2024: The year of the "Great Reset"?

The far-right drinks to its victory in the EU, but the EU has other problems to attend to

CSU's top candidate in the European elections, the EPP Group Chairman in the European Parliament Manfred Weber (L), European Commision President Ursula von der Leyen (2-L) and Bavarian Premier Markus Soeder (2-R) hold hands, at the end of the final campaign rally of CDU and CSU for the European elections in Munich Germany, 07 June 2024.
© EPA-EFE/ANNA SZILAGYI   |   CSU's top candidate in the European elections, the EPP Group Chairman in the European Parliament Manfred Weber (L), European Commision President Ursula von der Leyen (2-L) and Bavarian Premier Markus Soeder (2-R) hold hands, at the end of the final campaign rally of CDU and CSU for the European elections in Munich Germany, 07 June 2024.

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Waves of champagne flowed on June 9 in celebration of the victory of the far-right in the country that eats left-wing caviar, France after Marine le Pen’s Rassemblement National (the National Assembly – RN) grabbed 35.1% of Sunday’s vote. It’s the best way to describe the (more or less extreme) right turn of a European Union that, ever since its establishment, has positioned itself (along with its constituent right-wing parties) left of other geopolitical blocs in terms of its social or education policies.

The victory of the far-right: a predictable and somewhat inconsequential result

President Macron's dissolution of the French Parliament is just the consequence of this ideological mood. At any rate, many say this decision was long in the making, regardless of how sensational the announcement sounded, given the RN's threatening score in the election. The victory of the National Assembly is not the only political highlight of right-wing parties, whether extreme or radical in their ideological underpinnings. Giorgia Meloni and her Fratelli d'Italia consolidated their position, winning 28% of the vote, by 26% more than what they obtained in the national elections of 2022. The party will also have a greater say in European negotiations, amidst Macron’s waning influence in France and the historically low score obtained by Olaf Scholz's SPD in Germany, which for the first time in history came in third in the elections, after CDU and AfD. Europe's two major decision-makers thus see themselves deprived of the popular legitimacy that underpins their negotiating power in Brussels. For the far-right, AfD’s unconvincing results are also noteworthy, the party grabbing over 16% of the vote, considering the results of the previous elections (10%, most of which came from areas of the former East Germany). The very good score obtained by Vlaams Belang, the Flemish separatist party in Belgium, should also be counted as an ideological victory for the far-right, although it seems it will not translate into a larger number of MEPs. Meanwhile in Spain, Vox probably managed to double its number of European Parliament representatives, however with a score below poll estimates.

The center’s score exceeded poll expectations. How is that important?

If it wasn't such a serious party, in the good or bad sense of the word, the European People's Party would also have raised mountains of champagne glasses for the good results it obtained, a lukewarm 30% for the CDU in Germany. The anticipated result is below historical figures, although better than the result of 2023. The EPPs also secured victory in Flanders, represented by the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), which surpassed, with 18.6% of the vote, Vlaams Belang with 15.4%, even if the parties have improved their standing. Tusk's populist centrist Civic Coalition won the election in Poland with 37.1% of the vote, to the detriment of Kaczyński's illiberal Law and Justice Party, which came in second with 36.2%, giving Poland additional influence in policymaking in Brussels, amidst the aforementioned waning influence of the “French-German engine”.

The populists grabbed very good scores also in Spain, the Baltic States, Slovenia or Croatia, Greece and Bulgaria, leading to an increase in the number of seats in the European Parliament, over 180, depending on polls. Not even Renew, the European election’s greatest loser, has not fallen much below previous polls, as it is rated with 80 seats or more, compared to the original estimates of 70-75 seats. Together with the S&D's near-equal 2019 result, this gives Europe's “governing coalition” (EPP-ALDE/Renew-S&D) a much stronger majority than anticipated - probably over 400 seats in a 720-seat European Parliament, where the validation of Ursula von der Leyen for a second term at the helm of Commission requires 361 votes in favor. It is also worth noting that ID (Identity and Democracy), the European ideological group with anti-Ukraine and anti-EU positions, could even lose one or more seats in the new Parliament makeup, despite previous estimates.

We held our ground in the end, but what good will it do us?

Overall, the headline about the European Parliament election carried by the Tageszeitung on Monday, June 10, is a fitting description for the European Union as a whole: “It's good that, at least 80% of Germans are still sane”. It’s a phrase that reflects the mood in Europe better than the champagne of the far-right. What we might call a surprisingly inconsequential victory for the far-right is by no means inconsequential in the long run. To better understand what is happening today in the EU, we can look more closely at Hungary, a country that has become a kind of dystopia or post-Europe. Viktor Orbán, who announced he would “conquer Brussels”, can claim that he accomplished his mission after Fidesz grabbed 48% of Sunday’s vote. That certainly was no reason for celebration, because the score is the lowest obtained in recent times by Hungary’s illiberal number one party, unaffiliated at European Parliament level. And Orbán's former ally, Péter Magyar, gets a remarkable 31% with Tisza (“Respect and Freedom”). The problem, however, is that Magyar's party is not necessarily the most democratic and centrist opposition faction, but, according to some pundits, shares great illiberal affinities with Fidesz, the party it branched out from.

In other words, it’s interesting to examine what's happening on the right end of the political spectrum and the divergences that arise therein. Whereas the situation in Hungary might not surprise us, we can also take a look at Sahra Wagenkhecht's BSW, rated with 6% in Germany, which combines left-wing economic policies with its opposition to support for Ukraine and an anti-migration drive. It’s caviar mixed with champagne, like the remains of a great feast, but some might have forgotten where they were placed on the ideological table at start of the feast.

Ideological fundamentals of such kind might in one or two election cycles evolve into genuine EU-wide movements that could change the face of the European Union, and not in a necessarily positive sense.

But there’s good news too in terms of a change in the political dynamics in Brussels. Beyond the growing influence of Italy or Poland, the vulnerability of German and French leaders implicitly means that Ursula von der Leyen and the European Commission will, to a greater extent, draw their legitimacy from the parties themselves, of which the European populists are the big winners, more in the sense of “big” and “winners” rather than actually having grabbed a great victory. Their audacious electoral manifesto, with numerous references to geopolitics, defense and the clarification of migration issues, has borne fruit, in addition to poignantly distancing themselves from extremism. Of course, a red tape apparatus such as Brussels will be harder to restructure, and the European machine will be repeatedly hampered by changes in power relations and position shifting. Yet with popular legitimacy secured by means of national parties rather than country leaders, the European Union today is closer to the purpose it was originally envisioned for.

Romania's place at the table: right at the center

The “landslide” victory grabbed by the PNL-PSD coalition (53% according to current estimates) in the European Parliament election defies any wordplay with “caviar” and “champagne”. Secured through a mechanism that many will resent, their victory means Romania will have a greater say in European politics, given that the PNL-PSD alliance will itself be represented by 19 MEPs. Adding to them are representatives of the other alliance, the United Right, which means three or four additional MEPs, as well as the UDMR MEPs, who traditionally side with the EPP. The collapse of AUR and SOS Romania is just as inconsequential as the scenario where the two parties would have obtained over 25%, thus meeting the electoral threshold, because that would not impact political decision-making. Lacking strategic skills and, apparently, a functional representation across the territory, these parties are at the mercy of shifting political moods. Were we to make an analogy with the general situation in Europe, we could refer to the existence of two radical, or extremist, right-wing factions, with obscure ideological differences.

Otherwise, the only real achievement of AUR and SOS was to legitimize the center turn of the majority of voters, as eager to remain “sane” as their German peers. In fact, this is the true interpretation of the landslide victory secured by PNL-PSD, seen in a European key. And, at the risk of upsetting some of the readers, PNL-PSD and Tusk's Civic Coalition tend to shift the center of gravity of Europe's political makeup eastwards, if I’m allowed to make such a daring statement.

Like Germany and the whole of Europe, Romania is not hungry for caviar or champagne right now. Romania doesn't have very high expectations of politicians and would like to be left to mind its own business. However, the global context is exerting great pressure, from the confrontation with Russia to migration issues, and local voters will be very interested in political proposals from this area. In the absence of rational proposals, they will be more willing to consider less rational ones.

In other words, Romania and Europe as a whole will have to deal with the hangover of the far-right’s champagne-fused celebration.

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Iulian Comănescu

Iulian Comănescu




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