How will Europe's shift to the right affect its foreign and domestic policies?

Macron and Scholz have suffered humiliating defeats triggering concern of a bigger shift to the right in France and Germany. If this happens, Europe's power balance could fundamentally transform.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (R) addresses delegates as he gives a speech at the German parliament in Berlin on June 11, 2024. The empty seats are from Germany's far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (R) addresses delegates as he gives a speech at the German parliament in Berlin on June 11, 2024. The empty seats are from Germany's far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

How will Europe's shift to the right affect its foreign and domestic policies?

After the European Parliament elections earlier this week resulted in a big win for right-wing parties across Europe, a panel discussion held by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) discussed the implications of the results on the foreign and domestic policies of key EU states.

Célia Belin, Head of ECFR Paris

The results immediately triggered a political earthquake in France, not so much due to Le Pen’s National Rally’s (RN) spectacular win, which had long been foretold by pollsters, but because of President Macron’s subsequent call for snap elections. This unexpected decision will plunge France into an election frenzy which will overshadow the many international summits and rendezvous of the next month, like the G7 summit in Italy this week, the Ukraine peace summit in Switzerland this weekend, the EU Council end of June, and the NATO summit in July.

In the short term, Macron’s influence in Europe will be gravely affected by the uncertainty over his party’s political fate. In the longer run, Macron’s gamble, if successful (RN failing to achieve a majority or a coalition would constitute enough of a success), would allow the French president to regain moment and legitimacy to weigh in on the selection of EU’s top jobs, or the platform of the next commission – for which he hopes to impose an ambitious industrial strategy.

France would enter unchartered territories if the RN were to gain a majority or form a governing coalition. The RN's plans for Europe remain unsophisticated, unpolished, and at times contradictory. France's voice would probably get eclipsed for a while.

Results in France and Macron’s subsequent decision are weakening one of Europe’s most ambitious and experienced leaders at a moment when Europe needs to demonstrate that it has a future in the face of Russian aggression, American hesitations and Chinese competition. France's shifting from the Weimar liberal centrist camp to the Meloni-led nationalist camp would fundamentally transform the balance of power in Europe towards a de-centralising, de-united, de-integrating future.

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

Piotr Buras, Head of ECFR Warsaw

For the first time since 2014, the national-populist party PiS (which ruled in Poland from 2015 to 2023) did not come first in a general election. This is a huge success for Prime Minister Donald Tusk and his Civic Coalition (member of the EPP). It gained 37% of the votes, strengthening his position domestically as well as at the European level.

However, the poor performance of other democratic parties (Tusk's coalition partners) and the decent result of the far-right Konfederacja (12%) indicate that the populist vs liberal polarisation of the political scene is far from over. Altogether, 48% of the Poles voted for ECR or ID parties; Europe has become a divisive issue in Polish politics (despite the broad pro-Eu membership consensus) and is likely to remain such in the future.

Tusk is—along with Meloni—the European leader with the strongest democratic mandate in the EU. Poland has thus a chance to leverage its power at the EU level, while Macron and Scholz have suffered humiliating defeats. However, the Polish pro-EU camp still lacks a vision for the EU and concrete ideas on how to move forward with the EU agenda on climate, migration, enlargement or competitiveness. Warsaw has remarkably transformed into one of the key proponents of a deeper EU defence cooperation (while in the past, it was suspicious about such plans as allegedly undermining Transatlantic bonds).

However, despite strong pro-European credentials, Tusk has largely taken over many Eurosceptic positions represented by the former PiS-led government, which puts emphasis on the defence of national interests. Warsaw, which will hold the EU presidency in the first half of 2025, will need to elaborate its EU policy programme if it wants to play a role in the EU commensurate with the expectations and ambitions derived from Tusk's success on Sunday.

José Ignacio Torreblanca, Head of ECFR Madrid

The Conservatives (PP under Feijóo) won the election in Spain with 34.2% of the vote and 22 seats. The Socialists (PSOE under Sánchez) got 30.2% and 20 seats. The election will not have immediate consequences in the domestic arena, but PM Sánchez will have a hard time passing a budget or, for that matter, any other law due to the weakness of his parliamentary coalition. Spanish Socialists will be the leaders of the European Socialists (20 seats compared to 14 for the SPD), and the Partido Popular (PP) will be the second of the Conservatives (CDU/CSU has won 31 seats and the PP 22).

Spain is a pro-EU island. In an EU with most member states besieged with major divisions between pro- and anti-EU parties, Spain stands out for having two major pro-EU parties of the centre-right (Partido Popular, EPP) and centre-left (PSOE, S&D), standing above 30% of the vote (PP 34.2% and PSOE 30.2%).

At the same time, extremism, both from the extreme right (VOX), the extreme left (Podemos), and Catalan pro-secession parties are on the decline. While VOX increased its seats to 6 compared to 2019, its vote percentage yesterday (9.6%) is well below the 12.38% it scored in the general elections of July 2023 and its historic high of 15% in the November 2019 general election.

The election reinforced Spain's solid standing behind Ukraine and increased the defence budget as both the Socialists and the Conservatives agree on this. Sánchez’s junior government and parliamentary coalition partners, who are "pro-peace" in Ukraine (they want to stop sending arms) and tough on Israel (they want to break diplomatic relations with Israel), have been considerably weakened and just got five seats out of 61. The most pro-Russian Spanish MEP (Manuel Pineda, a member of the Communist Party IU) was not reelected.

Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez is applauded by MPs after delivering a speech to announce that Spain will recognise Palestine as a state on May 28 at the Congress of Deputies in Madrid on May 22, 2024.

Read more: Unilateral recognition inches Palestinian statehood forward

Jana Puglierin, Head of ECFR Berlin

Despite allegations of corruption and an election campaign lined with scandals, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) has grown from 11 to 15.9%. This means it has fallen short of the 22% that was thought possible at the beginning of the year. Nevertheless, the party emerged from the election as the big winner. If the result of the vote is an indicator for the three state elections in the eastern German federal states in September, the AfD threatens to become the strongest force there.

Together, the parties in the traffic light coalition are only about as strong as the CDU/CSU alone. All parties are fighting for every vote with a view to the three state elections and the federal elections next year. It is to be feared that the frictions within the coalition will intensify further, especially in view of the current budget negotiations.

Parties that want a radically different foreign policy course and do not support the current support for Ukraine won almost 25% of the vote. This has no direct impact on Germany's foreign policy course but increases pressure on politicians.

EPP, ECR, and ID win. In addition, Fidesz and the AfD, among others, are gathering under NI. The Parliament is moving significantly further to the right. This shift could have a particular impact on climate, migration, enlargement, budget, and rule of law. Legislation on climate and environmental protection, such as the recent Nature Restoration Law, could only just be pushed through. This will become even more difficult in the future.

From a German perspective, the shift to the right in France is particularly worrying, not only regarding the upcoming parliamentary elections but also the 2027 presidential election. If Trump is elected US president in November, the strategy of orienting security policy more towards France would be significantly riskier than it was yesterday.

Arturo Varvelli, Head of ECFR Rome

Giorgia Meloni is the winner of the European election in Italy. After two years of government, Fratelli d'Italia is firmly first party (now more than 28%), and Meloni arrives at the G7 this week and at the negotiations for the Commission in a strong position compared to her European colleagues Macron and Scholz. In the next few weeks, she will be able to play (if she wants to) a decisive role in shaping the new arrangements in Brussels. At the same time, Forza Italia (EPP) gets stronger at the expense of Salvini's Lega and the centrists of the Renew/Macron area.

The Meloni government—together with the EPP—is one of the clear winners of the elections. Meloni will now be forced to look to the centre, although she will be very curious to see if Le Pen wins in France on 7 July. PD by Elly Schlein passes its first major election test. The Democratic Party has improved its numbers since the general election. The Five Star Movement collapsed, probably due to the very low turnout in the south of Italy. Salvini avoided a collapse. But five years ago, he was the rising star of the centre-right; today, he is third behind Meloni and even a Forza Italia without Berlusconi.

Expect continuity from the Meloni government on international issues. The pro-Ukrainian attitude will not wane, and the anti-Chinese stance won’t either. However, we should probably expect a clearer call for a review of green policies.

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

Maria Simeonova, Head of ECFR Sofia

The European Parliament election in Bulgaria was heavily influenced by the sixth snap general election held on the same day. Record low voter turnout hurt the pro-European and pro-reformist coalition We Continue the Change-Democratic Bulgaria, whose supporters largely did not vote, while nationalist votes saw a slight increase. The turnout for the European election slightly surpassed that of the general election for the first time, indicating election fatigue and higher trust in EU institutions.

Although the votes are still being counted, the big winner of both elections appears to be the former prime minister’s party, GERB (EPP). The margin between GERB and the second-largest political formation is the widest in any snap election of the series. EPP maintains its leading position in Bulgaria, and the general election results open the possibility of forming a coalition government led by GERB. The most probable partner of GERB is the liberal Movement for Rights and Freedoms, whose co-chair, Delyan Peevski, is sanctioned by the US and Britain for alleged corruption.

Despite Bulgaria maintaining its pro-European stance, a return to the status quo could jeopardise ongoing rule of law reforms. This concern extends to foreign policy, while GERB—the election winner—supports Europe's geopolitical vision, questions remain about the credibility of its actions. We might see a return to opportunistic foreign policy rather than genuine efforts to strengthen Bulgaria's role on NATO's Eastern flank and in advancing EU enlargement.

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