One of the great fears in Brussels today is the spectre of an European Election coming just as, across the continent, parties of the populist right are gaining new legions of supporters.
The most recent polling puts the two populist groupings in the European Parliament, the Independence and Democracy Group (ID) and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) as the most significant gainers.
According to Europe elects which aggregates national polling from all EU member states, right now those two groups lead the polls in Italy, France, the Netherlands and Austria. Two countries have Governments that are unaffiliated, Hungary’s Fidesz, on the populist right, left the main centre right grouping, the European People’s Party, a couple of years ago, before being pushed, and Slovakia’s recently elected SMER party, have yet to join any groups, but will mostly likely join with either the ID or the ECR after next year’s election. This means that 6 of the EU’s 27 have populist nation state parties in the lead.
This is not the whole story though, as in 5 others including Germany and Poland parties affiliated with the two groups are the main party of opposition. Elsewhere insurgent populist parties are on the rise.
Though most of this recent activity has been driven by specifically national issues, the one that ties them all together is the burning issue of mass immigration, mostly from North Africa and the Muslim Middle East. However that is not all, most are highly sceptical of further deepening of the European Union and have been strengthened at home by their own government’s agreement to passing greater powers to the EU, without there being national debate, or in the case of some countries the opportunity of confirmatory referenda. Brussels has fixed the rules on this, having been shocked by the result of the UK referendum in 2016, and will not allow a mistake like that to happen again.
Other areas where the majority of the National conservative/populist parties agree is opposition to the ruinously expensive climate change agenda, and many were highly sceptical of the implementation of the Covid pandemic lockdown policies, in particular, mask and vaccine mandates.
According to the Europe elects study the ID group is now at a historic high, and that is without the impact of the UK’s Brexit Party which in the last election, and before the UK left the European Union, in 2020 was the largest single party in the entire European Parliament.
“The gains of the ID group are mostly due to three factors. In the Netherlands, the Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV) overperformed the polls in the elections and is now projected to have five more seats. In France, Rassemblement National (RN) is up by three seats, and in Bulgaria, Възраждане (V) is now associated with ID”
All this matters as on current projections it is highly likely that the ID will become the third largest group in the Parliament. With this will come far greater influence over powerful Committee Chairmanships and its ability to choose which reports it will have the authoring rights. In the past the main three parties have operated a ‘cordon sanitaire’, a sort of gentleman’s agreement to overturn precedent and block ID members from these key roles, but with a restive public that might not be so easy to carry out in future.
More worrying for the powers that be is that their cosy consensus might find itself shaken even further. Last weekend in Florence leaders of many of these national parties met to discuss the future. They came from both the ECR and the ID and they were talking alliances and working towards causing a shock to the Brussels system.
There are strong differences, some of them, such as Germany’s AfD are feeling the pinch caused by the Russian war on Ukraine and the Austrian Freedom Party went so far as to oppose support given to Israel in its war with Hamas.
But on the key issues that matter to the European voters in next year’s European elections there was pretty strong agreement. If they could set aside their differences enough to create a strategic alliance in the European Parliament and co-operate on key budget and policy briefs their combined numbers will create chaos in the Brussels legislature. If they could go so far as to unite they would be challenging the EPP and the Socialists for dominance of the chamber.
At that point the soft middling technocratic consensus that has governed the European Parliament for decades could be shattered. It is early days, but meetings like this one in Florence point in that direction.
Suddenly Brussels could get interesting again.
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