Back in May 2019, one week before the European elections, demonstrators took to the streets of Vienna to express their outrage over the latest political scandal in their country, known as the ‘Ibiza affair.’ This was another reminder that internal affairs in one member state (Austria in this case) may impact EU policy and even European election results. The purpose of this analysis is to reflect on this interconnected nature of the events and the far right discourses that sparked public outcry and civic movements in different EU member states before EU elections in May 2019. It is important to understand these events just few days before the new Commission lead by Ursula von der Leyen takes office.

The ‘Ibiza affairs’ in Austria started in May 2019 with a video that was filmed secretly two years ago and revealed the leader of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party, former Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, offering public contracts to a woman posing as a niece of Russian oligarch Igor Makarov. In exchange, she promised financial support for Strache’s party and media coverage for his political campaign. Der Spiegel, the influential German weekly known for its investigative journalism, broke the story to the European public debate. As a consequence, Strache resigned his post, and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz dissolved his government shortly after the footage became public.

Almost at the same time, just a few hundred miles away  – in Italy there was Matteo Salvini, the Italian anti-immigrant Interior Minister and leader of the right-wing League party (Lega), who delivered a speech to thousands of supporters at a rally of European populist movements. Before 2019 he acted mostly as a ‘lone-wolfer’, but before the elections he managed to be accompanied by other European far-right leaders, including Marine Le Pen from France’s National Rally party and Joerg Meuthen from the Alternative for Germany party. For Salvini, this public disclosure of his intolerant policies in Milan was yet another opportunity to position himself as a sort of leader of European populists and to deliver his trademark criticism of the European Union as part of the Eurosceptic’s main messages in the election campaign. He denounced EU policy towards immigrants, described Islam as the biggest security threat to Europe, and pledged to return control of the EU to its citizens. And yet, Strache’s absence hinted of potential weaknesses in Salvini’s push for far-right strength in unity.

Numerous citizens reacted in both Austria and Italy against this types of messages and this sparked a pro-European type of protest against populist demagogues. These protests in Vienna and Milan earlier this year become, from my point of view, emblematic of the deep divisions among European voters, that marked the elections for the European Parliament. This elections were always regarded as ‘a second order event’, usually perceived by citizens as less appealing than national elections, and this is how many explained the very little voter turnout. But this year’s European elections gave all the signs that it will be fundamentally different, especially because of citizens engagement in defending European democracy and European values. The results constituted what many analysts consider as ‘a tipping point’ in modern European history, reaching the highest scores in voter turnout in decades.

We should be frank about it – the European Parliament has never been very popular, as voter turnout in its elections has constantly dropped from 62 percent to 42 percent over the last four decades. European citizens are perpetually puzzled with the way the EU works and often see Brussels as overly bureaucratic, run by unaccountable politicians detached from their voters back in their home countries. The Parliament cannot initiate legislation – that is the purview of the executive branch, the European Commission – but it can request legislation to be introduced, and , most importantly since the Treaty of Lisbon, it votes on the EU budget. The process is complex because this is the unique case of a transnational Parliament in the world.

European Citizens, Pivotal Issues and Odd Alliances

The major differences of this year’s EU elections are far greater than the number of seats, for at least two reasons. First, as Salvini’s rally speech in Milan demonstrated, three key issues of EU policy animated the entire election: (anti-)migration, security (specifically terrorism by Islamic extremists), and `reform’ of the bureaucracy. The enthusiasm of Salvini’s crowd  of supporters illustrates the importance of these elections to the ‘future of Europe’ debate.

The second difference from the previous elections in 2014 is that, unlike any time before – and perhaps counter-intuitively — Europeans are now less divided between traditional left and right. The great support for green parties was a clear confirmation for that. With the populists getting in the end one-third of the seats in the Parliament and the menace of populist demagogy and nationalism ever growing, with Nigel Farage as leader of the Brexit Party back in the European Parliament, the need for cooperation between otherwise ideologically different parties grows, and it outweighs whatever differences they might have over topics such as migration and the future of the EU.

Traditional conservatives, embodied in the European People’s Party (EPP) caucus in the European Parliament, have more at stake than any others. They currently hold 217 of 751 seats and hope to remain the largest political grouping. But the surging popularity of far-right movements gives voters an apparently viable alternative. In the face of this challenge, traditional European conservatives have moved further to the right to appeal to their electorate, sharpening their rhetoric and, for example, advocating a stricter EU migration policy.

Aware of their unique opportunity, the populists are not wasting time. This spring they formed a new alliance to, as they say, radically transform EU policy in several areas. But the alliance is more than Italy and France. Many well-known faces from the European far-right, including the Alternative for Germany, the populist party The Finns, the right-wing Danish People’s Party, the Dutch Party for Freedom (known for its anti-Islam and anti-migrants agenda), and Strache’s Freedom Party all joined the alliance.

Reforming the EU or Disintegrating It?

This is not the first time that Europe’s far-right parties have sought to present a united front. Similar groups like the Europe of Nations and Freedom Group (ENF) or Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) existed before or are still active. Yet this time, with hope of becoming the third-largest group in the European Parliament and seeing public sentiment shift in favor of the EU after the still-inconclusive Brexit disaster, the populists have modified their political discourse and public image: they now proclaim they want to cure the EU, not kill it. The talk about exit is replaced by talk of returning control of the EU to its members and its citizens, to the abstract ‘people’. Even Le Pen has acknowledged that they have learned a lesson: “The party now talks of changing the EU from within,” in her own words.

The far-right parties say they want to halt illegal migration, make the Schengen visa-free zone more strict, restore national sovereignty, and devolve EU authorities to the level before the 1992 Maastricht Treaty that created today’s EU. They argue that such measures would `save’ Europe and its `Christian culture’ and traditions. Many of them refer to the EU, as Strache has done, as a decadent place that betrays `European traditions.’ They use almost the same rhetoric as Moscow does to describe the EU. For his part, Salvini has successfully transformed himself and has come a long way from a second-league regional nationalist to one of the most prominent leaders of the European far-right. He believes the movement’s strength is increasing, and he thinks that it has found a formula for success. The group has been trying to utilize what it depicts as increasing public discontent with Brussels.

The first political test came soon after the elections, with the appointment of a new president of the European Commission. The far right Eurosceptics took this as an example of why the EU should be ‘overhauled’. Salvini mistakenly believed that his group, with its apparent growing confidence and unity, will have enough votes to determine who will run the Commission for the next four years. The results proved how to be only partially wrong.

Conclusions – Post-Election Test for EU Democracy

Almost half a year after elections, still, for the far right, the prospect of success is not a foregone conclusion. Strache’s absence from the meeting in Milan earlier in May was a huge setback for the movement. With his anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim messages, he has served as a role model for many rightists in Europe. The scandal has not only ruined his and his party’s odds of achieving a good election result, but also stains the reputation of rightists by association as corrupted, greedy, and fraudulent, the very allegations the Eurosceptics often toss at bureaucrats in Brussels.

Another hurdle for the new nationalist block in the EU was the absence of populist leaders from Eastern European countries. It appears that Salvini’s group is not politically attractive to Hungary’s Orban or to Polish nationalists for example, who have declined to join the alliance. Orban would likely be even more reluctant to do so after this scandal. His Fidesz party still belongs to the EPP even though the caucus suspended its membership because of its right-wing policies. Though Fidesz is on the same page with the far right on many tough issues, Orban seems to be willing to remain in the EPP.

The biggest enigma in all this, however, is how voters perceived all these events. An ECFR survey from this spring shows that most European citizens are concerned about the EU’s future. Two-thirds of Europeans have a positive opinion of the EU, the strongest support since the early 1980s. At the same time, a majority believe the Union could collapse in the next 20 years. Interestingly, the majority of those who say they plan to vote for anti-system parties believe a war between EU member states is possible. The fear is likely based less on any prediction of actual conflict than reflecting concern that the “logic of conflict” dominates political discourse in Europe. For instance, 46 percent of supporters of France’s National Rally Party and 41 percent of the supporters of Alternative for Germany hold this view. Across the EU, three-quarters of voters feel that politics is broken at the national or EU levels, or both. Only 15 percent of French citizens think the political system works well.

In fact, I would conclude this analysis by outlining the fact that the ambivalent feelings of European citizens in recent years (which made the final results in 26 May even more surprising) mirror the challenges facing the EU: a widening division between old and new member states, and intense support for ’a two speed Europe’ scenario even more visible than a possible right-left discrepancy. And this is not good for the long term coalition building in the European Parliament, which is a mirror of EU democracy. The Eurosceptics will continue to have a voice and play on the fear of migration in countries such as Germany, Italy, Austria, the Netherlands, Greece, and Poland. And pro-EU parties focus on the fear of nationalism as well as economic uncertainty and climate change, some of them remaining in the margins of citizens preferences (as seen in the latest Eurobarometer). The messages that inspired voters the most to turn out and vote in last spring’s European elections in such big numbers are also the ones that put most pressure on how they will be represented by the main political groups in the European Parliament starting with autumn 2019. This also puts extra-pressure on the legitimacy of the new Commission lead by Ursula von der Leyen.

This analysis was written in the project “A new narrative for Europe: Bringing more union into the European Union – the cost of non EU” (Acronym BRING), funded through the programme Europe for Citizens, coordinated by CRPE, where SNSPA is partener. The opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author.


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