A stronger radical and far-right bloc in the EU parliament could:
Elections for the European Parliament have historically attracted relatively little enthusiasm from the electorate. Voter turnout is routinely low despite it being the only EU institution where citizens can directly elect their representatives. The 2019 election will, however, take place in a significantly different context from previous elections. The political landscape both globally and within the EU has changed considerably since 2014. From Trump’s victory in 2016, to Bolsarono’s in 2018, there are continued indications of how anti-globalisation and nativist ideas are an increasingly powerful force internationally. In Europe, Brexit and similar calls for exiting the EU have shown how Euroscepticism has surged as a an effective topic to mobilise around.
It now looks as if the centre-left and centre-right blocs are likely to lose their joint control of the Parliament for the first time in 25 years. 23 out of 28 member states now have populist radical right, far-right or hard Eurosceptic parties in their national parliaments. After the recent Spanish elections, the far-right Vox party is set to enter parliament and are polling at around 10% in the EU elections. The Conservative People’s Party of Estonia more than doubled its vote share in the national elections in March and Salvini’s League is polling at 33% at the time of writing; a rapid rise from 6.2% back in 2014 which could give the far-right party 25 chairs, making it the largest party in the Parliament and giving it more seats than most other member states have in total. The rise of the League in Italy coupled with even modest gains by the far-right in populous states like Spain and Germany would meaningfully influence the makeup of the European Parliament.
The effects could be far reaching. Radical and far-right parties in the European Parliament are not only a challenge to the institution itself but also come with significant risks for the citizens of the Union and those seeking entry to it. While the Parliament shares its role as legislator with the Commission and cannot propose new legislation itself, it has many possibilities to exert influence over other institutions. For example, it approves the commissioners of the European Commission and it has significant power to control budgets, structure and staff of other institutions.
Stalling and reversing progress
A yearly survey by the European Commission found that citizens in all EU countries saw immigration as the most important issue facing the EU in every member state in 2018. This was a stark contrast to 2014 when the most salient issues in almost all member countries were related to economic questions. Not a single country had immigration as their main issue then. By 2016 this had changed, a result of the increase in immigration in 2015 and 2016 and, likely more importantly, the coverage of it by media and politicians. That immigration levels are now down to previous numbers doesn’t seem to have had much impact.
Although there are issues that separate them, among other things their stance on Russia, migration remains the most important issue uniting the radical and far-right parties in Europe. Viktor Orbán indicated this sentiment when he said in January that “the conventional division of parties into those of the right and of the left will be replaced with a division between those which are pro-immigration and those which are anti-immigration.” Over the last few years, mainstream parties across the EU have increasingly adopted nativist policies and made reception of immigrants less and less humane. Considering that politicians across the continent have been quick to adopt anti-immigration stances in their national parliaments, it would be naive to think that it would work differently in the European Parliament, which has long fought the perception of being undemocratic and detached from its electorate. In institutions where national governments have direct influence, such as the European Commission and the Council of the European Union, the effect will be even more tangible.
An indication that the EU’s approach to immigration is already worsening as a direct result of the rise of radical and far-right parties across the continent and separate from their potential influence in the European Parliament, is the recent decision to stop ‘Operation Sophia’, the sea patrols in the Mediterranean aimed at preventing the death of migrants coming in boats from North Africa. The decision came after Salvini’s government threatened to veto the operation completely.
Migration is an area where the European Parliament does not have direct legislative power but has increasingly made non-binding, pro-migrant resolutions about. A larger proportion of anti-immigrant MEPs could effectively hamper this, limiting the capacity of member states and the council to take a humanitarian approach to immigration. Furthermore, the EU, according to the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, “is required to prevent and reduce irregular immigration”. There are also several other ways the European Parliament can directly and indirectly influence the ability for people to migrate to the EU and the safety of those attempting to do so. It can, for example, make changes to the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, also known as Frontex, through pressure on the Commission and through control of its budget and in limiting spending on aid.
Anti-discrimination legislation is another area where far-right parties can meaningfully disrupt and worsen the lives of large groups of EU citizens by making the institution lose its edge. EU directives prohibit discrimination on racial and ethnic background in employment, social protection, education and public services such as housing. Further improvements to expand equality legislation are currently being debated. For example, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, disability, age, religion or belief are currently only protected in the context of access to employment. These and many other areas for expansion of protection could be under threat if a more socially conservative parliament with a strong far-right bloc were to gain power.
A weakened institution
Much of EU’s power to influence member states in the areas of migration and anti-discrimination are of a consultative and non-binding nature. Non-binding agreements are a common way to exert pressure on member states but their efficacy is dependent on the legitimacy and relative unity inside the institutions. This tool will be seriously hampered by a rise in radical and far-right parties in the European Parliament and in national governments. Non-binding measures exerted on questions of, for example, migration, will be less effective if backed by a disunited EU. Especially so if large member states, such as Salvini’s Italy oppose a more humanitarian centred position on migration.
Also potentially undermined by this bloc could be the concrete capacities of the EU to sanction member states that do not follows their obligations under EU law. For example, Article 7, which can be used to suspend privileges of members if they violate the EU’s founding values (i.e. respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights), requires a supermajority in the European Council, something that is looking more and more difficult to achieve. This can have consequences for the rights of already vulnerable minorities, such as the Roma population. Currently, Article 7 proceedings are currently open against Poland and Hungary but little tangible action has been taken and a stronger bloc of far-right parties would make such action even less likely.
The effects of a large growth of radical and far-right parties in the European Parliament would undoubtedly tie the hands of the EU. It will incur a clash between the internationalist and the nationalist cohorts, the latter of whom are seeking to either use the EU to advance their national, nativist agendas, or undermine the institution itself. Through obstruction tactics even a minority bloc of radical and far-right parties will be able to undermine the possibility of the EU to support humanitarian and anti-discriminatory projects, and make it significantly less effective in dealing with breakage of EU law and treaties (something already occurring in some member states).
At a deeper level it will cause the paralysis that anti-EU parties across Europe are already blaming the EU for. The common argument that the EU is inefficient, disconnected from the electorate and incompetent will thus be only encouraged in practice. This jeopardises the European public’s relatively favourable stance towards the EU and provides further possibilities for far-right parties to mobilise around a nationalist agenda in opposition to the EU, which we area already seeing.