Many are relieved at the far right’s showing in the EU elections, but they shouldn’t be

“Far-right ‘surge’ ends in a ripple” declared The Guardian; “Populists fall short of expectations” said The Economist; “Europe’s Populist Storm Rattles the Windows of the E.U. But Fails to Move the Foundations”, according to Time. With the votes now all counted and the results in across Europe, one can almost hear a collective sigh of relief. “They” didn’t win. “They” haven’t completely taken over.

The problem is that many commentators are judging these results against short-term, often-apocalyptic, headline-grabbing predictions. Before polling day there was a raft of articles about the imminent conquering of Europe by the far right, often with the spectre of Steve Bannon looming large. The result is that anything short of a massive victory across the board by the far right was always going to be seen as a good result by some.

However, the fact that the far right grew less than some expected doesn’t hide the fact that they still grew, albeit unevenly, and when placed in a historical context these results remain extremely worrying. These results continue to show a direction of travel for the continent that should engender concern, not relief, and the fact that they haven’t is a marker of the normalisation of the far right, and perhaps even outrage and fear fatigue.

Big Winners

The most worrying results came in France, Italy, Hungary and Poland, where Le Pen’s National Rally (RN), Salvini’s Lega (LN), Orban’s Fidesz and Kaczyński’s Law and Justice (PiS) each came first.

Though a fraction down on its 2014 result, RN’s 23.31% gives it a huge 22 seats in the European Parliament, while Lega in Italy saw a quite remarkable rise to a very concerning 34.33%, giving it 28 seats.

Poland and Hungary were the canaries in the coal mine and continue to be at the forefront of the problem, with Law and Justice receiving a huge 45.38% of the vote after running an ugly anti-LGBT campaign. Fidesz, in coalition with the Christian Democratic People’s Party, gained 13 seats with 52.33% of the vote.

Sadly, none of these results came as a surprise, but that should not mean they are not shocking. Just 10 years ago, at the 2009 elections, the Front National received just 6.34%, and while the party has undergone dramatic changes – some would say modernisation and moderation – in this period, its rise is still meteoric. The same goes for Lega, which received just 6.15% of the vote back in 2014 in comparison to their 34.33% in 2019.

Another big winner was Vlaams Belang in Belgium, which surged by 14 points in the Flanders region of the country with a nationwide share of 11.5% (3 seats), compared with just 4.3% in 2014. The party also placed second in the national vote for the federal parliament which happened simultaneously. A telling sign of the party’s normalisation came just days after the elections when Belgium’s King Philippe held an official meeting at the Royal Palace with the party’s leader Tom van Grieken, the first meeting between the monarchy and the far right since 1936.

Moderate but Worrying Growth

AfD demonstration in Düsseldorf

One far-right populist party that did worse than predicted was the AfD in Germany, which placed 4th with 11% of the vote. This is slightly down on the nearly 13% it received at the September 2017 general election and a touch down on pre-election polls. However, this result still hands the party 11 MEPs and is a significant rise from the 7.1% it garnered in the 2014 European elections.

One important thing that has been overlooked is that the AfD that stood in this election is notably more extreme than the party that contested the 2014 elections and has continued to creep rightwards since 2017. They also received 11% despite a sizable campaign financing scandal earlier in the year.

There was also far-right growth in Spain, Slovakia, Latvia, Estonia, the Czech Republic and Cyprus.

Spain saw the far-right party Vox contest it’s second European elections in the wake of an impressive showing at the recent general election, where its 10.26% share of the vote resulted in the party entering the Congress of Deputies for the first time with 24 seats. At the European elections Vox fared less well, picking up just 6.2%, though this was significantly up on the 1.6% it received in 2014.  

In Slovakia we find The People’s Party, led by Marian Kotleba, a far-right party with an anti-Roma and anti-immigrant politics that has caused many to describe the party as extreme right and fascist. In April this year the Slovakian Supreme Court explored dissolving the party for having fascist tendencies and thus violating the constitution, though the motion was eventually rejected. Despite this, it achieved its best electoral showing with 12.07% of the vote, achieving third position with 2 MEPs.

Also worrying was the National Alliance in Latvia, an alliance between the right-wing LNNK and the far-right nationalist All for Latvia! Party, which performed significantly better than some pre-election polls predicted, receiving 16.4% of the vote and thus 2 MEPs. Its neighbouring Baltic state Estonia also saw slight gains. The Conservative People’s Party of Estonia, along with its alt-right-linked and seriously extreme youth wing, Blue Awakening, had already had a good 2019, managing the largest gains during the parliamentary elections in March, increasing its seat count by 12 to a total of 19. The party also picked up one MEP in these elections with 12.7% of the vote, a serious jump from the 4% it managed last time around.

Just across the Gulf of Finland the Finns Party came fourth, receiving 2 MEPs for their 13.8%, a slight rise from the 12.9% it received in 2014. While only a tiny increase, it comes after several years of serious turmoil for the party, including a damaging 2017 split that saw it lose over half of its domestic MPs.

In the Czech Republic, Tomio Okamura’s anti-immigrant Freedom and Direct Democracy Party finished in fourth place with 9.14% of the vote, gaining 2 MEPs. While this is one short of the fourth-place finish achieved in the 2017 parliamentary elections, gaining 22 seats in the Czech Chamber of Deputies, it is better than pre-election polls and it is worth remembering that the party only launched in 2015.

Meanwhile in Sweden, the Sweden Democrats, who often under perform in European elections, saw significant gains rising to 15.3% from just 9.67% back in 2014, which will see it add an extra MEP, bringing its total to three.

Not All Winners

While the far right made gains across large parts of Europe it was by no means uniform, with some notable cases where they experienced decline.

In Austria, a country gripped by an enormous political scandal that caused the recent collapse of its coalition government, it seems the Freedom Party emerged relatively unscathed, dropping just a fraction from 19.72% in 2014 to 17.2%, losing no seats.

Amongst the big losers were the far-right Danish People’s Party, which had a very bad night, losing nearly two-thirds of its votes and 3 MEPs. The party managed to muster just 10.7% this time around, compared with 2014 when they received 26.6%. However, it’s worth remembering here that the Danish Social Democrats have, in part, pulled the rug from under the Danish People’s Party with a very hardline immigration policy.

Thierry Baudet of the Forum for Democracy

Also making headlines due to big losses was Geert Wilders Freedom Party who lost 4 seats and received a dismal 3.5% of the vote, down from 13.32% in 2014, and finishing behind the Party for the Animals. That said, when the UK leaves the EU and our seats are reallocated the Freedom Party will once again have an MEP. However, this significant defeat came against a backdrop of the rise of Thierry Baudet’s new nationalist Forum for Democracy which received 3 seats.

Greece’s Golden Dawn, once the great hope of the European extreme right, also had a bad showing, dropping down to just 4.86% of the vote and thus losing one MEP. This is further evidence that while much of the far right is growing, the most extreme end, besmirched by Nazism, still has extremely little electoral potential in Europe. This was also borne out in Poland where the far-right governing party romped home but an extreme-right coalition failed to reach the 5% threshold required.

Meanwhile, in Lithuania the difficult to define Order and Justice Party, described by some as right-wing populist, lost both its MEPs and received just 2.74% of the vote.

Some Good News

The point here is not to repeat the apocalyptic protestations of some commentators before the election. While there was some very bad news for those worried about the far right in Europe, there was also plenty of good news for progressives. There were positive steps made by the Greens in both France and Germany, the Labour Party was a big winner in the Netherlands and socialists won most seats in Portugal and Spain.

However, these do not negate the gains made by the far right. Many of the results achieved by far-right parties in this election would have been inconceivable and terrifying a decade ago. The fact that many have greeted these results with relief shows how the far right has increasingly seeped into the wallpaper of Europe. It has become normal to see them grow, normal to see them in parliaments and on TV and normal to see them fill the streets. Now it seems it is “normal” to see them come first in elections in huge European countries.  

The far right won in four countries, including France and Italy, and the reaction has largely been, “it could have been worse”. Their failure to have a single seismic breakthrough that rapidly and fundamentally alters the European landscape in one go does not mean their continual incremental growth should not cause serious alarm. The danger is that every election “could have been worse” until one day, it couldn’t. This is not normal, and we need to remember that.

Joe Mulhall, Senior Researcher
@JoeMulhall_