EU parliament election results confirm rightward shift in Europe

If right-wing parties collaborate, this shift could impact policies on climate, migration, enlargement, budget, and the rule of law.

Italy's Prime Minister and leader of the far-right party Brothers of Italy (Fratelli D'Italia - FDI) Giorgia Meloni getures during a press conference following the results of the European Elections in Rome on June 10, 2024.
Italy's Prime Minister and leader of the far-right party Brothers of Italy (Fratelli D'Italia - FDI) Giorgia Meloni getures during a press conference following the results of the European Elections in Rome on June 10, 2024.

EU parliament election results confirm rightward shift in Europe

The key lesson that can be drawn from Sunday's European Parliament election is that it can matter a lot for national politics in the EU member states. In France, the disappointingly poor result of Emmanual Macron’s party has prompted him to call an early legislative election for the end of June (with this unexpected and risky move, he seeks to get a second life and avoid a lame duck status – but it could also lead to a Macron-Le Pen cohabitation). In Belgium, PM Alexander de Croo announced his resignation after his party plummeted in the election.

In Germany, all three parties of the ruling coalition have suffered electoral losses, and each of them got fewer votes than the far-right AfD, weakening their position at home ahead of the next year’s federal election. For his part, Peter Magyar has emerged as a serious rival to Viktor Orbán in Hungary. And in Poland, for the first time in a decade, the Civic Coalition of PM Donald Tusk won over the Eurosceptic Law and Justice party of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, consolidating Tusk’s strong position at home and abroad.

In addition to national political consequences, the key outcome of the election is a rightward shift in the European Parliament (EP). It is possible that, for the first time, right-wing parties, from centre-right to the most radical, will hold a majority. All three right-wing groups—the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and Identity and Democracy (I&D) groups, as well as the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP)—saw MEP gains.

Political impact

This shift could impact policies on climate, migration, enlargement, budget, and the rule of law if right-wing parties collaborate. But it also aligns with a broader rightward trend in EU member states, where radical right parties are part of national governments in already eight out of 27 countries (leading the governments in Hungary and Italy, being part of the ruling coalition in the Netherlands, Finland, Slovakia, Czechia, and Croatia, and providing parliamentary support to the Swedish government), influencing EU leadership and priorities.

Chairman of the right-wing Freedom Party Austria (FPOe), Herbert Kickl, and top candidate for the European election Harald Vilimsky stand on stage during an election event in Vienna on June 9, 2024.

The result from Austria – where the Freedom Party received the largest number of votes – may also herald the far-right’s participation in the country’s next government too, after the national election later this year. There is also a risk of growing divisions and even chaos within the European Parliament and the European Council, which threatens European unity and capacity to achieve compromises, so much in need today given the Ukraine war and the potential for another Trump presidency.

The key unknown in this election was voter turnout. Despite higher interest suggested by Eurobarometer studies, the campaign seemed lethargic, and pro-European parties often struggled to mobilise voters. But the picture emerging from the first results is very uneven: participation was higher than five years ago in Germany, France, Hungary, and Slovakia but lower than last time in Poland, Italy, and Spain.

Pro-European parties will now need to study the turnout in greater detail to understand whether a strong result of the far-right (e.g., National Rally in France, AfD in Germany) was mainly due to relative demobilisation of pro-European voters – or, more worryingly, due to a shift of some voters away from the mainstream and towards the radical parties (which seems to have partly been the case in Germany).

Winners and losers

The biggest losers of this election include the Greens, Liberals, and (to a lesser extent) centre-left, each losing their number of MEP seats. This reflects domestic setbacks rather than a decline in the popularity of their ideals, with parties like the Greens in Germany, Macron’s LREM in France, and social-democrats in Germany and Spain suffering from being part of domestic governments.

But, at least for the centre-left, their setbacks in some countries have been counterbalanced by good results in places where they do not govern – like the Netherlands, Sweden, Portugal, or Italy. Despite scoring only second in Spain, Pedro Sanchez’s PSOE will become the biggest national party in the S&D group.

The biggest winners of this election are the two families of the radical right. Collectively, including non-affiliated parties like AfD and Fidesz, they seem close to surpassing the one-third seat threshold, enabling them to obstruct EP legislation. In particular, Marine Le Pen and Giorgia Meloni emerge significantly strengthened, with their parties achieving some of the largest single-party representations in the next EP.

French far-right Rassemblement National (RN) party leader Marine Le Pen (L) addresses militants as party President Jordan Bardella listens after French President announced he is calling for new general elections on June 30.

However, Le Pen will need to reaffirm her strength in the national legislative election later this month. Meanwhile, Giorgia Meloni, With a strong position in her party in the EP and as a government leader in Italy, will be pivotal in shaping the next EU leadership and the EU’s strategic agenda. She can balance cooperation with both the radical right and the centre-right on various issues, making her crucial to the EU's direction in the coming years.

Less conspicuous winners: The French center-left, led by Raphael Glucksman, has returned to life, nearly overtaking Macron's party. Donald Tusk's Civic Platform victory is boosting his domestic and international standing. Under Friedrich Merz, Germany's CDU/CSU emerged as front-runners for the next federal election, capable of competing with both the left and the far-right AfD. In Hungary, Peter Magyar emerged as a serious rival to Viktor Orbán.

The EU’s centre-right (EPP) is a silent winner, maintaining its seats and remaining the largest political group in the EP. Centre-right parties have experienced important electoral wins in Germany, Poland, Spain, and Greece, and they won in some other smaller countries too. However, EPP still faces internal divisions over whether to cooperate with the more “constructive” forces of the EU’s radical right on issues like climate, migration, and economic policy or with centrist forces (i.e., centre-left, liberals, possibly also the greens) to counter the radical right.

This election's broader outcome indicates a political climate favouring the right over the left. After years of consecutive crises (e.g., COVID-19, war in Ukraine, and cost-of-living crisis), it’s hard to expect broad EU enthusiasm from the European public. According to fresh Eurobarometer data, on average, 48% of people in the 27 EU member states believe things are going in the wrong direction in the EU; only 34% think they are going in the right direction.

Marine Le Pen and Giorgia Meloni emerge significantly strengthened. Their parties secured some of the largest single-party representations in the next EP

The centre-right appears more credible in embodying a newly-discovered "EU realism" of more centrist voters, while the disillusioned lean towards the far-right. The perception of insecurity, especially due to the Ukraine war, bolsters the credibility of the right to security, defence, and foreign policy. Meanwhile, with the war being a polarising issue in some member states (e.g., in Germany and Austria), the far-right captures anti-establishment votes from those opposing the consensus on supporting Ukraine.

Leadership composition

The most interesting thing to watch in the weeks ahead is the effect this election could have on the EU's major decisions – including not just the composition of the EU's next leadership but also starting EU membership talks with Ukraine (which was expected to be decided at the European Council at the end of June). We should also look for consolidation efforts among the far-right representatives in the European Parliament, led by Marine Le Pen – who will, nonetheless, need to focus on domestic politics first

The biggest unknown (on top of the result of the French legislative election) is the composition of the EU's next leadership. Ursula von der Leyen is still the front-runner for European Commission President. She should get enough MEP votes in the European Parliament, but in a volatile political climate resulting from this election, she could still lose the support of some capitals, making her re-election uncertain.

Antonio Costa and Kaja Kallas remain the main candidates for the roles of the President of the European Council and High Representative for Foreign Affairs, respectively – but they are still a long way from being selected. Despite the traditional distribution of the three roles among the centre-right, centre-left, and liberals, the poor results of liberals are debilitating Kallas's position.

Meanwhile, Donald Tusk's convincing victory in Poland and Giorgia Meloni's in Italy put them in a position to claim a share in the core leadership. This, as well as the French election, may delay decisions until early autumn and open the field to new candidates.

Pawel Zerka is a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)

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