Elections European Union Politics & Diplomacy
New Atlanticist June 11, 2024

Setting the European Parliament elections in the ‘right’ context

By Jörn Fleck and James Batchik

Is it a surge, a lurch, or something else entirely? The far and hard right did well in the European elections that concluded on June 9. But beyond the hype of Europe’s shift to the right, a closer look at the election outcome paints a more nuanced story of the center holding.

The center-right European People’s Party (EPP), not the far- and hard-right parties, was the biggest winner of the elections. The EPP came in first and performed better than in the last European election in 2019. It is projected to hold 186 seats, a touch over 25 percent of the European Parliament’s total, and up from around 24 percent in 2019. It also came first in twelve countries across the European Union (EU).

This victory is welcome news for the EPP’s Ursula von der Leyen, the current and likely next European Commission president. The party’s performance does not guarantee an easy nomination or approval for von der Leyen, who will need the nod from the EU’s heads of government at the European Council and then a majority of Parliament members to back her. But the results set her up as best as she could realistically hope for another five-year stint in the Berlaymont.

The two biggest losers are, first, French President Emmanuel Macron and his liberal Renew group and, second, the Greens. Renew is projected to get seventy-nine seats, down to 11 percent of the total from over 14 percent in 2019. Macron’s bad night prompted him to dissolve the French parliament and call for new elections. It is the gamble of his political life as he once again tries to head off Marine Le Pen’s far-right populism. The Greens also fared badly, winning just over 7 percent of the seats and going from the fourth-largest group to the sixth in the Parliament.

Breaking down the right’s options

Most attention on the elections went to the gains made by the far and hard right. The European Conservatives and Reformists group (ECR) of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni sits in fourth place with just over 10 percent of the seats. The more radical Identity and Democracy (ID) group follows up in fifth with just over 8 percent. Both ECR and ID stand to gain new members if currently nonaligned members join their ranks, such as members from Hungary’s Fidesz and Bulgaria’s Revival party.

ECR and ID performed well, but their boost was not uniform. In places such as Italy and Austria, leading hard-right parties topped the polls, as expected. Elsewhere, far- and hard-right parties will enter the European Parliament with somewhat more power. For example, Portugal’s Chega picked up two seats, Spain’s Vox took six seats, and Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands won six seats. However, note that many of these far-right parties, including those in Spain and Portugal, performed worse in the latest European Parliament election than they did in their national or regional elections in recent months. This cuts against the narrative of an inexorably rising far right.

Most of the hard right’s gains came from France, with National Rally demolishing Macron’s Renew coalition by 31 percent to just over 14.5 percent, and to a lesser degree from the AfD in Germany, which came in second behind the EPP’s Christian Democrats but ahead of Germany’s governing coalition parties.

The results in Germany and France serve as an important reminder that these elections are in large part national referenda. They are an opportunity for citizens to punish member state governments over domestic issues.

And voters in Germany and France were in a punishing mood. In Macron, France has a president who is unpopular, with approval ratings hovering around 35 percent. He is an apparent lame duck, with his party already ruling with a minority government in a difficult political system. Germany did not fare much better, with a deeply unpopular, seemingly absent chancellor at the helm of a dysfunctional coalition that cannot get Europe’s largest economy going and which seems allergic to political leadership.

The far- and hard-right groups could have an impact—if they can use their leverage. Taken together, the ECR and ID groups can challenge the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group as the second-largest grouping if they coalesce in a so-called “supergroup.” Such a group would include the likes of Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, Le Pen’s National Rally, and far-right parties from across the EU advancing a generally nationalist, Euroskeptic vision for the bloc. However, the prospect of such a group overlooks the very real and wide divergences among these groups on issues key to their identities. There remains distrust among parties, which are divided over the West’s support for Ukraine, for example, and there are persistent national grievances, the likes of which notably led to the AfD’s unceremonious departure from ID.

And yet, too narrow of a focus on the far right’s gains risks missing perhaps that the center held. Not only did the EPP do well, but the S&D avoided major bloodletting, keeping its second-place position with only small losses. Despite a rough showing, Renew currently can claim to be the third-largest group in Parliament, and the Greens’ losses look more like a correction following a massive overperformance in 2019.

Furthermore, the pro-European parties of EPP, S&D, and Renew still together form a majority—a smaller one than in 2019 but a majority nonetheless. Von der Leyen has already pledged to work with S&D and Renew to form a working majority. She may raise eyebrows with her attempts to win over the likes of Meloni, but has stressed that any partner must be “pro-European, pro-Ukraine, and pro-rule of law.” The Greens may also have a role to play as another pro-European party.

What’s on the agenda now?

It is still early, but when it comes to the agenda, the election outcome will likely see a reinforcement of trends that have been well underway for much of the last year: toward a greater focus on competitiveness and economic security measures, a tougher approach on migration that is already baked into the recent New Pact on Migration and Asylum, and a Europe that offers greater protection of its citizens from a more treacherous geopolitical and geoeconomic environment. Support for these issues does not just come from the hard right, but from the political right in all its gradations.

Given the nationalist and protectionist tendencies of many on the far right, the prospects for major EU trade agreements seem to have dimmed further. Single market reforms and progress on enlargement will have to rely on tighter majorities, too. Meanwhile, continued political, military, and financial support for Ukraine seems safe in the short to medium term given national governments’ predominant role in these areas—at least until the next long-term EU budget negotiations start in earnest.

The far-right parties in the Parliament can try to be spoilers on some of these issues. Or they can try to shape them in their own image. But whether they will be able to articulate an alternative political agenda for the EU, let alone get down to exercising their potential power by taking on serious lawmaking, master the skillful manipulation of parliamentary procedures, and secure the committee roles that come with group status is a big question. Their prior track record and persistent divisions suggest the answer remains a likely no, non, and nein.

Jörn Fleck is the senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center.

James Batchik is an associate director in the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center.

Further reading

Image: Lead candidate for the European conservatives in the EU election Ursula von der Leyen reacts to the announcement of the first provisional results for the European Parliament elections, at the European Parliament building, in Brussels, Belgium, June 9, 2024. REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw