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The far right makes unnerving gains in EU elections

I was in France during the recent European Union elections and witnessed the shock of many as Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally nearly doubled its support from five years ago. National Rally secured 31.5% of the vote, more than twice that of French President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance coalition. Though it was most pronounced in France, the far right surged in many countries across the continent.

This news came only days after the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings, which marked the beginning of the end of Europe’s fascist nightmare. Perhaps the far right’s rise in Europe is only possible again because those carrying the memory of it before are almost entirely gone.

Overall, the far right increased its representation in the EU parliament from about 20% to nearly 25% this year, which was less than many proponents of democracy had feared. The center-right European People’s Party maintained control.

But the steady trend of increased support for a platform that had been on the fringes of European politics since World War II remains alarming.

Some of its appeal has been spurred by fearmongering over migration and identity, but much of it is simply economic discontent. Cost of living and inflation are up, due to everything from a post-COVID-19 global slump to sanctions against Russia and green policies to address climate change. Many in Europe have interpreted the increased support to the far right as simply an opportunity to voice anger with the status quo. But elections have consequences.

The good news is that several countries that had put the far right in power at home seem to have learned their lesson. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party was down by almost 10 points from 2019. In Poland, which was governed by the right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS) from 2015 to 2023, Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform took 37% of the vote, pushing PiS to second, just as it had in the national elections last year.

As it turns out, most who recently lived under far-right governments aren’t keen to give them the keys to the EU.

Macron is pretty sure the French public doesn’t want to be governed by the far right either. In the face of his coalition’s poor performance, he dissolved the French parliament and called for early elections later this month.

The move invokes uncomfortable memories of then-British Prime Minister David Cameron’s call for a Brexit referendum in 2016. He, too, was confident his people didn’t really want such an extreme outcome, but the public called his bluff. The cost of that decision today is clear, but it’s too late.

Macron knows that many who voted against his party in the EU vote did so to register dissatisfaction with his government. He seems to be betting, though, that they won’t do the same in a vote closer to home. Even if they do, this vote is only for parliament, so he’ll remain president until 2027. A National Rally win would require him to appoint a prime minister from that party, but Macron seems to think he could still prevent the worst outcomes with a split government. Perhaps he believes that would be enough for the French public to recognize that they don’t actually want to live under far-right rule either and that a couple of years with a far-right parliament is better than five under the National Rally’s full government control.

It’s a risky bet, but hopefully one that succeeds in taking Europe further away from a far-right future. Why would that be so scary? Because these far-right parties are literally the descendants of the fascist parties that brought the world into World War II.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who is widely recognized as the leading figure of this movement, fares from the Brothers of Italy party, which comes from the successor to Benito Mussolini’s National Fascists, banned after World War II.

In France, Le Pen’s father, a convicted Holocaust denier, founded her party in 1972 and led it until 2011. Le Pen tried to distance the party from its fascist past by rebranding it in 2018, but the new name did little to appease concern, as it closely tracked the party that supported France’s pro-Nazi government in World War II: the Popular National Rally.

Some of these politicians have gone to great lengths to appear more moderate to appeal to more voters. But don’t be confused. Their past is who they are. This means extreme ethnic and religious nationalism, anti-immigration and xenophobia, authoritarianism and militarism, and a disdain for checks on that power.

For the EU itself, this threat could be existential. Most of them no longer openly advocate for disbanding the EU, but they hope to render it powerless to rein in national whims.

This shift will likely have limited policy impact in the near term. Immigration policies might get stricter and climate change policies weaker. But if this trend grows and the far right succeeds in taking control of Europe, the continent could become a stronghold for the authoritarianism that Europe today is working so hard to fight.

Elizabeth Shackelford is the Magro Family Distinguished Visitor in International Affairs at Dartmouth College and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune. She was previously a U.S. diplomat and is the author of “The Dissent Channel: American Diplomacy in a Dishonest Age.”

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