Wilders setback spells trouble for Europe’s far right

When anti-Islam firebrand Geert Wilders secured the most votes in Dutch elections last year, his breakthrough was seen as a harbinger of how the far right could seize power in Europe.

But four months on, he remains shut out, with mainstream parties in the Netherlands closing ranks to force his Freedom party to give up on the premiership as the price for joining a coalition government.

“The love for my country . . . is more important than my own position,” Wilders said, conceding defeat last week.

Across the EU, voters are casting ballots in increasing numbers for ultranationalist, arch-conservative and xenophobic parties. European democracy itself faces a litmus test in June when all 27 member states hold European parliament elections.

The Dutch experiment, however, underlines one of the enduring features of Europe’s intricate and fragmented democratic system: winning votes is not the same as winning power.

In Portugal, the largest mainstream parties are willing to put aside their differences to prevent the far right Chega party from joining a ruling coalition, after it became the third strongest force in general elections earlier this month. Andre Ventura, the Chega leader, has decried the cordon sanitaire forming around him and said the establishment is disenfranchising voters.

A similar pact by mainstream groups is likely to be struck in the EU parliament after June, officials say, in order to exclude the most extreme lawmakers and groups from key posts that influence the bloc’s new laws.

Polls predict that both Wilders’ Freedom party and Chega could be part of one of the biggest groups in the next EU parliament: Independence and Democracy (ID), which is dominated by Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN).

That has raised the prospect of the rightwing faction becoming “such a big block in the European parliament that it will be difficult to ignore them in the adoption of policies”, said Simon Hix, professor of EU politics at the European University Institute in Florence.

His research published last month predicted that ID could leap into third place ahead of the centrist-liberal Renew group led by Emmanuel Macron’s party. ID is closely followed by the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), a group led by Brothers of Italy, the rightwing party of Italian premier Giorgia Meloni. ECR could come in fourth or fifth, depending on shifting allegiances, notably the Fidesz party of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.

With a projected 183 MEPs out of a total of 720 in the next EU parliament, the Le Pen-dominated ID and Meloni led ECR could wield considerable power — but being split into two factions dilutes their influence.

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“Influence and impact in the European parliament isn’t about the numbers, it is about how coherent and cohesive your political group is,” said Mujtaba Rahman of Eurasia Group, a consultancy. “The far-right’s problem is that it is fundamentally divided, and this will undermine its ability to project power in Brussels.”

While they agree on the need to cut migration and scrap climate policies, there are sharp differences over support for Kyiv and the bloc’s pivot against Russia after it invaded Ukraine. ID tends to push for peace, which critics cast as sympathetic to the Kremlin, while ECR, which counts among its members Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party, is committed to a Ukrainian victory.

The Finns party, which is in a ruling coalition in Helsinki, last year left ID over its stance on Russia and joined the ECR instead.

More parties and individual lawmakers are likely to switch sides after votes are counted in June — and ideology is not the only factor. Already in the current parliament, elected in 2019, centrist groups included the smaller ECR in legislative work, while shunning the larger ID.

Infighting within the ID could also blunt its ambitions. Le Pen in January questioned whether Germany’s Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), which is currently a member, should stay on after it held secret meetings with extremists discussing mass deportations — a revelation that caused mass protests and calls for German authorities to ban the party.

The RN has since course-corrected. “As long as their programme doesn’t change in ways we can’t accept, then they will remain our allies,” said Alexandre Loubet, a French RN lawmaker running the EU campaign.

Still, an AfD defector says the party could become an embarrassment to Le Pen. Lars Patrick Berg, who now sits with the ECR, said the German party was full of extremists who would “get thrown out of the parliament chamber” for their behaviour. 

“Things are very fluid. There might even be a new political group on the right” around Le Pen, he said.

Much will depend on Hungary’s Orbán. His Fidesz party, which is expected to win 14 seats, has talked of joining the ECR after the election. That could propel it beyond ID into third place. However, his pro-Russia views could drive out some ECR members, including from Poland’s Law and Justice.

Carlo Fidanza, leader of Brothers of Italy’s delegation, which will be the biggest in the ECR after the election, said Meloni saw her role as trying to help bridge the gap between Brussels and Budapest.

“The goal is trying to keep them close and having [Orban] not be so opposed when they are trying to take decisions for the future of Europe,” Fidanza said.

Additional reporting by Marton Dunai in Budapest and Barney Jopson in Madrid