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European Parliament Elections: Experts and Law-Makers ‘Extremely’ Worried About Influence of Anti-Gender Movements

As Europe’s far-right movement gains alarming momentum, what are its funding, tactics – and prevention strategies?

European Quarter in Brussels, Heart of the European Union, Belgium
Signs in Brussels urging people to vote in the European Parliament elections on 6-9 June 2024. Photo: Matthias Manuel/Alamy

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Less than six weeks from the European Parliament elections, Brussels is abuzz with anticipation – and concern about a further political move to the right.

The elections on 6-9 June – with a combined electorate of more than 400 million people voting across 27 countries – are expected to further mainstream far-right ideas and parties, potentially pulling the European Parliament to the right. 

Whether in Italy, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany or France, the far-right is marching steadily into the mainstream, with the latest polls indicating significant electoral gains. EU law-makers and independent experts in Brussels consider this “extremely worrying”.

Renew Europe MEP Samira Rafaela, of the Netherlands, warns of a “significant backlash against the rights and values that progressive movements, democrats, and liberals have worked so hard to establish”.

She told Byline Times: “Whether it’s the bodily autonomy of women, the right to abortion, or LGBTIQ rights, these movements are actively working to roll-back these hard-won rights, directly threatening our rule of law.”

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Dutch MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld, also of Renew Europe, believes the agenda is connected with anti-rights movements and serves as a “smokescreen for their real objectives – authoritarianism and kleptocracy”.  According to her, the discussion of ethical issues are “mere sales strategies”, not real goals and part of a broader movement. 

Both parliamentarians emphasise the strong link between right-wing political parties and anti-gender movements – highlighting the significant funding, well-thought-out plans behind them, and their transatlantic nature.

“These anti-democratic actors are infiltrating our democratic institutions, including the European Parliament and other multilateral organisations like the UN,” Rafaela said. “They are translating their ideology into dangerous legislative and policy proposals, which directly threaten people’s lives.”

According to the parliamentarians, one of the tactics frequently used by the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) group and the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), is to push for ‘split votes’ on gender and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) issues to prevent decisions from being made, as neither side holds the majority.

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Another strategy for pushing initiatives against abortion and equal marriage is utilising mechanisms such as the European Citizens Initiative (ECI) which, upon reaching one million signatures, requires the European Commission to either propose legislation or justify why it doesn’t. An example of a successful ECI by anti-democratic actors is One of Us, which now presents itself as “the most representative and global pro-life movement”.

These actors also employ traditional advocacy methods, using the same legal, advocacy, and campaigning techniques as progressive actors, but not their values and policy claims. They often focus on concepts like ‘religious freedom’ and ‘freedom of speech’, which is why they are sometimes referred to as “uncivil society” in the EU. One attempt tried to defeat the European Parliament reports on SRHR. 

Realising the gravity of this situation, Rafaela and her team researched the funding sources and uncovered significant foreign interference, with considerable foreign funding involved.

“I raised this issue with the President of the European Parliament, urging for a review of our transparency and lobby register,” she told Byline Times. “Until now, I haven’t seen the result of that request.”

In ‘t Veld added: “These organisations are like Trojan horses – they are infiltrating political systems and mobilising far-right voters.”

The European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights revealed in its 2021 research that $700 million has been spent on ‘anti-gender’ activities since 2009. About $430 million originated from European sources, $180 million from Russia and $80 million from the US.


The Anti-Gender Landscape in Europe 

David Paternotte, a Belgian sociologist and gender studies academic, believes the landscape of anti-gender campaigns in Europe is “rapidly evolving and expanding”.

“Countries that were not previously associated with such movements, especially those in northern Europe, like the Netherlands and Sweden, are now part of this phenomenon,” he told Byline Times.

Neil Datta, executive director of the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, identifies three broad categories of anti-gender actors – European branches of US Christian-Right organisations, newly created European organisations and networks, and organisations directly linked to religious institutions. 

According to Datta, the most vocal European branches of US Christian-Right organisations are the European Center for Law and Justice (ECLJ), the Alliance Defending Freedom International (ADFI), and the World Youth Alliance (WYA).

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While ECLJ and the ADFI specialise in legal advocacy and strategic litigation, Brussels-based WYA represents young people’s views on Catholic social doctrine, focusing on human dignity.

Investigations by OpenDemocracy 2019 revealed that the US Christian Right groups invested heavily in Europe, spending more than $98 million between 2007 and 2019, mainly on campaigns against women’s and LGBTIQ rights, sex education, and abortion.

Among home-grown anti-gender organisations are CitizenGo – an ultra-conservative, multi-lingual petition platform and advocacy group headquartered in Madrid, and One of Us Federation. 

Another vocal organisation is the Ordo Iuris, created in 2013 in Poland and part of the transnational movement Tradition, Family, Property (TFP). It is behind policy initiatives such as the 2016 bill to ban abortion and the “Stop Paedophilia” law, which criminalises sex education and allows LGBTIQ-free zones. 

Datta identifies two significant actors in the third category: the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE), representing the Roman Catholic Church in European institutions; and the European Christian Political Movement (ECPM), the only explicitly religious European political party. 

In addition, these actors and organisations have established several forums where they meet regularly for networking and strategising. The most noteworthy are the World Congress of Families (WCF), Agenda Europe, and the Political Network for Values.


Why Are They Gaining Respectability and Power?

The MEPs and experts agree that anti-rights movements are becoming increasingly sophisticated, particularly through the use of online platforms and new technologies.

“This is a significant challenge for us,” said Rafaela. “The online environment gives these anti-rights movements the means to target progressive voices and spread false and biased information.”

David Paternotte added: “By constantly producing content and occupying online spaces, they can reach diverse audiences and shape public opinion.”

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Paternotte mentioned the role of emerging media outlets, such as the Brussels Signal and the European Conservative, as offering an alternative perspective to what they perceive as “liberal” EU media.

“These platforms are open microphones for far-right leaders and actively support their agenda, especially in the run-up to elections,” he said.


Potential Election Scenarios

Currently, the European Parliament is composed of seven political groups. The largest five are: the European People’s Party (EPP) on the centre-right, the Socialists and Democrats on the centre-left, Renew Europe in the liberal centre, the Greens on the far-left, and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) on the hard-right.

Datta predicts that the far-right could become the majority “unless something extraordinary happens”. However, he believes it is unlikely that it will reach an absolute majority.

“They may not have enough to block legislation outright, but they could have enough influence to hinder other political parties from pursuing their usual agenda,” he said.

According to the expert, one possibility is that the far-right and hard-right factions perform well enough to prevent a majority between the centre-right and centre-left. Alternatively, the EPP might be tempted to form an alliance with the hard-right, or even the far-right, to establish a right-wing majority.

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“This potential alliance is worrying because it could lead to stagnation or even roll-back of the progress made in these areas,” Datta told Byline Times. “While the far-right may not make substantial gains, their influence on other political parties could be significant.”

In’ t Veld believes the most significant risk lies in EPP, which could lean towards far-right ideologies to secure support and weaken the political centre. 

Datta believes that EPP’s possible coalition with the hard-right – as seen in Sweden, Finland, and Italy – “poses a significant threat to the foundations of liberal democracy in Europe”.


How to Limit Far-Right Gain

Rafaela emphasised the need to organise multi-stakeholder dialogues, events, and campaigns to promote democratic values and ensure that citizens are well-informed and educated as many “still dismiss these concerns as conspiracy theories”.

She also stressed the importance of articulating their stance clearly.

“For instance, we must specify that we’re advocating for the right to safe and legal abortion access,” she said. “Otherwise, anti-rights movements can easily distort our message.”

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In ‘t Veld said the US Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe versus Wade has emboldened some European governments and highlighted the need to anchor rights in constitutional frameworks to prevent them from being easily undone. She mentioned the recent parliamentary vote in favour of including access to abortion in the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights.

According to the law-maker, another key strategy is raising awareness about foreign interference in debates on abortion, gender equality, and LGBTIQ rights.

But she acknowledged the challenges: “While general awareness is rising, it’s a slow process.”


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