The rise of the radical right means these European elections are unlike any others

Combined with the potential return to office of Donald Trump in the United States, we may be on the cusp of a new era of pushback against democracy

The campaign for the elections to the European Parliament is well underway. These elections matter because the European Parliament is now a powerful actor in EU politics. We are long past the days when the Parliament was a mere “talking shop” – it is now a “co-legislator” with the Council of Ministers on most important EU legislative files. So, who we elect to represent us really matters.

The story of these elections may well turn out to be the extraordinary advance of populist, radical right parties. In 16 out of 27 member states, these parties are polling in excess of 20 per cent in national polls. In nine of the 27 member states, the radical right party is the leading party in the jurisdiction. In another nine states, those parties are polling second or third.

In Germany, the coalition parties are struggling, with the radical right party, the Alternativ for Deutschland, coming a strong second, and most likely first in many parts of east Germany.

In France, Marine Le Pen’s party, National Rally (RN) leads in opinion polls with 31 per cent. President Macron’s centrist Renaissance party is a long way behind on 18 per cent. This is indicative of the deep plunge in popularity that Macron has experienced. National Rally MEPs will be one of the largest national delegations in the new European Parliament.


Giorgia Meloni’s claim to be the leader of the Right in Europe will inevitably be boosted by the performance of her party in Italy – her Brothers of Italy are leading on 28 per cent with governmental partners Lega and Forza Italia both on around 9 per cent. The Brothers will return by far the largest cohort of Italian MEPs.

It isn’t just in the largest member states that the radical right is polling exceptionally well. Poland will elect 53 MEPs, and although the ultra-nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS) lost power to a centrist coalition in last October’s general election, they are still polling at above 35 per cent and will take a large number of seats, especially in rural areas. In Hungary, similarly, the ruling Fidesz party is also expected to win a clear majority of seats. The Netherlands will shortly have a new government led by the far-right Party for Freedom (PVV), to add to far-right-led governments in Finland, Hungary and Italy. In Austria, the Freedom Party (FPO) has a clear lead in opinion polls – at or above 30 per cent.

So what does all this mean for the European Union?

The European Parliament is organised into seven political groupings, across a spectrum from left to right of political ideology. Since 1999, the largest grouping in the Parliament has been the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), which Fine Gael is attached to. The EPP is doing well in Croatia, Germany, Greece, Poland, Slovenia and Spain but struggling in France and Italy. It could come back with as few as 150 seats but it is more likely to be in the range of 160-170 seats.

The second largest grouping, the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S and D), is also likely to lose seats. They are extremely weak in France, Germany and Poland. They are also likely to lose seats, perhaps dipping as low as 130 seats (from a current level of 141 seats). The third largest grouping, Renew Europe (RE), consists of centrist, liberal parties, including Fianna Fáil, are also projected to experience a significant loss of seats.

The cumulative change in the number of seats held by the EPP and S and D combined is illustrative of the crisis of centrist politics in Europe. In the 2009-14 European Parliament, the EPP held 265 seats and the S and D 184. The two groups together are likely to return with little more than 300 seats this time around.

The radical right parties are currently housed in two competing groups, the European Conservative and Reform Group (ECR) and Identity and Democracy (ID). Both of these groups are to the right of the EPP, with ID an ultra-nationalist grouping on the far right. Recent polling suggests that the combined number of seats of ECR and ID could see them attain the largest number of seats in the Parliament, beating the EPP to the number one position.

But the incentive to combine or even tactically co-operate is negated by long-standing frictions between parties attached to ECR and ID. If they were to put their differences aside and form a common block of the radical right, it would have serious implications for the way the European Parliament functions and the kinds of policies it supports, especially environmental policy. The key role here is being played by Meloni, who is the de facto leader of the ECR grouping. She is driving the effort to engineer an alliance between the EPP and ECR. Should such an alliance succeed it would shift the centre of gravity of EU politics significantly to the right.

Ursula von der Leyen has spent much of this year courting the ECR, conscious that their votes may be necessary to elect her as president of the Commission. Her migration deals with Egypt, Libya and Tunisia reflect the EPP’s fears about losing votes to ECR and ID. Her relationship with Meloni may prove crucial here, and if there is to be an alignment between the EPP and ECR, it will happen through their cooperation and initiative. But it is far from certain that such an alignment – even if merely informal and tactical – could even happen. Donald Tusk, Poland’s prime minister, would find it almost impossible to co-operate with the ECR-housed Law and Justice party, given their bitter domestic rivalry.

The rampant resurgence of radical right populism across Europe marks these elections out as very different to anything we have seen in nine previous elections to the European Parliament. Combined with the potential return to office of Donald Trump in the United States, we may be on the cusp of a new era of pushback against democracy. So these elections may provide us with a frightening portal of our future.

John O’Brennan is a professor of European Politics in the Department of Sociology at Maynooth University