What is the far right? Why nationalist parties are on the rise in Europe (2024)

Radical-right political parties have made significant gains in the European Parliament elections.

So much so that French President Emmanuel Macron has called for snap elections in his country.

But a surge in support for the far right isn't new for the continent.

Nationalist and populist parties are becoming increasingly dominant in national settings across many EU capitals.

This is where the groups have been on the rise. And what the shifts to the right could mean for the EU and beyond.

What is the far right?

Traditionally, far-right parties have been openly "authoritarian, anti-Semitic and racist", Ben Wellings, professor in politics and international relations at Monash University, said.

But these days, many have been through a process of modernisation that has made them more respectable than they once were.

"Some of these parties have far-right antecedents, but we now call them radical-right parties," Professor Wellings said.

"The old far right would have been white supremacists … but the radical right is slightly more complicated."

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For instance, in France, Marine Le Pen's National Rally Party — formally known as the National Front — used to be a very authoritarian political party that was openly anti-Semitic, Professor Wellings said.

"But it's not quite either of those things anymore … it says it adheres to republican, secular values, which are majoritarian rather than racist," he said.

"But of course, it's kind of aimed at Muslims, so it's how you interpret that."

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Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d'Italia — FdI) was related to a post-war fascist party, but she downplays its roots.

She describes the Fdl as mainstream conservative, particularly pushing against anti-Semitism so the party can align with Israel, Professor Wellings said.

"Those things are less immediately apparent — but I'm not saying they're not there," he said.

"But in terms of the way that the party leaders present themselves and have, in some ways, successfully turned their parties around to get that new generation of support."

Political observers attribute the shift to the right to the rise in the cost of living, concerns about migration and the cost of the green transition, and the war in Ukraine — worries that many of the parties have seized on.

"Economic downturns and economic difficulties are always good news for right-wing parties or [parties that] radically sit outside the mainstream," Professor Wellings said.

Where is the far right dominating?

The nationalist Sweden Democrats support a minority government and are the second-largest force in parliament.

Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders, who is known for his anti-Islam, anti-immigration rhetoric, is poised to enter a ruling coalition.

In Germany, the hard-right, fiercely anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD), is polling second, alongside the Social Democrats.

In Austria, the far-right Freedom Party has been leading the polls, and Poland's hard-right Confederation Party has been growing in popularity.

In March, 49 MPs from the far-right party Chega in Portugal were elected to parliament, up from 12 only two years before.

And in France, the far-right National Rally Party won about twice as much of the vote as President Emmanuel Macron's pro-European centrist party in Sunday's EU elections.

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This led to Mr Macron calling a snap election, addressing the nation on Sunday to say he would be dissolving the National Assembly.

"I've decided to give you back the choice of our parliamentary future through the vote," he said.

Duncan McDonnell, professor of politics at Griffith University, said the rise of the right in Europe had not happened overnight, but it was continuing to grow.

"There is clearly an increasing normalisation and spread of the radical right, also into countries where we used to never see them before," he told ABC RN Breakfast.

What are the European elections?

The European Parliament's most important role is reviewing and approving new laws governing the 27-nation bloc of 450 million people.

It is directly elected by EU voters every five years.

The parliament co-decides legislation with the European Council, which holds meetings with heads of government from member states to set the political direction of the EU.

After Sunday’s elections, nationalist, populist and eurosceptic parties were on course to win just under a quarter of seats, according to the chamber's own projections.

They finished first in France, Italy and Austria and came second in Germany and the Netherlands.

While the centre, liberal and Socialist parties were set to retain a majority in the 720-seat parliament, the domestic blow to several leaders raised questions about how the EU's major powers could drive policy in the bloc.

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Griffith University's Professor McDonnell says although mainstream parties will still dominate the European Parliament, there may be shifts in coalitions.

"The increase in votes for radical-right parties means that the centre right may be tempted to form alternative coalitions on some issues with elements of the radical right," he said.

"Giorgia Meloni, the radical-right prime minister of Italy, is someone who the centre right in the European parliament is quite fond of."

European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen said the result came with great responsibility for the parties in the centre.

"This election has given us two messages. First, there remains a majority in the centre for a strong Europe and that is crucial for stability," she said,

"In other words, the centre is holding."

What could be impacted by the far right?

With the liberals and particularly the Greens going backwards, a main concern in the rightwards shift is the EU's attempts to reach its climate targets.

"This is bad news as far as the EU's so-called Green New Deal is concerned, and attempts to reach net zero by 2050," Professor Wellings said.

The parliament may also find it tougher to pass new legislation that might be needed to respond to security challenges, or industrial competition from China and the United States.

And support for Ukraine in its ongoing conflict with Russia may be compromised.

"There's already a sort of fatigue because the war has gone on for so long," Professor McDonnell said.

"I think the Ukrainians will be a little bit alarmed by the rise of some of these parties."

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But although there's momentum on the right side of politics, coordination between the parties is difficult as there are many issues where they do not align.

For instance, Ms Le Pen tries to distance herself from the Afd due to its Neo-Nazi links, Professor Wellings said.

And while Ms Le Pen and Hungary's leader Viktor Orban tend to be on the side of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Italian prime minister is pro-Ukraine and pro-NATO.

Without the voices of the extreme right being able to unite, they will lack direct weight in the legislature.

"There's a lot of effervescence of ideas on the right of politics, but that also goes with a significant fragmentation," Professor Wellings said.

ABC/Wires

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What is the far right? Why nationalist parties are on the rise in Europe (2024)

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