Can the right in East and West unite?
Eurosceptic right-wing parties made significant gains in the European elections. But their common interest can only go so far
The European Parliament elections saw the Eurosceptic right gain a greater share of votes than ever before. In some of Europe’s biggest countries, they even wonthe plurality: France’s Rassemblement National (RN) stands at 23.3 per cent, Italy’s Lega Nord at 33.6 per cent, Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party at 43.1 per cent and Hungary’s Fidesz even at 52.3 per cent. But despite these successes, it’s unclear whether the radical right in Europe’s East and West will be able to really unite.
The establishment of a unified Eurosceptic radical-right bloc in the European Parliament got a significant boost at the beginning of May, just before the EP elections. A month before in Milan, Matteo Salvini’s announcement about the launch of the European Alliance of Peoples and Nations (EAPN) failed to get resonance among the Eurosceptic populist parties in the eastern Member States of the EU. However, with the declaration of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán about the withdrawal of his support from Manfred Weber’s candidacy to the Commission Presidency, the ice may be broken.
Orbán’s unexpected move did not only bring a sudden end to the wrangling about the his Fidesz party’s membership in the European People’s Party (EPP), but together with the cordial visits of Matteo Salvini and Heinz-Christian Strache in Budapest it also demonstrated Orbán’s strategic turn from the EPP to the Eurosceptic camp. Considering the regional networks and power position of Fidesz, it will hardly depart alone; several smaller EPP members, like the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (RMDSZ) the Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) may follow suit.
Eurosceptic parties in the European Parliament
Eurosceptic populist and radical-right parties have been organised in three distinct political groups in the 2014-2019 legislative period of the European Parliament. Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) may serve as the fundament of Salvini’s future EAPN, as it gathers within its ranks the main Western European hard-Eurosceptic radical-right parties, the Italian Lega Nord, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN), the Belgian Vlaams Belang, and the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ). ENF is the only Eurosceptic political group in the EP that will be not hard hit by Brexit.
ECR will be significantly weakened by the departure of the Tories, while the dissolution of EFDD (Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy), practically a technical alliance between the Brexit Party (former UKIP) and Italy’s Five Star Movement (M5S) appears to be matter of fact. Furthermore, other key Eurosceptic parties already started gravitating to EAPN. Germany’s AfD (former EFDD), the Spanish Vox, the Danish People’s Party and the Sweden Democrats (former ECR) already announced their interest in joining EAPN’s ranks in the next European Parliament.
However, Eurosceptic populist parties from the Eastern EU member states remained rather reluctant and did not rush joining EAPN, although without their seats Salvini’s dream about a breakthrough of ‘patriotic forces’ in the EP remains clearly out of reach. The reasons for that are manifold. Obviously, Salvini primarily courted Viktor Orbán and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, heads of the largest and most influential Eurosceptic populist parties in the region, while others were largely left behind.
Common interests and clear divergences
Since the outbreak of the refugee crisis in 2015, the ideological positions of the radical-right in Western and East-Central-Europe showed significant convergence. Anti-immigration discourse, xenophobia and islamophobia became the key building blocks of radical right rhetoric even in the societies of the Eastern EU countries not experiencing significant immigration and lacking considerable Muslim minorities. But in spite of the growing ideological proximity, the divergence of objective national interests remains.
The issues of resettlement of asylum seekers and the connections to Russia play a role in this regard, but their importance should not be overestimated. Resettlement is overall a dividing issue for the radical-right bloc. Not only the Eastern, but also the Northern parties reject it, while Italy’s Lega belongs to its strongest advocates. Cultivating friendly or hostile relationship with Russia is not subjected to an east-West cleavage at all. Populist parties in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary predominantly maintain close ties to the Kremlin, but that did not hinder the strategic Budapest-Warsaw axis of Orbán and Kaczynski.
The main dividing issue is the redistribution of EU financial resources and the maintaining of cohesion transfers. While radical-right parties in net payer countries like Germany, The Netherlands, Denmark or Sweden advocate the abolishment of cohesion transfers, it’s the utmost interest of the net beneficiary countries in the East to maximise them. In contrast to their Western European counterparts, the Euroscepticism of most East-Central-European radical right parties has its intrinsic limits: the EU must remain a functioning ‘transfer Union’.
The Peacock’s end…?
Hungarian political strategy toward European partners and institutions has been often characterised in the past years as ‘peacock dance’. But this flexible and deceptive strategy that allowed Viktor Orbán to dismantle liberal democracy in Hungary and avoid any significant consequence at European level, appeared to come to an ultimate and irrevocable end on 6 May 2019.
The mounting tensions between the Hungarian governing party Fidesz and the right-conservative EPP group became insurmountable when a large chunk of EPP MEPs voted in favour of the Sargentini Report, launching the Article 7 procedure against Hungary in September 2018. This culminated in the suspension of Fidesz’s EPP membership in March 2019 and in the recent withdrawal of Orbán’s support from Weber’s candidacy. As a last accord of peacock dance, Orbán consciously established his contacts to Salvini and the European radical-right to maintain leverage over the EPP and demonstrate his party’s multivectoral opportunities.