European Conservatives Face A Critical Choice Following Election Wins

HuffPost conducted reporting for this story in Amsterdam and Berlin as part of a trip funded by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a think tank affiliated with the center-left Social Democratic Party of Germany.Defenders of European liberal democracy breathed a qualified sigh of relief on Sunday after European Union voters gave mainstream center-right and center-left parties

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HuffPost conducted reporting for this story in Amsterdam and Berlin as part of a trip funded by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a think tank affiliated with the center-left Social Democratic Party of Germany.

Defenders of European liberal democracy breathed a qualified sigh of relief on Sunday after European Union voters gave mainstream center-right and center-left parties the largest number of votes, preventing the far right from the kind of surge that would reshape EU politics.

But Europe’s nationalist far-right parties still picked up a significant number of seats, shaking the political firmament in France and Germany — the EU’s two largest nations — in particular.

Leaders of Europe’s centrist conservative group, the European People’s Party, which will once again have the largest share of EU parliament seats, must now decide whether to solicit the support of the less extreme European far-right parties as partners in governance. How they choose to proceed could shape EU policy on immigration, climate change, rule of law, relations with the United States, and even support for Ukraine. It could also indicate what kind of international support former President Donald Trump, an ideological ally of the European far right, could solicit should he win a second term in November.

Katjana Gattermann, a politics expert at the University of Amsterdam who spoke to HuffPost and other reporters in Amsterdam last week, put it succinctly. The question facing European centrists and conservatives, she says, will be, “Do we normalize the far right more by collaborating with them? Or do we have a clear kind of cordon sanitaire against them?”

Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen, leader of the European People’s Party group, currently serves as president of the European commission, the executive body tasked with running the EU. Following Sunday’s vote, she still needs a majority of EU parliamentarians’ support to obtain a second five-year term at the helm, though she is seen as a prohibitive favorite for the post.

In 2019, von der Leyen relied on the votes of two centrist groups, the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats and the centrist liberal Renew Europe, to win the presidency.

The EU parliamentarian elected president of the council then tapped allies resulting in a makeup of the commission that included many left-of-center politicians and none from the nationalist right parties. But this time, von der Leyen has expressed openness to cooperating with the Brothers of Italy, the far-right party of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, which is part of the European Conservatives and Reformists bloc in the EU parliament.

Ursula von der Leyen (left) has said she is open to cooperating with Giorgia Meloni, Italy's far-right prime minister. Meloni has won goodwill by backing EU support for Ukraine.
Ursula von der Leyen (left) has said she is open to cooperating with Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s far-right prime minister. Meloni has won goodwill by backing EU support for Ukraine.

Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images

Meloni has won over one-time skeptics like von der Leyen with her stalwart support for EU backing of Ukraine in its war against Russia. The topic, which has surged to the top of mainstream EU lawmakers’ priority list, is a major wedge between far-right parties eager to build bridges with the center and others who are adamant in their support for rapprochement with Russia. In contrast with Meloni, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has sought to obstruct greater European backing for the Ukrainian war effort and has clashed with the EU over his domestic efforts to undermine the rule of law, is perhaps the most powerful figure in the latter camp.

“She is clearly pro-European, against Putin, she’s been very clear on that one, and pro-rule of law, if this holds, and then we offer to work together,” von der Leyen said in a late May interview.

Some centrists approve of mainstream conservatives’ willingness to co-opt Meloni and other far-right leaders, arguing that far-right parties are either capable of genuinely moderating once in power, or can be checked by stronger conservative parties.

In the Netherlands, for example, Geert Wilders, leader of the far-right Party for Freedom, has become a junior partner in the Dutch right-wing coalition government where his most authoritarian instincts are being reined in, according to Simon Otjes, a Dutch politics expert at the University of Leiden. During his latest campaign, Wilders toned down his normally vicious Islamophobic rhetoric, declaring his commitment to be “prime minister for all Dutch, regardless of their religion, sexuality, color, gender or whatever,” and vowed to respect the Dutch constitution. And during coalition talks, Wilders — whose newfound moderation earned him the moniker “Geert Milders” by some commentators — submitted to an arrangement where he would not become prime minister, despite his party getting the most votes.

“This is part of how the system functions. It’s good that they’re moderating.”

– Simon Otjes, University of Leiden

“There’s no indication in [Wilders’ party] that they’re going to abandon the key elements of democracy,” Otjes told HuffPost and other reporters in Amsterdam last week. “This is part of how the system functions. It’s good that they’re moderating.”

But progressive Europeans see mainstreaming figures like Meloni or Wilders as a slippery slope that risks more dramatic leaps to the right down the road.

Meloni, they note, has proposed amending Italy’s constitution to enable direct elections of prime ministers — a system more akin to the American or French presidential systems — rather than the current model of election through party lists that is the norm in parliamentary democracies. Under the changes, the prime minister’s party would also automatically get 55% of the seats in the Italian parliament.

Meloni has billed the changes, which are likely to be subject to a public referendum, as a way to ensure government stability in a country where the collapse of governing coalitions has historically been frequent. But detractors see a power grab reminiscent of the infamous Italian fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, whose Acerbo Law in the 1920s automatically granted the largest vote-getter two-thirds of seats in parliament.

“She’s really dangerous, because she comes up really moderate when she’s in the European turf,” said Orkan Ozdemir, a member of the Berlin regional parliament affiliated with the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). “But in Italy, she goes hard core.”

Populist waves in Europe have often been early harbingers of hard-line nationalist winds in the United States. In June 2016, the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote to leave the European Union, driven by opposition to the EU’s relatively open immigration system, was retroactively seen as an early warning sign of Donald Trump’s election as president some five months later.

Trump and allies like Steve Bannon maintain relationships with European far-right leaders, who have been known to show up at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

The transatlantic far-right pilgrimages head in the opposite direction as well. In April, CPAC held its third annual conference in Orbán’s Hungary, where American right-wing activists rub elbows with their European colleagues.

The National Rally party, led by Marine Le Pen (left) hopes to capitalize on a strong showing in the EU election in France's snap parliamentary elections.
The National Rally party, led by Marine Le Pen (left) hopes to capitalize on a strong showing in the EU election in France’s snap parliamentary elections.

JULIEN DE ROSA/Getty Images

Maja Wallstein, a German parliamentarian affiliated with the SPD, noted her surprise at the degree of support for Trump among her rural constituents in a part of East Germany near the Polish border.

“Trump is really a thing here,” she said in Berlin last week.

At the same time, numerous European far-right leaders have lost elections to mainstream candidates without disputing them in the way Trump did in the 2020 presidential election. And the appetite among those parties for a departure from the EU has waned after far-right leaders witnessed the chaos and economic costs that accompanied Brexit.

A number of European analysts have decided against interpreting their own election results as tied to developments in the United States or the United Kingdom.

“A lot of people looked at the Dutch and European landscape through the lens of what had happened with Trump and Brexit. And then to some extent, I would say it didn’t really happen,” said Coen van de Ven, a political journalist for De Groene Amsterdammer, a weekly magazine that leans center-left.

The greatest shock waves from Sunday’s EU elections are instead likely to be felt in Europe itself, and specifically in France, the EU’s second-largest nation.

Marine Le Pen’s National Rally was the leading vote-getter in Sunday’s EU elections there, picking up nearly one-third of the vote.

French President Emmanuel Macron, whose centrist Renaissance party came in a distant second, responded by dissolving the French parliament and calling for snap elections. In France’s hybrid governing system, the country elects its presidents every five years, but the president also assembles a working coalition in the country’s separately elected bicameral parliament. When a governing coalition is in crisis, or a president seeks to strengthen their hold on it, they can disband parliament and call for new legislative elections. The first round of the elections are now set to take place on June 30, followed by a runoff among the top two vote-getters on July 7.

In his remarks on Sunday announcing the decision, Macron, who has twice defeated Le Pen in presidential elections, suggested he was confident voters would reject National Rally at the polls.

“This is a serious and weighty decision. Above all, it is an act of trust — confidence in you, my dear compatriots, the ability of French people to make a just choice for themselves and for future generations,” he said.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni (right) shares a light moment with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in March. Meloni's critics say she is more like Orbán than she lets on.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni (right) shares a light moment with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in March. Meloni’s critics say she is more like Orbán than she lets on.

Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Associated Press

As it has sought mainstream acceptance, National Rally, which backs a more conciliatory approach toward Russia, has tempered some of its hard-line rhetoric and distanced itself from more extreme far-right voices. National Rally ejected the German far-right party, Alternative für Deutschland, from its Identity and Democracy bloc in May following AfD’s lead EU candidate Maximilian Krah’s sympathetic comments about the SS. Krah, who subsequently resigned from AfD leadership, had said a person who served in the SS — a paramilitary tasked with enacting the Nazi regime’s worst atrocities — was not “automatically a criminal.”

Le Pen’s National Rally got another big boost on Tuesday when Eric Ciotti, the leader of The Republicans, France’s mainstream conservative party, called for the two parties to form an “alliance” in the coming parliamentary elections. The Republicans — previously known as the Union for a Popular Majority — was the party of many recent French presidents, but is now content to serve as a junior partner in coalition with Le Pen, while lending some of its mainstream credibility.

Janan Ganesh, a columnist for the Financial Times in London, sees even a strong showing for Le Pen in the snap elections as a potentially positive development, since far-right parties face greater accountability from voters when they must actually make the trade-offs involved in governance.

“Right now, in much of Europe, populists have a goldilocks level of success: enough to foul the atmosphere, to spread the idea that simple answers to big problems exist if governments would but enact them, but not enough to have to prove this in office,” Ganesh wrote on Tuesday.

For Americans fearful that time in government didn’t soften Trump’s appeal, Ganesh maintained European voters are different, noting former Tory Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s rapid fall from grace in the U.K. after Brexit buoyed him into power.

“High office didn’t temper the 45th U.S. president, did show voters his worst, and still he is favorite to be the 47th. All true. But Europe, for now, is different,” he wrote. “Most of its democracies aren’t quite as divided or tribal as the U.S., where, eventually, the question of what day of the week it is will generate a 50-50 polling result. Gross misgovernment would still discredit a leader in most of the continent.”

But those who take a more pessimistic view see Orbán, not Trump or Johnson, as the foretaste of a future of co-governance with the far right. The Hungarian prime minister, who began his career as a liberal, became more authoritarian once in power.

“Democratic backsliding doesn’t happen overnight,” warned Gattermann of the University of Amsterdam.

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