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New Atlanticist June 20, 2024

How the far right could shape the future of the European Parliament

By Joely Virzi

Far-right parties across Europe made significant gains in the European Parliament elections that concluded June 9. But how these parties wield their newfound influence in Parliament remains an open question.

There is a clear interest among the right to figure out ways to make their gains felt in Brussels. Leaders, including France’s Marine Le Pen and Italy’s Matteo Salvini, recently met in Brussels to discuss uniting the fractured right wing, giving oxygen to persistent rumors of merging or shuffling the existing European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group with the Identity and Democracy (ID) group to form a far-right supergroup. ECR has already picked up enough new members to overtake the centrist Renew Europe group as the third largest group in the Parliament. 

Membership in these groups matters. Members of the European Parliament are elected nationally but sit within pan-European party groups, in which votes are whipped and decisions shaped. Membership and the size of party groups also carries implications for funding, staffing, and even speaking time in Parliament debates, making membership a calculated decision.

But uniting the far right is easier said than done. Ideological differences and internal divisions present obstacles. For instance, ECR largely holds a pro-Ukraine stance, while parties in ID can be more sympathetic toward Russia. As these coalitions undergo reshuffling, the influence of the right in the European Parliament remains in flux. The answers to three questions will shape this influence going forward: How will the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party align in the Parliament? How will Hungary’s Fidesz party align? And will the Brothers of Italy party work more with centrist or more radical partners?

AfD searches for a new home

Germany’s far-right AfD, currently unaffiliated in the Parliament after being tossed from ID, is one to watch. After then-lead candidate Maximilian Krah made a controversial statement about the Schutzstaffel, the elite guard of the Nazi regime also known as the SS, AfD was dismissed from the ID group. Krah has since been expelled from the AfD delegation in the Parliament.

The AfD still had a strong second-place showing in the elections, finishing ahead of all three member parties of Germany’s government coalition and increasing its membership in the Parliament from nine to fifteen. AfD’s likely ambition is to rejoin ID. If it fails, then its members of parliament face a dilemma: find a new group or form an alternative one. AfD’s fifteen votes would be an enticing get for the Parliament’s existing groups, but the party is arguably the most high-profile and toxic bunch in Parliament, making its adoption by ECR almost impossible. Its reabsorption into ID is also uncertain. Even if it does eventually rejoin, it is unlikely to do so before the national elections in France in late June and early July, in which Le Pen’s National Rally, a leading voice in ID, is leading in the polls.

Forming an alternative group isn’t easy either. To be officially recognized as a group in the European Parliament, there must be at least twenty-three members of parliament with representation from at least seven member states. Should AfD try to form an alternative group, it would likely seek out other dissenting parties with a pro-Russia stance from countries such as Poland, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Slovakia. AfD’s exile from any existing group won’t stop it from voting along hard-right lines, but it is worth watching how AfD will try to use its leverage inside the Parliament—or risk obscurity on its sidelines.

Fidesz looks beyond ECR

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, having secured eleven of Hungary’s twenty-one seats, is another prominent party currently unaffiliated, after being kicked out of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP). Remaining unaffiliated would limit Orbán’s power in the European Parliament, so Fidesz was thought to be considering joining ECR or another new grouping.

Joining ECR would have made strategic sense for Fidesz, but just days after Orbán posed for photos with ECR bigwigs, including Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and former Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, news broke that his party would not find a home in ECR. Fidesz cited the “extreme anti-Hungarian stance” of new ECR members from Romania’s Alliance for the Union of Romanians party—once again highlighting the contradictions of far-right, nationalist groups forming a coherent pan-European grouping. Other reporting suggested Meloni herself rejected Orbán’s efforts. 

Barring any reversal, the news of Fidesz’s failed would-be relationship with ECR leaves Orbán with few options. Fidesz could try to join ID, but the group’s ideology may limit Fidesz’s reach at a time Orbán is looking to strengthen it, especially as Fidesz just had its worst election performance in two decades. Orbán has also been keen on forming a far-right bloc, one that could potentially unite or create a de facto alliance among the far right in the Parliament. With the door to ECR closed, he may bet on some new constellation of the far right, with Fidesz in the middle.

Meloni becomes Europe’s biggest player

Meloni and her dominant Brothers of Italy party are currently some of the most influential actors in the new European Parliament. A leader in ECR decision making, Meloni and her party have become widely sought after, with both Le Pen and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen reaching out to discuss cooperation. For Le Pen, a pact with the Brothers of Italy and ECR more broadly would give the far right enough members to become the second-largest bloc in the European Parliament, even if unofficially. Similarly, von der Leyen has left open the possibility of working with Meloni in hopes of first securing her confirmation from the Parliament to continue as European Commission president.

Meloni and the Brothers will not leave the ECR, and, unlike AfD or Fidesz, they are in a strong position. Still, Meloni will need to choose her alliances carefully. Working with von der Leyen would allow her party to use the leverage it has collected to influence the Parliament’s actions, but it could dull her nationalist credentials. Working with ID would likely close the door to cooperation with von der Leyen’s EPP and leave Brothers of Italy on the outside looking in. How well Le Pen’s National Rally does in the upcoming French parliamentary elections may factor into decision making in Rome.

The evolving landscape of the European Parliament

The realignment of political groups is crucial for the future of the European Parliament, but also important will be how the new Parliament will operate with more dynamic policy-specific coalitions. Meloni’s Brothers of Italy is a case in point. Narrower margins mean centrist groups will likely need to rely on partners further along the ideological spectrum to pass legislation on specific issues. With the reshuffling of coalitions, tight margins, and major national developments, important European Union issues—defense, climate change, immigration, and economic policy—hang in the balance.

Joely Virzi is a young global professional at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center.

Further reading

Image: Alice Weidel (M) and Tino Chrupalla (center r), both AfD federal chairmen, cheer at the AfD party headquarters during the forecast for the European elections. The European elections began on June 6 and voting in Germany took place on June 9.