It has become a ritual: before every national and European election, the far-right is featured in great detail. Being one of the media’s most favorite cash cows, radical right-wing parties have gained huge coverage. Like a ritual, the question is raised whether the far-right will rise to become the third and in some cases the second largest group in parliament and thus become the main contester of liberal democracy. But while the media’s obsession with radical right-wing parties in the European parliament is always at its height before the elections, the same focus is comparably low when it comes to the outcome. When sensationalism has faded, the average news media consumer might get the impression that the far-right’s rise was nothing but a ghost. A closer look at the last elections for the European Parliament in May 2019 disproves such sentiment.
Given its heterogeneity and diversity, it is indeed not easy to predict how strong the political group(s) of the radical right-wing parties will be after an election. The radical-right has not been united in the past. There were two groups representing radical right-wing and Eurosceptical parties from 2014 to 2019. One is the ‘Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy,’ led by the British Nigel Farage and the other is the ‘Europe of Nations and Freedom,’ led by the French Marine Le Pen and the Dutch Marcel de Graaf (of Geert Wilders’ party).
“There were two groups representing radical right-wing and Eurosceptical parties from 2014 to 2019. One is the ‘Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy,’ led by the British Nigel Farage and the other is the ‘Europe of Nations and Freedom,’ led by the French Marine Le Pen and the Dutch Marcel de Graaf (of Geert Wilders’ party).”
After the Brexit vote, the 42-MEP-strong group led by Farage did not form again, staying non-aligned, while the French-Dutch-led group reformed under the leadership of then-Italian interior minister and vice-chancellor-backed ‘The League.’ In the past, both groups came in last. With 42 and 36 MEP’s respectively, they were the seventh and eighth largest groups out of eight formally aligned political groups in the European Parliament.
But it was obvious that this would change following the 2019 elections. While ‘Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy’ was dissolved, ‘Europe of Nations and Freedom’ would now be formed under the leadership of Salvini’s radical right-wing ‘The League’ under the name Identity and Democracy. According to the European Parliament’s rules, to form a political group, one needs 25 MEPs from at least one-quarter of member states, which at this time would be seven countries. Currently, the European Parliament has seven groups and while the radical-right wing group Identity and Democracy has not become the third strongest to destabilize the old establishment parties in the parliament, it now does not come in last either. Ranking after the traditionally strong Christian Democratic European’s Peoples Party (EPP), the Social Democrats (S&D), the liberal Renew Europe and the Greens, Identity and Democracy now has 73 MEP’s – only one MEP less than the Greens. The radical right-wing group has thus overtaken the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) as well as the Left (GUE/NGL). This is already a remarkable success for the radical-right parties. They have not only overcome the split within the right-wing and Eurosceptical/anti-EU camp (which is primarily due to the external factor of Brexit anyway), more importantly, they were able to get close to the fourth rank in the European Parliament.
“Currently, the European Parliament has seven groups and while the radical-right wing group Identity and Democracy has not become the third strongest to destabilize the old establishment parties in the parliament, it now does not come in last either. “
This is especially remarkable given the fact that in the most recent election, some radical right-wing parties were not even able to get elected into the European Parliament. Currently, there are exactly nine political parties represented in the new group Identity and Democracy under the formal leadership of Marco Zanni from the Italian ‘The League.’ It includes the most famous and strongest right-wing political parties such as the Austrian Freedom Party FPO, the Belgian Vlaams Belang, the Czech Freedom and Direct Democracy, the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia, the Finns Party, the Danish People’s Party, the French Rassemblement National (formerly Front National of Le Pen), the Alternative for Germany AfD and the Italian ‘The League.’
After Brexit, Geert Wilders’ radical right-wing Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV), which failed to secure any seats at the election, will likely gain one seat and thus move to the new group. This would make the ID the fourth strongest parliamentary group tied with the Greens. Since political groups can be formed at any time during the term, it would theoretically be possible for the Identity and Democracy to recruit other MEPs and surpass the Greens. This could be the case regarding Spain’s new radical right-wing party Vox, which joined the ECR and has only one MEP. Vox at its early stage of establishment might try to win Spanish votes based on a dissociation from the radical-right wing group. But this might change after some time if Vox succeeds in establishing itself. Moreover, there are many non-affiliated MEP’s such as the traditionally anti-Muslim Slovak Kotleba, which has one MEP, or the Greek neo-fascist Golden Dawn party which also has one MEP. However, given the good relationship with Hungary’s far-right Fidesz, which formally still belongs to the largest group, the EPP, there is little chance that Jobbik, Hungary’s traditional neo-fascist group, would join Identity and Democracy.
“…it seems that for the first time in the history of the European Parliament, radical right-wing parties have succeeded in forming a strong group that will be able to draw on more financial and human resources than ever before. One has to also keep in mind that in many cases, radical right-wing parties have been especially influential as centers of opposition.”
Yes, one can argue that the radical-right parties fell short in their ambitions to become the third largest group within the parliament. But a more realistic estimation would be that this was never a chance. Rather, presenting themselves as contesters for the third place was a communicative strategy to successfully become an important player for the European Parliament elections in the first place. More importantly, it seems that for the first time in the history of the European Parliament, radical right-wing parties have succeeded in forming a strong group that will be able to draw on more financial and human resources than ever before. One has to also keep in mind that in many cases, radical right-wing parties have been especially influential as centers of opposition. They have failed more than once in power, as the recent two examples in Austria and Italy reveal. But as opposition parties, they are at their most effective, rallying against those in power and the most marginalized minorities, from the Roma to the Black and Muslim minorities. The most problematic aspect here is that even some so-called centrist parties such as the social democratic and conservative Christian-democratic parties are coopting the far-right rather than challenging them. With more resources, this should be the greatest concern for civil society, media and the opposition to the right.