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How the far-right scrambled European politics

How The Far-right Scrambled European Politics
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Jun 10, 2024 View in browser

By Peder Schaefer

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Protestors hold placards and chant as they demonstrate against the French far-right Rassemblement National (RN) political party after their success in the European elections today. | Sebastien Salom-Gomis/AFP via Getty Images

THE CENTER HOLDS — Far-right parties in France and Germany made big gains in the European Parliament elections held over the weekend, reflecting rising skepticism of the European Union’s project in collective governance, and the political potency of issues like immigration.

But even with significant far-right victories in France and Germany, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen looks able to maintain a centrist governing coalition — avoiding the political center’s worst nightmare of having to work with further right groups to maintain power in Brussels.

Instead, the biggest shock of the night came from France, where the far-right National Rally won over 30 percent of the vote — compelling French President Emmanuel Macron to call snap national parliamentary elections a month before the Paris Olympics in an attempt to stem the nationalist tide before the pivotal 2027 French presidential race.

Centrist parties held their own, however, continuing to battle the far-right’s slow rise, with 2027 emerging as a pivotal referendum on the EU’s future.

The implications of the European elections for the United States may not be as far reaching. The stability of Europe’s centrist parties means foreign policy emanating from Brussels won’t change drastically in the months before the 2024 American presidential election.

“If we would have had this really, really strong surge to the far-right [in Europe], combined with a potential Trump presidency, that could have major implications for geopolitics and Ukraine,” said Barbara Moens, POLITICO’s chief EU correspondent, who has criss-crossed Europe covering the elections.

“But overall the policies and leadership [in Europe] will remain as it is when it comes to Ukraine security and other international issues,” she added.

Nightly spoke with Moens to learn more about the outcome of the elections and what they might mean for the transatlantic relationship as America turns toward its own pivotal election later this year.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

The European far-right made gains over the weekend, particularly in France and Germany, where those parties outperformed the centrist coalitions of Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. What’s the vibe in Brussels right now?

Actually, there’s definitely a sense of relief in the political center here. The European political center had expected a very large surge to the far-right, and in a way, the center held. If you look at the centrist parties in the European Parliament, they still have a majority. There is a swing to the right, but it’s far less than expected, especially toward the far-right. So, there’s this sigh of relief among EU officials and diplomats.

The second bit that everyone is talking about is what this means for von der Leyen. Does she have enough votes in the European Parliament to secure a second term?

Let’s stay there. Where does von der Leyen stand now? Does she have a strong shot at keeping the European Commission presidency for another five years?

Her party not only stayed the largest party in the European Parliament, but they actually gained some seats as well. That’s clearly a victory for them. However, that does not automatically guarantee her a second term. It’s a complicated process. First, she needs to have the support from a majority of the 27 EU heads of state to nominate her, and only then can she go to the European Parliament to secure a second term, where she also needs a majority. That will happen in July.

Let’s focus in particular for a moment on France, one of the more shocking results of the night, where the far-right National Rally won over 30 percent of the vote. Central to the National Rally campaign was their young leader, 28-year-old Jordan Bardella. Who is Bardella, and what makes him such an effective leader for National Rally?

In France, the far-right has generally been known for Marine Le Pen, whose father was the leader decades ago. She’s angling for the French presidency in 2027. In the meantime, we have Jordan Bardella, who is a young, very charismatic leader, within the National Rally. Their party just did extremely well in the national elections. They are now the biggest French party in the European Parliament, and they have done so well that Macron has called for new parliamentary elections in France, because he sees this signal from the French population as a national signal as well. Those new French parliamentary elections will be at the end of June and early July.

As you mentioned, Macron took a big risk last night and called for snap French national parliamentary elections. What do you make of Macron’s move? 

France is a key European country. The fact that a far-right party has won European Parliament elections there is a key outcome of these pan-European elections, even though, as we said, the surge to the right overall in Europe has been more limited than what has been expected.

And then, as you said, there’s this surprise announcement from Macron to dissolve the French national assembly and call new national elections, based on a European Parliament result. Nobody saw this coming. Normally these are two completely different sets of elections, so it was a huge surprise.

Obviously, a lot of analysts and reporters are trying to interpret what the strategy of Macron is. One interpretation is he’s doing this big, big gamble, because he doesn’t think the far-right in France will be able to repeat that success in a national election. Another angle is that even if the National Rally becomes a part of the French government now, it might show that the far-right can’t govern, that they can’t be responsible. That might pave the way for another centrist government in the French presidential election in 2027, which is really, really key, because in the French system the president holds a lot of power.

I don’t think you can underestimate the impact of having a far-right French president. What that would mean for Europe and NATO, is very, very far-reaching.

You’ve been covering these European Parliament elections for months. In the end, what were the critical issues motivating voters across the continent?

Well, it’s a hard question to answer! While these are elections for the European Parliament, the campaigns are very different across the 27 different European Union countries. I traveled to a lot of them throughout the campaign, and there’s a ton of variety. For example, in Finland it was all about defense and security and protecting Ukraine. In Rome, it’s all about migration because it’s so close to the Mediterranean Sea. These motivating issues are so different across the different countries, from inflation to housing to cost of living. Migration is certainly a central one, but there are really so many different issues.

From the perspective of American readers, what should we make of the results of these European elections?

Actually, I think it doesn’t matter that much for the United States. If we would have had this really, really strong surge to the far-right, combined with a potential Trump presidency, that could have major implications for geopolitics and Ukraine. But as we’re in this bleary-eyed morning, just after the election, it actually looks like Europe will have a little bit tougher migration policy, maybe a little less ambitious climate policy, but overall the policies and leadership will remain as it is when it comes to Ukraine security and other international issues.

From an American perspective, it’s nothing to worry about. It’s potentially, even for the Joe Biden fans, somewhat reassuring, given that the European Union will continue to uphold the rule of law and democracy and political stability.

Welcome to POLITICO Nightly. Reach out with news, tips and ideas at [email protected]. Or contact tonight’s author at [email protected].


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What'd I Miss?

— UN Security Council approves Gaza cease-fire resolution: The U.N. Security Council approved a U.S. resolution for a Gaza cease-fire and hostage release today, voting 14 to 0, with Russia abstaining, in favor of the measure. The resolution marks the latest international pressure tactic to get Hamas and Israel to agree on a path to end the fighting. The proposal in the resolution matches the three-phase deal that President Joe Biden announced May 31.

— Whitehouse probes ‘improper’ Alito interview: Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a prominent member of the Judiciary Committee, is raising questions about an interview Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito gave to The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page in July. In that interview, the conservative justice argued that “no provision in the Constitution gives [Congress] the authority to regulate the Supreme Court — period.” He gave the interview shortly after the same publication allowed him to refute a then-unpublished ProPublica report that Alito accepted a luxury fishing trip to Alaska paid for by a prominent GOP donor.

— Closing arguments underway in Hunter Biden’s trial on gun charges: Closing arguments began today in Hunter Biden’s trial on gun-related charges, with a federal prosecutor telling jurors that “no one is above the law.” The jury of 12 Delawareans will begin deliberating after both sides complete their closings. The president’s son faces three felony charges, brought by special counsel David Weiss, stemming from his purchase of a handgun in October 2018. Prosecutors have charged Biden with illegally possessing a gun as a drug user and lying on paperwork about his addiction to crack cocaine at the time of the purchase.


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Nightly Road to 2024

LEFT UNSAID — Hours before Donald Trump was expected to make a virtual address to a Christian advocacy organization that wants to ban all abortions and calls the procedure “child sacrifice,” the former president’s campaign said today that he would only give a pre-recorded welcome message lasting less than two minutes — in which he does not say the word “abortion” at all. Trump was scheduled to make a virtual “address” today at an event hosted by the Danbury Institute, an organization that also seeks to ban same-sex marriage and use the Bible to guide public policy, according to its website. The organizers, who promoted Trump as a speaker, noted on X the event sold out.

END OF THE ROAD — The presidential primary calendar has officially come to an end with weekend victories for Democratic President Joe Biden in Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands, reports the Associated Press. The contests marked Biden’s 53rd and 54th wins of the primary campaign. His only defeat came at the hands of relatively unknown candidate Jason Palmer in the American Samoa caucuses, where only 91 total votes were cast. Biden’s chief rival in the primaries came in the form of organized campaigns in several states to vote for “Uncommitted” to protest his support of Israel in the Israel-Hamas War.

Across 24 states and Washington, D.C., variations of “Uncommitted” received more than 793,000 votes.

PLAYING BOTH SIDES — The president of the Teamsters union has asked for speaking slots at both the Republican and Democratic national conventions, at a time when President Biden and former President Donald J. Trump have pressed for support from rank-and-file members of organized labor, reports the New York Times. The move by Sean O’Brien, the president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, underscores the fact that his group, unlike other influential umbrella unions that have backed Mr. Biden in the 2024 election, has yet to endorse in the presidential race. Mr. O’Brien has made clear he is delaying a decision until later this year.


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Belarus' Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin (right) speaks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu (left) prior to a meeting with Belarus' President in Minsk on Feb. 3, 2022. | Maxim Guchek/BELTA/AFP via Getty Images

NUCLEAR NOTIONS — Belarus will participate in nuclear drills with Russia, its defense ministry said today.

The exercises are a reaction to “unsuccessful attempts to drag [Belarus] into an epidemic of color revolutions and crush us with economic sanctions” and some Western countries’ “plans to use military force against our state,” Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin said in a post on Telegram.

It’s the second time Belarus and Russia have practiced deploying nuclear weapons together, with the first stage of the joint maneuvers taking place last month in Russia’s Southern Military District, which includes parts of Ukraine partially occupied by Russia.

SUPPORT SYSTEMS — Mustafa Nayyem, the head of Ukraine’s restoration and infrastructure development agency, abruptly resigned today, claiming the Ukrainian government is undermining his agency’s work on fortifications and logistics infrastructure. His resignation came a day before the start of a two-day conference in Berlin dedicated to international support for Ukraine’s reconstruction after the war with Russia has ended.


JOIN US ON 6/13 FOR A TALK ON THE FUTURE OF HEALTH CARE: As Congress and the White House work to strengthen health care affordability and access, innovative technologies and treatments are increasingly important for patient health and lower costs. What barriers are appearing as new tech emerges? Is the Medicare payment process keeping up with new technologies and procedures? Join us on June 13 as POLITICO convenes a panel of lawmakers, officials and experts to discuss what policy solutions could expand access to innovative therapies and tech. REGISTER HERE.

Nightly Number

$1.9 billion

The amount of the investment that activist shareholder Elliott Investment Management made in Southwest Airlines today, as the group attempts to force out the CEO of the company.


BACK FROM THE DEAD — After 200 years away, a group of Przewalski horses — the world’s last truly wild horses — have been returned to their native Kazakhstan, where they were first known to be domesticated over 5,500 years ago — 2,000 years before they were domesticated in Europe. Now, seven wild horses have been flown in from Berlin and Prague zoos, with plans for a total of 40 to head to Kazakhstan over the next five years. It’s an experiment in whether there’s some sense memory passed down throughout generations of a homeland — and whether the last bastion of wild horses can truly roam free again and repopulate. Sophie Kevany reports for The Guardian.

Parting Image

On this date in 1991: An oil fire continues to burn in Kuwait, after the Iraqi army set fire to wells across the country in the midst of a scorched earth policy while retreating. This well, known as "Hollywood," continued to pour black smoke into the atmosphere in Kuwait City. | Martn Nangle/AP

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How the far-right scrambled European politics