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European Elections 2024: hope for the best, prepare for the worst?

Updated: Apr 21

April 9, 2024

By Anna Modestou


Welcome to Europe’s year of anxiety.

 

This year marks the most significant election year in history, with nearly half of the global population eligible to participate in various democratic and less democratic elections worldwide. Amidst this electoral fervor, all eyes are on Europe, where a familiar trend is set to dominate the political landscape once again: the rise of far-right parties.

 

Echoing previous European elections, much attention is directed towards the ascendance of far-right ideologies, anticipated to gain substantial traction in the upcoming polls. This trend is palpable as far-right parties lead in pre-election polls across several European nations, including Austria, Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Poland. However, internal divisions within the far-right camp could act as a limiting factor on its influence in the corridors of Brussels politics.

 

Despite the challenges, the forthcoming elections are expected to propel far-right ideologies and parties into the mainstream, thereby significantly altering the composition of the European Parliament. This shift towards the right reflects the evolving political landscape in many member states of the EU, where far-right parties have gradually gained acceptance and normalization (Mondon and Winter, 2020; Mudde, 2019a).

 

Is the very soul of Europe at risk?

 

The 2024 European elections bring forth several noteworthy novelties. Notably, this marks the first election post-Brexit, resulting in fewer available seats. These elections occur in the aftermath of significant global events such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the Gaza conflict, which have reshaped political landscapes across the EU.

 

Notwithstanding these shifts, many aspects of the 2024 elections mirror previous ones, notably the 2019 elections (Mudde, 2019b). They continue to be perceived as "second-order elections" by voters, with lower turnout compared to national parliamentary elections. Campaigns are largely focused on national issues, with European matters often sidelined.

 

Recent forecasts suggest a notable rightward shift in the 2024 elections, with the potential emergence of a populist right coalition within the European Parliament (Cunningham et al., 2024). While this isn't a drastic change from the 2019 elections, the rise of far-right parties within the right-wing bloc indicates a leaning towards "hard" Euroscepticism (Taggart and Szczerbiak, 2004). The campaign is expected to be dominated by far-right frames and issues, alongside discussions on the governability of the far right.While the far right is likely to see electoral success in 2024, their ability to translate this into political influence remains uncertain. Despite mainstreaming in national politics, far-right parties still face marginalization in Brussels, although this is more pronounced for certain groups like Identity and Democracy (ID) compared to European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), and has weakened over the past decade (Cunningham et al., 2024, 4).

 

Furthermore, group formation in the 2024 European Parliament elections is expected to witness some significant changes. Forecasts suggest that the right-wing European People's Party (EPP) and the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) will maintain their status as the two largest groups, with the EPP possibly widening its margin. Meanwhile, the far-right ID group is predicted to secure the third position, and the "conservative" ECR the fifth. Progressive groups like Renew Europe and the Greens are anticipated to experience losses, primarily due to shifts in one or two major parties in key countries, such as the projected gains for Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the expected losses for Ensemble in Germany, and the Greens in France. However, these predictions should be approached cautiously, especially considering the possibility of new, unaffiliated parties entering the EP.

 

Of particular interest is the evolving landscape of far-right groups within the EP. Traditionally, the far-right has been divided between the ID and the ECR, with increasing ideological convergence between the two. This convergence is attributed to the radicalization of conservative parties and the inclusion of far-right parties within the ECR (Manucci, 2021; McDonnell and Werner, 2019). Despite historical divisions over Russia, most ID parties have shifted towards an anti-Russian stance following Russia's invasion of Ukraine (Wondreys, 2023a. Another significant factor is the potential inclusion of Viktor Orbán's Fidesz party into the ECR, which could further push the group to the right and potentially lead to closer collaboration with the ID. However, this move could also disrupt existing alliances within the EP, particularly the alliance between the EPP and S&D, and lead to a reshaping of European politics.

 

The possibility of closer collaboration between the EPP and ECR, especially with Orbán's Fidesz, presents both opportunities and risks. While it could strengthen the far-right's influence within the EP and potentially extend to the European Council and Commission, it could also strain relationships within the EPP and lead to ideological clashes. The historical tensions between Orbán and some EPP leaders add further complexity to this dynamic.

 

Where is the limit for the EPP?

 

In electoral terms, the 2024 European elections are poised to echo the trend seen in the previous two elections, with an uptick in MEPs from right-wing Eurosceptic and far-right parties. Yet, the upcoming elections hold significant potential for a transformative shift in political power.

 

For the first time in its history, the European Parliament could witness a right-wing majority, altering the political landscape substantially. The pivotal role may not lie with the mainstream-right EPP or the far-right ID, but rather with the "hybrid" ECR, predicted to be the fifth-largest group. Facing internal divisions, the ECR faces a critical decision regarding potential alliances with new parties, including those from the ID or Orbán's Fidesz, risking its existing ties with the EPP.

 

Given historical divisions and ideological differences within the far-right, the emergence of a cohesive "super group" remains improbable for the next parliamentary term. Instead, the EP is likely to witness a weak "mainstream" coalition susceptible to influence from the right wing of the EPP. This alignment could result in tighter immigration policies and a diminished focus on initiatives such as the European Green Deal, alongside reduced efforts in protecting minority rights and sanctioning illiberal governments within the EU.

 

Concerning European integration, divisions within the mainstream groups may facilitate the influence of Eurosceptic voices, potentially affecting the course of EU enlargement and institutional reform. However, there is no unified stance among right-wing Eurosceptics on these matters, with varying positions within parties. Additionally, the potential return of Donald Trump to the White House could further strain EU-US relations, necessitating a more independent EU approach to foreign and military objectives amid internal divisions over European collaboration.

 

And at the end, as uncertainty looms, preparing for the worst becomes not just a precaution, but a necessity.

 


References

Cunningham, K. and S. Hix with S. Dennison and I. Learmonth (2024), A Sharp Right Turn: A Forecast for the 2024 European Parliament Elections, ECFR Policy Brief, 523.

 

Manucci, L. (2020), Forty years of populism in the European Parliament, População e Sociedade, 35, 25-42.


Mudde, C. (2019a), The Far Right Today, Polity.


Mudde, C. (2019b), The 2019 EU elections: Moving the center, Journal of Democracy, 30(4), 20-34.


Taggart, P. and A. Szczerbiak (2004), Contemporary Euroscepticism in the party systems of the European Union candidate states of Central and Eastern Europe, European Journal of Political Research, 43(1), 1-27.


Wondreys, J. (2023a), Putin’s puppets in the West? The far right’s reaction to the 2022 Russian (re)invasion of Ukraine, Party Politics, OnlineFirst.

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