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Parliamentary footsie among European right begins ahead of election

Italy’s Giorgia Meloni being courted by both Ursula von der Leyen and Marine Le Pen

With less than a fortnight to the European elections, the hard-right conservative parties have begun to jockey for position in what could be a very different parliament after the vote.

The big story of these elections is expected to be a surge in support for far-right parties across Europe, which will threaten the governing majority of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), centrist Renew and the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D). This has raised the prospect of parties that were previously outside of the political mainstream being brought into the fold, as the price of building a working majority.

The Brothers of Italy, a right-wing party with neo-fascist roots led by Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni, is being openly courted by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. It is leading the polls in Italy and expected to double its seats in the European Parliament.

Meloni’s party sits in the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group alongside the likes of Law and Justice from Poland and Spanish party Vox. Further to the extreme is the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID), whose members include Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National and until recently Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

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The reordering of who will sit with whom on the right after the votes are counted has already started, in part due to the German far-right party’s disaster of a campaign. Senior AfD MEP Maximilian Krah was first accused of accepting payments from Russia and employing an alleged Chinese spy in his Brussels office. Then, when supposedly keeping his head down, he was quoted as saying members of the Nazi SS were not necessarily all criminals.

Fearful the scandals could affect their own national campaigns, the rest of ID kicked the party out of the grouping last week. Tensions between the French and German factions had been simmering for some time, with Le Pen viewing the AfD as overly toxic to her ambitions to make Rassemblement National a more acceptable political partner.

To that end Le Pen has in recent days extended a hand to Meloni, to work together in the next parliament as part of a large right-wing force. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party could also throw its weight behind the effort. It has been in the wilderness in the parliament for the past three years, after the end of what had become a very unhappy marriage when it sat in the EPP.

In the 720-seat parliament, north of 360 MEPs will be needed to pass laws in the next term. Von der Leyen, who is from the EPP family that includes Fine Gael, will need the support of national leaders and a majority of MEPs to secure a second term as commission president.

The German politician has left little doubt that she would accept support from the Brothers of Italy, as she said it was pro-EU, anti-Putin and supported the rule of law. The benefits for Meloni would be a direct influence on policy, which she wouldn’t enjoy as part of a hard-right opposition.

If von der Leyen opts to make a deal with the Brothers of Italy, she will have a difficult time keeping her allies in the Renew and S&D groups from walking away. Speaking last week, Sandro Gozi, a senior Renew MEP, said if von der Leyen took the road towards Rome and Meloni it would not bring her very far. Another option could be turning to a much reduced Greens grouping, which might support the commission president in exchange for commitments not to backslide on climate policy and to keep the ECR out, even though one of the grouping’s lead candidates dismissed that prospect earlier this week.

Von der Leyen’s willingness to work with Meloni is unlikely to extend to all members of the ECR, such as Law and Justice (PiS), which was in power in Poland from 2015 until late 2023. During its time in government the party undermined the independence of judges, freedom of the media and cracked down on LGBT+ rights, prompting major clashes with the commission. A pro-EU coalition led by Donald Tusk replaced Pis after a general election last October, resetting relations between Warsaw and Brussels. Tusk, whose party is in the EPP, would find it difficult to stomach the centre-right group doing business with his domestic rivals.

One senior EPP politician said much would depend on what the parliamentary arithmetic looked like after June 9th. In politics sometimes numbers talk louder than principles.