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The leaders of 12 European far-right parties at a rally in Milan, May 18, 2019. Miguel Medina / AFP/Getty

Will the Radical Right Break the EU?

In the race for the European Parliament, politics are becoming transnational—and threatening the union from within.

The leaders of 12 European far-right parties at a rally in Milan, May 18, 2019. Miguel Medina / AFP/Getty

On June 24, 2016, at the headquarters of the National Front in Nanterre, France, Marine Le Pen hosted an impromptu press conference to celebrate the result of Britain’s referendum on EU membership. “What no one had envisaged a few months ago is now a reality that must be acknowledged by all: Yes, it is possible to leave the European Union,” she said. A poster of two fists, breaking free of their heavy chains, plastered the wall behind her. “Et Maintenant La France!” the caption read: And now France.

As Le Pen spoke, fellow travelers across Europe took to Twitter to express their euphoria. “All I want to say: THANK! YOU!! #NigelFarage For #Brexit and #Independenceday,” wrote Beatrix von Storch, leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany. “Hurray for the British! Now it is our turn. Time for a Dutch referendum! #ByeByeEU,” wrote Geert Wilders of the Dutch Party for Freedom.

“The U.K. has just initiated a movement that will not stop,” Le Pen concluded in her speech. “The movement towards the end of the EU as we know it has begun.”

Since the Brexit referendum, disintegration has been the prevailing anxiety among the establishment leaders of European politics. Britain’s departure from the EU, these figures feared, would spark contagion, and Europe would suffer through several more portmanteau referendums—Frexit, Grexit, Auxit, and so on. As recently as May 2018, Italy’s Five Start Movement was campaigning on the promise of a eurozone referendum. “I want the Italian people to express themselves,” said Beppe Grillo, the party’s co-founder. “Should we leave Europe or not?” Five Star skyrocketed to 32.7 percent of the vote in that year’s general election.

But in the run-up to this week’s European Parliament elections, the euphoric calls for exit have all but gone silent. The manifesto for Le Pen’s National Rally party—the newest incarnation of the old National Front—contains no reference to a referendum on EU membership. Alternative for Germany has similarly backed away from its former pledge to “Dexit,” threatening to leave the EU only if its demands are not met “in a timely manner.” Instead, Europe’s far right is campaigning vigorously for seats in the next European Parliament under the banner of its newest coalition, Europe of Nations and Freedom, hoping to take the movement’s anti-Islam and anti-immigrant platform to the heart of the EU.

Far from retreating to the borders of the nation-state, politics in Europe is becoming transnational. Brussels is no longer seen as a province of backroom bureaucrats, and political parties are no longer speaking only a national language. As a result, the elections for the European Parliament—famous for low rates of voter turnout and lower rates of public engagement—have become the site of boisterous conflict between competing visions of Europe’s future.

Protesters in Berlin rally ​in favor of the European Union, in March 2019.
Stefan Boness/Panos Pictures/R​edux

In the short term, at least, many pro-European commentators are breathing a sigh of relief. The endgame of the 2016 Brexit vote unfolded precisely as they had hoped: It revealed the high cost and daunting complexity of an EU exit, and in doing so, crushed the cause of Euroskeptics. Today, more citizens support the EU than at any point in the last 35 years, with the percentage of citizens who hold a “positive image” of EU swinging by 9 percentage points since 2016 alone. An existential crisis averted.

But if Brexit has fortified the European Union on the outside, it has intensified conflict on the inside. With the relief valve of exit apparently closed, pressure is rising to win power from within the EU institutions and to repurpose them to serve a partisan agenda—whether that is a green Europe, a red Europe, or an all-white Europe. “We didn’t have much choice: Either we had to submit [to the EU] or we had to leave it,” says Marine Le Pen. “But now we have allies.”

In other words, the fear of EU collapse has been replaced by the fear of its capture. With the polls predicting the most fragmented European Parliament in its history, no one knows which vision for Europe will win out in the end—or whether the friction between warring parties will simply grind the European Union to an excruciating halt. 

“I summarize it this way,” Le Pen said, referring to this week’s election. “The European Union is dead. Long live Europe.” 

We tend to take for granted that there is a thing called “European politics.” The famous question attributed to Henry Kissinger—Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?—not only reflects a general tendency for Americans to gloss over regional differences, but also a more specific view of Europe as a monolith, speaking with one voice. From this perspective, the formation of a European Union was all but inevitable, as disparate nations—just like the stars on the American flag—realized their continental manifest destiny.

But fear of a transnational political union was always at the heart of the European project. In 1965, less than a decade after the historic Treaty of Rome created the European Economic Community, Charles de Gaulle railed against the ambition to create a federation in which “countries would lose their national personalities” and everyone “would be ruled by some technocratic, stateless, and irresponsible Areopagus.”

The prospects for deeper integration did not fare better after de Gaulle’s resignation. Following the Hague Summit in 1969, Europe plunged into what has been described as the Dark Ages of integration. The global economy was in the midst of a tremendous transformation: President Nixon’s sudden decision to go off the Gold Standard struck at the foundation of Europe’s economic ecosystem, based on stable exchange rates among its currencies; the oil crisis two years later destabilized the economy even further. The “golden age” of postwar capitalism was over, and a new generation of post-1968 radical left movements was rising to replace it. Europessimism—the sense that the era of integration had reached its end—prevailed.

However, a small group of businessmen was organizing behind the scenes to press ahead with Europe’s economic integration—and to crush a rising “Eurocommunism.” In 1983, Pehr Gyllenhammar (CEO of Volvo), Wisse Dekker (CEO of Philips), and Umberto Agnelli (CEO of Fiat) founded the European Roundtable of Industrialists (ERT), bringing together 17 executives from Europe’s largest multinationals to lobby for the creation of a single European market that would be theirs to dominate. “Europe remains a group of separated national markets with separated national policies,” they wrote in a memorandum. “The European market must serve as a unified ‘home’ base necessary to allow European firms to develop as powerful competitors in world markets.”

These were the champions of economic transnationalization—albeit a very specific, and self-serving, economy. Through Viscount Étienne Davignon, a vice president of the powerful European Commission, the ERT lobbied hard to liberalize Europe’s economies. And these efforts met with a good deal of success: Even French President François Mitterrand turned against his socialist comrades—and the longer legacy of de Gaullist sovereignty—to embrace rapid economic liberalization. “Europe is not locked into decline,” the ERT declared in 1985. “The exit doors are wide open. It remains only to go through them.”

The very next year, Europe’s heads of state gathered together to sign the Single European Act: the great leap forward in Europe’s economic integration. The most significant legislation since the Treaty of Rome, SEA sought to strip away all regulatory barriers to create “an area without internal frontiers in which the free movement of goods, persons, services, and capital is ensured.” And it set a timeline for the creation of this so-called Single Market: January 1, 1993.

By the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the USSR’s discredited communist legacy was wind in the sails of the Single Market. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, for example, moved swiftly to bring a unified Germany into Europe’s economic community. “We consider necessary to accelerate the political construction of the Europe of the Twelve,” he said in a joint statement with François Mitterrand in 1990, referring to the twelve member-states that comprised the European Community. “We think that this is the right moment to transform the whole of relationships among the member-states into a European Union and to endow it of the necessary means of action.”

On February 7, 1992, representatives of these twelve states gathered in Maastricht, Netherlands, to sign the Treaty on the European Union, following through on the promise of the SEA before it. “For left-wing Euroskeptics, this is the crystallization of the neoliberal project, while for right-wing ones it crystallized the supranational federalist one,” Professor Duncan McDonnell of Griffith University told me. “Their reaction was: ‘We are really ceding sovereignty. We are no longer masters in our own homes.’”

If the crises of the early 1970s created the conditions for Europe’s economic integration, the crisis of 2008 did so for its political integration. Until 2008, the impressive march of European legislation had been an elite affair, conducted almost exclusively by high-ranking officials, far away from public view. Politics, even as Europe’s economies grew ever closer, remained national: a contest between domestic coalitions; left and right, rich and poor, north and south. The financial crisis suddenly revealed to citizens across the continent the extent to which their countries had been bound together, stripping away the language of peace and prosperity to expose an economic architecture that served some against others—and instigating a mass political movement to reconstruct it.

European political institutions existed long before this crisis, of course. At the Copenhagen summit of the European Council in April 1978, the nine heads of state declared the creation of a new European Parliament—the first transnational institution of its kind. One year later, elections were held for 410 positions in the first parliament, with a healthy voter turnout rate of over 60 percent. But the new parliament was extremely limited in its ability to draft legislation, control the budget, or interfere in member-state politics. “Is European Parliament a Parliament?” asked political scientists Valentine Herman and Juliet Lodge in 1978. “In no widely accepted comparative sense.” Even the most optimistic of MEPs recognized the influence of the institution as largely advisory. “It has the power to analyze, inform, and publicize, and it could give a European opinion on the great issues of the day,” said Edgard Pisani, a former French minister of agriculture, ahead of the 1979 election.

In the years that followed, European politics would remain second order. Across member-states, voters understood Europe through a distinctly national lens: Elections for European Parliament were an opportunity to send a signal to national parties, not to stand for a certain vision of Europe’s future.

The European Union’s unique brand of technocratic neoliberalism was a key barrier to the transnationalization of its politics. The project of economic integration required the harmonization of member-state laws in order to allow for the free movement of goods, services, capital, and labor—the four freedoms enshrined in the Treaty of Rome. In order to achieve this smooth regulatory regime, the European Court of Justice found a clever solution in the Cassis de Dijon judgment of February 1979: the principle of “mutual recognition,” by which, instead of integrating laws one by one, all products produced in one member-state would have to be accepted by another member-state.

The result was not, to borrow terms from German political scientist Fritz Scharpf, “positive” integration (i.e. collaborating together to design common rules) but “negative” integration: stripping away controls, barriers, and levies in order to arrive at a lowest common regulatory denominator.

There was very little space for a European politics to emerge within the narrow confines of this economic doctrine. And a flaccid European Parliament reflected this limitation. For decades, two groups dominated the institution: the European People’s Party (EPP), representing Europe’s center-right, and the Party of the European Socialists (PES), representing its left. But these groups largely preferred to collude rather than compete, working together to maintain their duopoly on European office. Voters quickly lost interest: From its high of 62 percent turnout in 1979, participation in the European Parliament elections declined precipitously: 57 percent in 1994; 45 in 2004.

The Wall Street meltdown in 2008 marked the crisis of that neoliberal doctrine. As financial contagion gripped the continent, the wisdom of the European Union’s economic integration was thrown into question. The plight of the eurozone, in particular—those 19 countries that were brought into currency union with the creation of the euro in 1999 and its expansion in the years that followed—revealed the perils of purely negative approach to integration: Disparate economies were tied intimately together, but their democracies remained miles apart, pursuing national goals in line with national political priorities. The institutions that were in charge of responding to the crisis were certainly European in scope—the European Central Bank, the European Stability Mechanism—but they were not democratic: Their role was to maintain the integrity of the integration project as set out by the treaties, not to respond to voters’ actual needs.

The post-meltdown austerity agenda of the eurozone leadership was the final turn of the screw. At a summit in March 2012—the very height of the eurozone crisis—all but two EU governments signed the Treaty on Stability, Coordination, and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union, which severely constrained member-states in their ability to borrow and spend on national programs. German Chancellor Angela Merkel described it as another “great leap” in Europe’s integration. But for ailing students, workers, families, and pensioners across Europe, it meant only affliction. The same European institutions that had promised to deliver prosperity were now directly inflaming poverty.

The result of this crisis was a political awakening on a European scale. In cities across Europe, millions of people took to the streets, speaking the same language and fighting the same enemies in the European institutions. “We are not goods in the hands of politicians and bankers,” the Spanish Indignados declared. “We will not leave the squares until those who brought us here, go away: Governments, Troika, Banks, Memoranda and all those who exploit us,” the Greek popular assembly demanded. 

In short, the political integration of Europe—at the level of its grassroots, rather than its elite echelons—was catching up with its economic integration. Citizens across the continent were discovering that the only way to solve the problems that their countries faced was to mount a challenge to the European institutions that had helped create them. “2008 is a reckoning,” says McDonnell, the Griffith University professor. “The question of European integration increases in salience for all parties—radical right, radical left, even centrist parties.”

For political parties on either end of the political spectrum, the initial response to the reckoning was simple: Get out of the EU. With unemployment high and rising, the “golden straightjacket” of Europe’s fiscal rules lost its luster and EU membership began to feel more like captivity. These were not radical observations: Nobel Prize-winning economist after Nobel Prize-winning economist had declared the creation of the euro a “mistake.” The appeal of escape was obvious.

The means of escape were, however, less so. The case of Greece’s radical left Syriza is exemplary. The party skyrocketed to power in 2015 on the promise to confront the so-called Troika of institutions overseeing the implementation of Greek austerity—the European Central Bank, European Commission, and the IMF—renegotiate Greece’s debt payments, and extricate Greece from the eurozone, if necessary. As negotiations with the Troika rattled on, Syriza put the vote to the Greek people: to accept the conditions of debt repayment, or to reject them. When, on July 5, 2015, Greece overwhelmingly voted OXI (“no”), Syriza found itself in a bind: roughly 60 percent of the country opposed austerity, but 65 percent of the country also wanted to stay in the eurozone. Voters were demanding change, but also demanding that change come from within—in large part, for fear of what change might look like from without.

Britain’s attempt to leave the European Union was the last gasp of the exit movement. From the euphoric high of the Brexit referendum, the actual process of withdrawing from the EU proved bureaucratically complex—decades of economic integration had produced a sea of paperwork—and diplomatically impossible, as one country battled against the overlapping interests of 27 others. Inside Britain, support for exit began to wane. And outside of it, support for exit plummeted to record lows.

With exit off the table, Europe’s political parties had little choice but to take their battle inside the EU. And European Parliament would be their battleground.

The temptation of an EU exit, throughout the period of high crisis, made for some strange bedfellows. With Europe’s institutions bearing down with ever greater force on the austerity agenda, enemies of enemies suddenly became friends. Following the Greek elections in 2015, for example, the radical left Syriza decided to form a government with the Independent Greeks, a nationalist outfit that shared Syriza’s commitment to taking on the Troika, and little else. Allied against them were the so-called pro-Europeans, who draped themselves in the EU flag and demanded an end to populism left and right. If there ever was a political horseshoe—i.e., a point at which the political extremes formed a rough sort of policy continuum—the Euro-challengers and the Euro-defenders embodied it.

But the debacle of Brexit has unbent this horseshoe. With their attention turned away from confrontation and toward electoral competition, the major political parties in Europe have seen their defining programmatic differences come back into sharper focus. But the result is not the return to a simple left-right dyad. Just look at the proliferation of alliances heading toward the European Parliament elections: On the “right” end of the political spectrum alone, we have the Alliance for Direct Democracy in Europe (ADDE), the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe (ACRE), the European Christian Political Movement (ECPM), and the Alliance of European National Movements (AENM)—all entirely separate from Le Pen’s Europe of Nations and Freedom.

Instead, European politics is now divided across three different dimensions. 

The first is integration: the extent to which parties support a stronger union between European nations. At one end, many “pro-European” parties hope to make Europe into a single continuous space, sharing one currency, one army, and even one European president. “Having a single president would better reflect the true nature of our European Union as both a union of states and a union of citizens,” says Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission and member of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP).

Meanwhile, the Czech Jan Zahradil, running as lead candidate for the conservative ACRE, has called for a “flexible” Europe that allows for different “speeds” of integration and diversity of domestic laws. “Forced unity will break the EU, not mend it,” Zahradil has argued. ACRE’s campaign video features Zahradil in a recording studio, headphones on, as a young woman hands him a succession of European theme songs (“EU Peoples’s Band,” “Socialist Marchin’”) that he tosses away before settling on a soft rock anthem by a group called A CREW that he appears to love: “Retune the EU!”

And at the other end, Euroskeptics like Italy’s Matteo Salvini argue for maximum sovereignty, “changing [the EU] from a union to a community of sovereign nations.”

But what do EU skeptics propose to do with all that sovereignty? Or flipped the other way, what do EU integrationists hope to do with all that unity?

A tattoo representing a medieval crusader on the arm of a participant of a campaign rally in Milan, in May 2019.
Valeria Ferraro/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty

To answer these questions, we should look to the second dimension: concentration, or the extent to which parties aim to centralize resources in the hands of the few, or redistribute them to the many.

Some parties are fighting to integrate in order to concentrate. This was the guiding motivation of the European Roundtable of Industrialists 30 years ago: to draw Europe’s economies together in order to give greater strength to its industrial giants. The spirit of the ERT remains alive today among liberals like Guy Verhofstadt of Belgium, who leads the liberal alliance in the European Parliament. “The fact that we have no unified markets with single regulators is why we have no European champions that can become world champions and compete at world level,” Verhofstadt said in 2017. 

Others are fighting to integrate in order to redistribute. Such was the dream of many Eurocommunist movements in the 1970s: “to find a new democratic way towards a Europe of the peoples, a Europe of workers—a Socialist Europe,” as the Communist Party of Spain leader Manuel Azcárate wrote in his 1978 tract Eurocommunism. Today, groups like the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25)—for which I currently serve as policy coordinator—are similarly fighting to unite Europe as a strategy for ending the race to the bottom that pits workers in some countries against those in others. The goal is, to borrow again from Scharpf, “positive” integration: to collaborate across countries to introduce new regulations and raise overall standards.

Then there are parties that fight for sovereignty as a means of concentration. The prime example is Hungary’s Fidesz, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Since taking office in 2010, Orbán has moved to constrain his opposition and concentrate authority in his ruling party: criminalizing civil society organizations, revoking university accreditation, rewriting the Hungarian constitution, and stacking its courts. In response, the European Parliament recommended sanctions against Orbán on the basis of Article 7 of its Lisbon Treaty, which provides that “all EU countries respect common values of the EU.” Orbán’s crusade for sovereignty is, then, little more than a means of maintaining his authoritarian grip.

Finally, there are parties that seek sovereignty in order to reconstruct a more redistributive model at the national level. The prime example here is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the left-populist La France Insoumise, who has described the European Union as a “totalitarian project” and “Germany’s new empire.” Mélenchon has frequently threatened to move France toward a unilateral exit from the EU if it failed to create room for a radical, redistributive agenda—his proverbial “Plan B.” “Popular rejection [of the EU] is not the rejection of peace,” he has said. “It is the rejection of a Europe for the privileged, of the European Commission’s brick wall. ... And that will be the message I send to other European leaders: As far as France is concerned, either we change Europe or we leave it.”  Like other champions of exit, Mélenchon has since backed away from this position: Plan B now consists primarily in acts of civil disobedience, like refusing French contributions to the EU budget. But the resistance to the EU founding treaties remains firm.

There is one more dimension that traverses European politics today, which we might call inclusion: It denotes the extent to which parties support ethnic, cultural, or even political diversity. Some are fighting for an all-white Europe—Le Pen, for example, flashed the symbol of white supremacy at a recent meeting with her Estonian allies—while others condemn such intolerance. Once again, this dimension intersects with, rather than running parallel to, the dimension of integration: Where liberals like Verhofstadt see the European Union as a champion of openness, leftists view policies like the 2002 “Facilitation” directive—which criminalizes various forms of humanitarian aid to migrants—as an obstacle to inclusion.

The third dimension is not, crucially, about immigration. Ever since Merkel’s 2015 decision to accept one million migrants to Germany—which gave fresh fodder to the far-right Alternative for Germany—a consensus on migration has formed around the position that Europe must “defend” its external borders. Even Emmanuel Macron, who argued for an “open” Europe in his run for the French presidency, now advocates for detaining and deporting migrants to conflict zones like Libya. “The concept of establishing refugee camps outside the territory of the European Union is gradually gaining majority within the EU,” Orbán has said, correctly. “The positions that were once condemned, despised ... are becoming jointly-held positions.”

Across most policy areas, though, jointly held positions are exceedingly rare. There is a reason why Europe’s political map looks so fragmented: It is extremely difficult to create a stable coalition within this three-dimensional matrix. 

But that doesn’t mean that some won’t try. The forces of the far right, in particular, appear determined to put aside their programmatic differences and form a new, unified bloc in the European Parliament. At a rally in Milan last week, Salvini gathered with other heavyweights of the European far right to create what Le Pen calls a “super faction.” 

“Five years ago we were isolated,” she said. “But today, with our allies, we will finally be in a position to change this Europe.”

In 1530, Italian physician Girolamo Fracastoro published his epic poem Syphilis, in which a young shepherd named Syphilius is afflicted by a terrible condition that Fracastoro called the “French disease.” The French, equal in their antipathy toward Fracastoro, used to call Syphilis the “Italian disease.” The Germans naturally called it the “French evil,” the Russians the “Polish disease,” and the Turkish—gazing out across the West—the “Christian disease.” On and on it went, each country slandering its allegedly syphilitic neighbors.

Five centuries later, such vile stereotypes among European nations—and the violent impulses that came along with them—have all but disappeared. Identification with a European identity is high and rising; intra-European travel and student exchange is, too. Pundits may warn that the “doctrine of nationalism” is on the rise. But if so, it is a nationalism that does not threaten its European neighbors: The warm hugs and wide smiles at last week’s rally in Milan are a clear illustration of the camaraderie and compatibility of Europe’s nationalist movements.

This is a legacy of integration. When the Treaty of Rome set out to abolish “any discrimination based on nationality between workers,” it did not intend to echo the call of the Communist Manifesto. But in the half-century since, Europe’s nations—and Europe’s peoples—have come significantly closer together. This should give us hope: At a time when bigotry and xenophobia are engulfing democracies around the world, the old and bitter hatreds that divided Europe for centuries have largely failed to resurface. And at a time when the most pressing challenges are global in scope, these transnational links will be essential not only to serve Europeans, but—in the case of a looming climate catastrophe—to save the species, as well.

The danger remains, however, that the pathologies that once afflicted the nation-state are now scaling up. If Venetian regionalism could become Italian nationalism, then Italian nationalism could become an equally exclusive Europeanism. Indeed, most nationalists in Europe today do not derive their identities from their countries, but from their continent. The German far-right, for example, campaigned for years under the banner of Pegida, the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident. Orbán is the same. “I am the most Christian, and thus the most European, of Europeans,” he said in a recent interview. “Europe’s DNA is me. I am its guardian.”

A populist surge in this week’s elections will not radically shift power in Europe. Within the architecture of the EU, national governments remain the key decision-makers from their seats at the European Council. But a strong showing for the radical right would fundamentally change the tone of European politics. The forces that once shouted at Europe’s political establishment from its fringes may start to preach confidently from its center. These are the stakes of the election: to determine who has the right to speak for Europe, and for which Europe they will speak.

On the stakes, if not on the substance, Europe’s political parties can agree. “We are living in a historic moment,” Marine Le Pen said in her address to the crowd gathered in Milan. “And you can tell your grandchildren: ‘I was there.’”