With the European Parliamentary elections just two months away, the final result seems all but decided. “A far-Right takeover is underway,” warn the experts of Foreign Policy. “This time, the far-Right threat is real,” add the prophets of Politico. And, give or take their hyperbolic use of “far-Right”, these cautions are warranted. Even though the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) will remain the largest group in the Parliament, the biggest winners are expected to be the two groups to the Right of the EPP: Identity and Democracy (ID) and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). According to the latest polls, the latter two groups alone could account for more than 20% of MEPs, and have almost as many seats as the EPP alone.

If we add those MEPs from Right-wing parties that are currently not affiliated with any group, such as those from Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz, a Right-populist coalition could potentially emerge for the first time in the history of the European Parliament, unseating the “super grand coalition” of the three centrist groups (EPP, S&D and Renew Europe) that currently rule the EU institutions. That’s easier said than done, however. Aside from the near impossibility of an alliance between the EPP and ID, Europe’s Right-populist parties are far from a united front. In fact, with polls showing a very tight race between the ECR and ID for the position of third-largest party in the European Parliament, the two groups — and their respective unofficial leaders, Giorgia Meloni and Marine Le Pen — are currently engaged in a fierce battle for the leadership of the European Right.

This was brought into stark relief earlier last week, when the ID group — which includes Matteo Salvini’s League in Italy, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France, the AfD in Germany and the Freedom Party of Austria — gathered in Rome for a convention. Salvini and Le Pen reaffirmed their refusal to support a second mandate for EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (VDL) and slammed Meloni for not ruling out a deal with the EPP over VDL’s re-election.

Over the past two years, Meloni has developed a close relationship with VDL, even joining her on European diplomatic visits to Tunisia and Egypt to curb migration. The reason is rooted in self-interest: Meloni sees the prospect of maintaining a powerful ally in Brussels as vital to her government’s survival, even at the cost of disappointing voters and her own coalition ally. Le Pen’s concerns, on the other hand, are very different: as she gears up for a showdown with Macron, she needs every disgruntled vote she can get.

“Giorgia… will you support a second von der Leyen term or not?”, Le Pen asked in a broadcast to ID delegates. “I believe so. And so you will contribute to worsening the policies that the people of Europe are suffering from so much.” In her message, Le Pen also urged Italian voters to oppose Meloni and vote for Salvini’s League. André Ventura, the leader of the rising Portuguese party Chega, also backed Salvini at the congress. “We’re not going to lie to ourselves: we’re watching ECR’s support for von der Leyen very carefully because it’s going to be a very, very divisive element,” concluded Mathilde Androuët, president of the ID Foundation.

For her part, Meloni continued to dodge the issue: “The problem is not the president of the Commission, the problem is the majority that supports the president, because it is this majority that decides policy in Europe,” she said. The important thing, Meloni argued, is to achieve “a centre-right majority” within the European Parliament — even at the cost of a possible compromise with VDL.

Despite her best attempts to paint a rosy picture, the episode was indicative of the growing strains within Meloni’s coalition: being the junior partner of an increasingly pro-establishment government has been a disaster for Salvini’s popularity, hence his recent efforts to boost his populist credentials by marking his distance from Meloni over the EU — and enlisting the endorsement of a populist heavyweight like Le Pen. But there’s more to the Le Pen-Meloni spat than mere electoral calculus.

The question of VDL’s re-election is exposing deep rifts within the European Right — and not just between the EPP and the Right-populists. Even within the ECR group, many of the largest national parties — including the Law and Justice party in Poland, Vox in Spain and Reconquête in France — are strongly opposed to a second VDL mandate. Even more strikingly, VDL is facing opposition within her own group. The Republicans party, which represents France within the EPP, has also come out strongly against VDL’s re-election, denouncing her as “the candidate of Mr Macron and not the Right”. It’s thus easy to see why many of Meloni’s Right-wing “allies” are concerned by her relationship with VDL. Having one of Europe’s largest and most powerful Right-populist parties endorse a new “Ursula coalition”, together with Macron and the Socialists, would be a huge symbolic blow to any claim that Right-populism represents a viable alternative to the European political mainstream.

And yet, it would be a mistake to lay all the blame for this on Meloni. The reality is that the row over VDL’s re-election also reflects fundamental ideological disagreements between Europe’s Right-populist parties, particularly on geostrategic issues. The parties that make up the ECR, for instance, all generally have a strong transatlantic, pro-Nato orientation, and have come out in favour of military support for Ukraine. The firm criticism of Russia by the ECR group as a whole was recently illustrated by the co-signing of a joint declaration on further military support for Ukraine in January 2024, together with the EPP, S&D, Renew and the Greens.

“It would be a mistake to lay all the blame for this on Meloni.”

The ID group, meanwhile, is deeply split over the issue. Salvini’s League, which had previously sought close ties to Russia and Vladimir Putin, has now aligned itself with the political mainstream over Russia-Ukraine, while the Finns Party last year left ID for the ECR, largely due to disagreements over Russia. In contrast, both the National Rally and the AfD have taken a much more critical stance on EU-Nato support for Ukraine, while many parties within ID have either abstained or voted against every resolution relating to Nato relations. Similar fundamental differences exist in both groups on other crucial strategic issues — such as EU membership, European enlargement and China — as well as on social and economic matters.

Ultimately, however, the biggest obstacle to the emergence of a united European Right-populist front has little to do with the parties’ ideological differences, but is related to the nature of the European Union itself. Due to the degree of economic and financial control that Brussels exercises over member states, especially those that are part of the eurozone, even “populist” governments have little choice but to go along with the EU’s diktats.

After all, the EU has had no qualms about resorting to financial and monetary blackmail in the past, including against countries that are not part of the eurozone, as it recently did with Hungary after Orbán threatened to veto the bloc’s latest Ukraine support package. Brussels’s threat to sabotage Hungary’s economy was telling of the neocolonial mentality that dominates the EU establishment — and of how far the EU will go to bring recalcitrant governments to heel. The result is that populist parties, particularly in the eurozone, can afford to be radical only insofar as they are in opposition, but are forced to betray their electoral promises once they get into power.

This goes a long way towards explaining the differences between the ECR and ID groups: while the former includes several parties that have been or are currently in government, ID member parties have largely played an opposition role in their respective countries. If they were to get into government, they would quickly shed their radicalism, as others have done before them. Indeed, for all her criticism of Meloni, the truth is that Le Pen herself, in her bid to become France’s next president, is already undergoing a process of “Melonisation” — abandoning her anti-euro platform and softening her position on Russia-Ukraine and Nato.

All of which is to say that it would be naïve to assume that a Right-wing majority in the European Parliament would change this state of affairs, given that the real power in the EU is exercised elsewhere — in the Commission, in the Council and in the European Central Bank. Nor is there any guarantee that electing more Right-populist governments would create the conditions for “changing the EU from within”. Despite all the top-down efforts to “Europeanise” politics on the continent, European politics is still driven by national economic, geopolitical and cultural dynamics — and these will continue to differ starkly among nations regardless of the ideological affinity between governments. By refusing to acknowledge the elephant in the room — the fundamental and irreconcilable incompatibility between the EU and democracy — Right-populists across the continent are, once again, setting themselves up for defeat.

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Source: UnHerd Read the original article here: https://unherd.com/