EU elections: earthquake in France and a rightward policy lurch? Our panel responds

THE GUARDIAN – Alberto Alemanno analyses the results of the EU elections and their consequences.

Mariam LauPaul TaylorAlberto AlemannoWojciech OrlińskiRosa Balfour and Cas Mudde

Emmanuel Macron calls a snap election and the hard right wins big in Germany – but that’s far from the whole picture

Mariam Lau: For German voters, immigration has trumped AfD scandals

Mariam Lau

In Germany, the further rise of the far right was expected – every poll had predicted as much. What was not expected, however, was that revelations of alleged corruption and involvement of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) with the Russian and Chinese governments would apparently matter so little to its voters. Though the resulting gains – the AfD jumped to 16% from 11% in 2019 – were overall more modest than looked probable in the spring, across east Germany the far right came out ahead of all other parties.

Neither did it seem to worry the AfD base much that Germany’s domestic intelligence services had declared the party “under suspicion of extremism”. Quite the contrary: when asked in a TV poll whether their vote was mainly a protest against the red-green-liberal government or out of affiliation with the AfD’s core beliefs, a large majority opted for the latter.

The so-called traffic-light coalition suffered a crushing defeat, losing out to the conservative CDU/CSU opposition – a major blow for Social Democrat chancellor Olaf Scholz. No German government in recent years has been as unpopular as this one. On Sunday night, we began to hear the first demands for a vote of confidence. If Scholz’s rather indolent grin after learning the results is any indication, he will do no such thing. Still, with French president Emmanuel Macron calling for new elections and the German government appearing as weak as it did, the centre of Europe looks pretty shaky indeed.

The two issues that seem to have driven the further rise of the far right – migration and the rejection of the green agenda – stand in uneasy connection. It seems unpalatable to many people that the German Greens suggest we can stop the Earth from further warming, but it is impossible for us to exercise control over who enters the country. What seemed entirely doable, even mandatory, during the last European election in 2019 – remember Greta? Remember the Green Deal? – now apparently sounds to many voters like an elitist pipe dream. The fact that the German Greens are also Ukraine’s staunchest allies may well have contributed to the overwhelming success of the AfD in the east.

But, at least for the time being, the centre will hold. Not only is an overwhelming majority of Europeans in favour of non-authoritarian parties, Poland also shows that no triumph of the far right is carved in stone. It also seems highly unlikely that the far right will be able to overcome its deep divisions and form a coherent bloc in the European parliament. But the liberal middle has only been given a respite. If issues such as migration are not tackled more wisely, the next time things may look much more bleak.

  • Mariam Lau is a political commentator for Die Zeit

Paul Taylor: Macron’s gamble may have blown open the doors to an extreme-right government

Paul Taylor

They didn’t look like bigots. Polite, friendly, cheerful, not dour or angry. Yet almost one in every two of the voters whose polling cards I stamped in the town of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where I live, voted either for Marine Le Pen’s hard-right anti-immigration National Rally (RN) (39.1% locally) or the even further right anti-Islam Reconquest (7%). Across southern France, Le Pen’s national populists scored sweeping victories in towns and countryside. Nationwide, the RN topped the poll by a mile with 31.5%.

The result prompted the president, Emmanuel Macron, whose centrist Renaissance party and its allies took a beating, finishing a distant second with 14.5%, to dissolve parliament and call a snap election in just three weeks’ time. “The rise of nationalists, of demagogues, is a danger for France,” he declared in a dramatic television address. Yet he may have opened the doors of power to them.

It’s a huge gamble, reminiscent of Jacques Chirac’s kamikaze dissolution of parliament in 1997, which backfired and left the Gaullist president a prisoner of a leftwing government. While Le Pen’s RN looks united and its lead candidate Jordan Bardella is France’s most popular politician, the pro-European centre right and centre left are splintered and may be unable to unite in a three-week campaign.

Under France’s two-round election system, the two top candidates in each constituency go forward to a run-off. Based on Sunday’s result, the RN is sure to reach the second round in most districts, and it is far from sure that a “republican front” – an alliance of parties that in the past agreed to block the far right – will back the alternative candidate. On the contrary, the RN may cut local deals not to oppose the conservative Republicans’ incumbents in return for backing RN candidates in other seats. Meanwhile, the left looks irreconcilably split, not least due to the abrasive personality of hard-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Three days after commemorating the defeat of fascism on the 80th anniversary of D-day, France may be on the way to electing an extreme-right government.

  • Paul Taylor is a senior visiting fellow at the European Policy Centre

Alberto Alemanno: The EU’s climate ambitions look set to become a collateral victim

Alberto Alemanno

These elections boiled down to 27 parallel ballots, so failed to provide a clear direction for the EU. Instead, they reveal a set of disaggregated, country-by-country trends, with contradictory results for the same political forces across the union.

Contrary to some alarmist headlines in the run-up, these EU elections have not given the EU away to the far right. Far-right, anti-establishment parties secured approximately 25% of the 720 seats in the EU parliament, but they won’t be able to unite and call the shots.

Instead, the pro-EU majority – which has run the EU over the past 50 years – holds. It should be able to form a parliamentary majority supporting the next European Commission and identify a clear set of political priorities for the next five years.

The question remains whether, and the extent to which, this pro-EU majority grouping will need to accept support to pass legislation, either from the left (such as from the reduced Greens) or the right, from Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy.

Far-right, anti-establishment parties may be in government – directly or indirectly – in a dozen EU member states, including founding states such as Italy and the Netherlands, where they have gained unprecedented respectability, but the same normalisation has not yet occurred at the EU level.

It is against this backdrop that the choice of the next EU Commission president will play out, as that individual will be called upon to shape a parliamentary majority that for the first time might not be permanent throughout the five-year cycle. Instead, we can expect the emergence of a new balance of power depending on the issue at hand.

If EU climate ambitions risk becoming a collateral victim of this process, it’s the broader EU traditionally integrationist agenda that is at stake. Enlargement of the union is likely to be slowed down or even paused under the far-right influence. The next long-term budget, due to be negotiated by the parliament in 2026, is set to shrink. This may create a dangerous gap between citizens’ expectations of the union’s ability to address big challenges and the means it has to do so.

This can only damage the EU’s credibility and benefit the new far-right political class among their nationalistic, Europhobic and xenophobic constituencies. From this perspective, these results look likely to accelerate the shift to the right that has already been taking place within and across the EU.

  • Alberto Alemanno is the Jean Monnet professor of EU law at HEC Paris

Wojciech Orliński: Euroscepticism has no future in Poland

Wojciech Orlinski

In Poland the result was a personal triumph for Donald Tusk. The prime minister’s Civic Coalition came first, beating the nationalist populist Eurosceptic Law and Justice party, which governed Poland from 2015 to 2023. In Brussels, Tusk’s party sits with the centre-right European People’s party, which is now the strongest in the European parliament.

The campaign in Poland ran in the shadow of a migration crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border. The previous conservative government had tried to deal with it using harsh methods of questionable legality, pushing migrants back to Belarus by force. Once in power the liberals continued the same policy, drawing attacks from all sides for both hypocrisy and a lack of humanity. As it turned out, this did not hurt Tusk. On the contrary, it allowed him to play his favourite role: Mr Reasonable, who has little time for ideologies.

The far-right Konfederacja ended up in third place. On one hand, this is a huge gain for Konfederacja, which failed to gain any seats in European parliament in previous elections. On the other hand, it proves that Eurosceptic politicians face an uphill battle in Poland.

Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of Law and Justice, tried to ride a wave of anti-EU sentiment: supporting farmers’ protests, criticising migration policies, even denying climate change. Yet he did not dare to advocate the idea of “Polexit”. Even his die-hard supporters were confused about his attitude towards the EU. This was probably one of the reasons why he lost some voters to Konfederacja, which is also are far from being consistent about Polexit: some politicians in Konfederacja advocate it, some do not. A party called Polexit actually ran in this election, but they scored 0.2%. For what it’s worth, Polish voters want to remain in the EU.

  • Wojciech Orliński is a Polish journalist, writer and academic

Rosa Balfour: The EU will no longer lead on green policies and human rights

Rosa Balfour

The three main outcomes I see from these results are: the centre-right has consolidated its position as the largest political grouping in Europe; the radical right has continued to rise; and the Greens have been severely punished.

The centrist parties are likely to form a workable coalition that will back Ursula von der Leyen for another term as president of the European Commission. During the next five years this coalition will need extra votes to pass legislation, but can do so without a firm alliance. From this standpoint, the EU should be governable.

But the EU’s two most important governments have suffered major setbacks. Leadership from France and Germany – and from EU member states in general – is urgently needed: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threatens Europe’s security, the climate emergency threatens the planet’s future and Europe’s economy is falling behind those of the US and China.

But the French president, Emmanuel Macron, brought on some unusual drama by gambling on a snap election that will either force the parties other than Marine Le Pen’s National Rally to come together to oppose her, or test the ability of Le Pen’s party to go into government for the first time. In the latter case, the gamble is for the next presidential election, in 2027. In Germany, every party in Olaf Scholz’s governing coalition has been dealt a big blow. Despite a string of recent scandals, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland came in second place, trailing the conservative Christian Democrats.

Radical-right parties in the next European parliament are unlikely to be able to form a single cohesive grouping. Still, the fact that around a quarter of those who turned out to vote chose to support them suggests a general rightwards lurch among Europeans. This will be reflected in policy choices, even if a pro-EU majority holds.

The impact will be most felt on the EU’s flagship Green Deal, and the Greens, who have suffered big losses, will not be strong enough to oppose it. The anti-woke politics that seem to have played a role in these elections are now likely to be reflected in the European parliament, despite it being hitherto a key player in advancing civic rights in Europe and beyond. Migration policy has already been shaped by the radical right for the past decade. Any trace of the EU’s reputation as a global leader for green policies and human rights has been cast aside.

  • Rosa Balfour is director of Carnegie Europe

Cas Mudde: Remember, the far right doesn’t represent Europe’s people – far more of them reject it

Cas Mudde

The far right was the biggest winner overall, which was hardly a surprise: most opinion polls were pretty accurate. The liberals and Greens lost big. The two big “centrist” groups in the parliament, the rightwing European People’s party (EPP) and the leftwing Socialists and Democrats, respectively won and lost a bit. But European elections are a collection of 27 national elections and while there were significant changes in support at the national level, at European level the changes were surprisingly modest given the global and regional developments since the last European elections five years ago, from Brexit and Covid-19 to Ukraine.

What this means is that there is no clear European trend. In fact, sharp changes in major EU member states, most notably France and Germany, had a disproportionate impact.

So, even though the far right did well across most of Europe, it did less well than expected, performing particularly poorly in northern Europe. The Finns party and the Danish People’s party lost big, while the Sweden Democrats lost support. That loss was offset by the new rightwing populist partyDenmark Democrats, although they also had a rather lacklustre result. Green and leftwing parties did well in the three Nordic countries, unlike in most of the rest of Europe.

In the Netherlands, just half a year after Geert Wilders shocked Europe by coming first in a general election, his Party for Freedom again won big, albeit behind the Labour party/GreenLeft, which surprisingly came in first. Moreover, the extreme-right Forum for Democracy, the big winner of 2019, was wiped out.

To be clear, there is little to celebrate in these results. Yes, the centre held, and the far right failed to gain as much as feared. But the far right did win about one in four seats and one in five votes in Europe. Moreover, the real question was never “will the centre hold?” but rather “which centre will hold?”. And in this respect, the elections tell a less positive story. After all, the biggest group in the new parliament, the EPP, adopted the key issues and frames of the far right in its campaign and will govern in a more rightwing manner than before – with or without the help of the divided far right.

To prevent a far-right turn in Brussels, with or without official coalitions with far-right parties, we need realistic rather than sensationalist analysis and reporting. It is important to be vigilant, but counterproductive to be defeatist. The far right does not represent “the people”. In fact, it represents just a minority of Europe’s peoples. Moreover, far more Europeans reject far-right parties and policies. This is the message progressives should continue to push, to and through the media, and ultimately towards the EPP, so that the centre will truly hold in the coming five years.

  • Cas Mudde is the Stanley Wade Shelton UGAF professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia