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Arnold Le Goeuil argues that the looming European elections provide an opportunity for Far-right populists to take over the EU rather than leave it.
This time the vote could truly go either way – with Leavers reinforced or Remainers proving staying in the EU is the only answer. We’re talking here about the forthcoming European Parliament elections, of course. With right-wing parties once again on the rise across the EU — as well as at home in the UK — it’s no wonder that engaging with voters and trying to get them to the polls will be decisive in the vote ahead.
Along came Brexit showing the continent that leaving is – if not impossible – still a far more difficult and protracted process than anybody imagined.
More than Brexit, it’s the future of the EU that is at stake. Brexit has changed the whole playfield of British and European politics — shaking major parties and further polarising the spectrum. But what voters will do?
Will Britain’s Brexit Vote Boost Voter Turnout?
European election polling stations are used to long empty days — in 2014 only 35% Britons voted in the EU polls. Continental voters have done slightly better — 42% of French, 43% of Spanish, 48% of Germans and 58% of Italians got to the polls last time out. But in general the figures remain poor.
So, will the troubled Brexit – the first time a Member state has voted to depart the EU – boost turnout? Likely not, at least on mainland Europe.
The biggest impact Brexit has had on European politics is actually to reinforce unity between member states.
Participation rates are still broadly influenced by national debates and even if Brits have the impression the Brexit is shaking the whole EU to its core, to be frank, that’s not quite the case.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t feature in debates. Marine Le Pen, the darling of the French Far Right, compares France’s growth rate negatively with ‘prosperous’ post-Brexit British growth. Never mind that Brexit hasn’t happened yet – and that such growth has taken place from within the EU.
The biggest impact Brexit has had on European politics is actually to reinforce unity between member states in their response to Westminster: turning down debates around the refugee crisis or financial struggles, for example. And it has also influenced Eurosceptic parties’ approach to the EU: most now call for reform more than more referendums on membership.
Will Britain’s Brexit Vote Boost the European Far-right?
Far-right European parties, with Viktor Orbán, Matteo Salvini and Marine Le Pen in the foreground, began 2019 on a clear upward trajectory. In nearly half of the EU’s 28 states, they lead the executive or the opposition suggesting there is a bigger majority than in the previous elections for a mixture of nationalist, authoritarian, Eurosceptic and anti-system policies and ideologies
The Far-right govern alone in three EU countries (Hungary, Poland and Croatia), are part of alliances in five (Slovakia, Italy, Austria, Bulgaria and Denmark) and influence the opposition in four (Czech Republic, France, Slovenia and the Netherlands).
Whether it is the FPÖ, Front National, Liga, AfD, PVV, Fidesz or PiS, all main European Far-right parties could thrive again in the 2019 elections. Combined, they are already predicted to secure around 150 MEPs – more than social democrat movements.
However, most of them have changed track from the 2014 campaign when they pledged that, if elected, their country would leave the EU.
But then along came Brexit, and its troubled aftermath, showing the continent that leaving is – if not impossible – still a far more difficult and protracted process than anybody imagined.
Has Britain’s Brexit Vote encouraged Other Countries to Leave the EU?
As a result of the widespread pessimism about the likely economic impact of the UK’s departure, some far-right leaders like Marine Le Pen or Viktor Orbán have moderated their approach. Sure, they still admonish the EU for allegedly being ‘technocratic’, ‘liberal’ or ‘disconnected’ – but none of them now firmly propose an immediate EU exit.
So the good news for Europe is that, like it or not, Brexit has temporally reinforced the EU project – whichever form you think it takes. The political battle shifted has from “pro-versus-anti-Europe” to a question of what kind of EU should prevail?
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Like the liberal values spread by the christian or social democrats who were the EU’s founding fathers, the far-right now understands what a powerful tool the Union could be for their own interests.
While many right movements still focus on defending their nation’s supposed ‘core identity’, the chances are that in pre-election debates they will present a revised agenda of defending a traditional White-Christian European identity.
Farage and other Eurosceptics consider the 23 May elections as their last big attempt to save the shambolic Brexit process
UKIP, Brexit Party, ERG: all have engaged a similar fight to defend Middle England’s ‘glorious’ past. And, whisper it if you dare, some of them have had a reasonable amount of success, despite the fact that Brexit is stalling fast. A recent YouGov poll ahead of the EU votes, put Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party on 27 per cent, ahead of Labour on 22 per cent with the Conservatives falling to 15 per cent.
Farage and other Eurosceptics consider the 23 May elections as their last big attempt to save the shambolic Brexit process amid Westminster’s arithmetic stalemate.
The Real Change – President of the Commission
But real change could take place in Brussels beyond 23 May, when the 27 heads of state will meet in November to agree on a new President of the European Commission. That outcome will be strongly linked to the election results.
In pre-election debates they will present a revised agenda of defending a traditional White-Christian European identity.
If the centre-right EPP is more or less assured of getting the Commission Presidency, the political strength of the Far-right could have a huge impact on the next Commission’s priorities – and on its political approach towards Brexit thereafter (should Brexit still be ongoing then).
Similarly, should the British right, namely the Brexit party and UKIP, manage to be among the first few parties, they’ll argue that Britain just held its second referendum in favour of Leave and pretend that ‘nothing has changed’.