Far right expected to gain strength in European elections. Will divisions lessen impact?

A man in a suit walks behind police as members of the media point a microphone toward him.
Filip Dewinter, center, a member of the party Flemish Interest, or Vlaams Belang, speaks with the media in Brussels this spring. The far-right party is stridently anti-immigrant but is positioned to attract some support based on its separatist stance.
(Virginia Mayo / Associated Press)
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Europe’s far right is on the march.

Nationalist-populist political parties are expected to make major gains in continentwide parliamentary elections beginning Thursday, cementing a shift to the political right that has been decades in the making.

Far-right parties won’t win outright, polls indicate. But analysts say victory isn’t necessary in order to make a mark on overarching policy questions such as climate change, the war in Ukraine and immigration.

“The far right will not become the largest group in the European Parliament, but they will grow in strength,” said Matthijs Rooduijn, a political scientist at the University of Amsterdam. “It’s not only when they are in power that they have influence and affect the ideas of mainstream political parties.”


At stake are 720 seats in the European Parliament, the European Union’s only directly elected body representing all member states. As a “co-legislature,” it has limited powers, but it wields more authority on certain regulatory matters.

Polls forecast a high turnout as analysts point to a growing belief among the electorate that the Parliament’s actions can affect their daily lives.

Some 200 million voters spread across the 27-nation bloc are eligible to take part in polling that starts Thursday in the Netherlands and will continue through the weekend, when most votes will be held.

Lawmaker Geert Wilders walks amid a crowd.
Anti-Islam Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders of the Party for Freedom smiles as he poses for a picture during a campaign stop in the European election at a market in The Hague on Wednesday.
(Peter Dejong / Associated Press)

The outcome should be largely known by Sunday night, after the polls close in all the countries that took part, but it will take some time for the full implications to become clear. That is because national political parties that win representation in Parliament then arrange themselves into transnational groupings based on broad political affinity.

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Fringe ideas becoming mainstream

When it comes to far-right inroads in European politics, analysts sometimes invoke the French phrase cordon sanitaire, which originally referred to the boundaries of a quarantine zone during an outbreak of infectious disease.


The term has been repurposed to describe political barriers being breached as Europe’s traditional centrist parties move to cooperate with factions whose views they once considered extreme — for instance, on immigration.

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“This has been the far right’s greatest success — some of their ideas that were considered beyond the pale are things that voters have heard of now, and don’t shock them anymore,” said Marta Lorimer, a fellow in European politics at the London School of Economics.

That leads to scenarios like Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the powerful European Commission, musing in recent days about a potential coalition alliance between her party, now the legislature’s largest, and that of far-right Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who came to power in her home country via a political movement with neo-fascist roots.

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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen holds flowers and waves as people around her clap.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, center, has mused about a potential alliance between her European People’s Party and the party of far-right Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.
(Andreea Alexandru / Associated Press)

Von der Leyen needs a strong showing by her center-right European People’s Party — and a demonstrated ability to woo coalition partners — to propel her to a second term atop the EU’s executive body.

Heading into this vote, far-right parties have become adept at marrying hard-line stances such as climate change skepticism or harsh denunciation of migrants with popular or palatable causes. In Belgium, the party Flemish Interest, or Vlaams Belang, is stridently anti-immigrant but also positioned to attract some support based on its separatist stance. Another far-right staple is fiery anti-establishment rhetoric, which can tap into voter anger over inflation or high housing costs.


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Infighting among far right

But the far right is far from monolithic — which has also become clear as parties that once seemed like natural allies have scrambled to distance themselves from one another.

The once-resurgent Alternative for Germany, or AfD, was expelled last month from the hard-right Identity and Democracy grouping in the European Parliament after one of its leaders suggested that not everyone who served in the Waffen-SS, the World War II Nazi paramilitary force, should be viewed as a war criminal. Other scandals have plagued the party as well.

Even before the remarks by leading AfD candidate Maximilian Krah about the SS became public, Marine Le Pen, whose far-right party in France is expected to be a big winner in the parliamentary vote — and who hopes to become the next French president three years from now — had moved to break with the German party.

“A movement that has fallen under the sway of its most radical fringe no longer seems to me to be a reliable and suitable ally,” the newspaper Le Monde quoted Le Pen as saying.

Often, far-right party leaders “have a big problem — they’re all very big personalities with personal and domestic interests that make it so they don’t necessarily want to work together,” Lorimer said. “And they’re not necessarily very good at compromising.”

The war in Ukraine is already a wedge issue within the European far right. Meloni, to the surprise of some, has emerged as a strong backer of NATO and the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, while other populist leaders such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban are strikingly sympathetic to Russian President Vladimir Putin.


But coalition wrangling will have to wait until after the vote-counting. Depending on their populations, EU countries have varying levels of representation in the European Parliament. Tiny Malta has only six seats; Germany, the continent’s economic powerhouse, has 96.

This will be the first EU parliamentary vote since Britain’s 2020 departure from the bloc. Since then, the evident economic downsides of Brexit have quieted calls from nationalist figures to drag their respective countries out of the EU — but a number of far-right leaders have voiced renewed determination to work from within to dramatically reshape the bloc.

Although the European and U.S. political systems are very different, some analysts see broad dynamics at work on both sides of the Atlantic, and trends that might color American presidential politics.

For example, young Europeans are not necessarily flocking to progressive causes, polling indicates. Traditional centrist parties tend to count on backing from older voters, but young voters are interested in newer political groupings, some of them on the far right. In France, for example, Le Pen’s National Rally has a fresh young face: that of 28-year-old Jordan Bardella, who has made extensive use of TikTok as a campaign tool.

A man and woman stand and look at cameras.
The leader of the French far-right National Rally, Marine Le Pen, left, and candidate Jordan Bardella during a political meeting this month in Paris. Le Pen’s party is expected to be a big winner in the parliamentary vote.
(Thomas Padilla / Associated Press)

Among both young and old voters, nationalist-populist politicians benefit from a perception that traditional parties reflect the views and interests of an entrenched elite, said Rooduijn, the Dutch analyst.


“The message of European radical right is very similar to the message of Donald Trump,” he said. “And the rhetoric is very, very similar — nativist, exclusionary, authoritarian.”

Although far-right parties are generally viewed as a threat to European liberal democracy — exemplified by dramatic democratic backsliding in Hungary, led by Orban — populist messaging often helps foster a “veneer of democratic legitimacy,” Rooduijn said.

“They can claim they are the real democrats, because they represent ordinary citizens against an elite that doesn’t listen,” he said.