment parties from across the continent have recently been bolstered by popular resistance to the EU’s ‘Green Deal’ policies. These have prompted large-scale protests from farmers in the Netherlands, Germany, France and many other European countries. Farmers in each country have their own specific grievances, from tax breaks to livestock quotas. But they are united in their opposition to green policies that have been imposed on agriculture by Brussels from on high. Last month, Polish workers also staged mass demonstrations against the EU’s Net Zero policies.

During the election campaign, populist parties have tried to channel public opposition to the EU’s green policymaking. As well as rallying behind farmers, they have also drawn attention to the high cost of the EU’s energy-efficiency regulations, and the ban on the sale of almost all new combustion-engine cars and vans from 2035.

It is not just the EU’s green policies that are driving support for right-wing, populist parties. Many younger Europeans are increasingly concerned about the dire state of Europe’s economies and the ongoing migrant crisis. As a result, support for the AfD in Germany has risen among people under 29 from 12 per cent in 2023 to 22 per cent this year. In the Netherlands, 31 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds now support the hard-right Party for Freedom (PVV), which won the 2023 Dutch election. Similarly high levels of youth support for right-wing parties have been recorded in France, Finland, Belgium and Portugal. Many of Europe’s populist parties appeal to a large cross-section of society, not just ‘angry, old, white men’ as the caricatures would have it.

This week’s elections present a significant opportunity for anti-establishment parties – and a big danger for the centrist mainstream, whose policies are turning off voters in droves. Europe could well be on the verge of a radical transformation.

Dominic Standish lectures for the University of Iowa and works with the Collins College of Business Center for Energy Studies at Tulsa University. He is the author of Venice in Environmental Peril? Myth and Reality.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics World

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