'Cordon sanitaire' under strain as Europe lurches to the right

As polls predict a surge in support for the far right across the EU in June's elections, mainstream parties are eyeing up previously unthinkable alliances.
Dutch politician Geert Wilders (PVV) speaking to reporters in The Hague in mid-May.

By Gabriele Rosana

Gabriele Rosana is a Brussels-based journalist and policy analyst writing about EU affairs

22 May 2024

As right and far-right parties head into the European elections with wind in their sails, they may or may not win enough seats to fundamentally alter the balance of power in the European Parliament. 

 But in some ways, they have already done so. Centre-right parties are adopting some of their policies, particularly on the crucial question of migration; and some are partially dropping the longstanding convention of refusing to govern in coalition with the far right, known as the cordon sanitaire. 

In mid-May, Dutch politician Geert Wilders, best known for his strident criticism of Islam, announced the formation of a four-party coalition government after his Freedom Party (PVV) won the most seats in national elections held in November. Although Wilders won’t be prime minister as a condition of the talks – and has walked back some of his most controversial statements, including on a Brexit-like withdrawal from the European Union – the PVV’s entry into a coalition government with mainstream centre-right parties is an historic moment. 

With other nativist parties riding high in the polls, including France’s National Rally (RN) and Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD), the big question is whether this normalisation will be replicated at the European level. 

In early May, the Parliament’s socialist, liberal, green and left groups pledged not to “cooperate nor form a coalition with the far right and radical parties at any level” – without specifying which parties meet that definition. The pledge followed a number of physical attacks on leftist politicians. 

But European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) group, who is hoping to be nominated for a second term, has long been flirting with the right-wing camp, notably Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. 

Earlier this year, Von der Leyen set out three conditions on working together: her partners must be “pro-Ukraine, pro-NATO and pro-EU.” She reiterated this message in a televised debate in April, saying that forming a majority would largely depend “on the composition of the Parliament, and who is in what group.” 

This would seem to leave the door open to a coalition between the EPP and the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group – which includes Meloni’s Brothers of Italy (FdI), as well as Spain’s Vox and Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) – as a possible governing majority in the European Parliament. However, Von der Leyen did specify that she wouldn’t work with the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) group, which includes Wilders’ PVV and Marine Le Pen’s RN, as well Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s Lega.  

Their parliamentary power to change [the] majority is often overstated.

Charles Michel, the outgoing president of the European Council, has echoed Von der Leyen. Answering a question at the Copenhagen Democracy Summit in mid-May, he said that what matters “are the policies we make,” and reiterated his openness to work with whomever “supports Ukraine, defends the democratic principles, and makes Europe stronger.” 

Nevertheless, Meloni has repeatedly ruled out joining the current grand coalition at the EU level, which includes the centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group.   

Policy implications 

Any partnership between the EPP and ECR could mean a substantial rightward shift on a handful of public policies, particularly on topics prioritised by the far right such as migration and, to a lesser extent, climate. This can already be seen in the EPP manifesto; endorsed at the Bucharest congress in March, its first provisions are on security. 

On migration, the EPP proposes a crackdown against irregular routes, which it claims in its manifesto is a middle way between “a complete refusal by the extreme right to engage constructively in reducing migration and the reluctance of the left to reduce illegal migration.” 

The group proposes to triple the workforce of Frontex, the EU’s border and coastal agency, and consider deportation measures such as the United Kingdom’s controversial Rwanda plan. The manifesto frames a possible EU approach as follows: “Anyone applying for asylum in the EU could also be transferred to a safe third country and undergo the asylum process there. In the case of a positive outcome, the safe third country will grant protection to the applicant on-site.” 

Von der Leyen’s EPP group is less likely to move dramatically on climate policy, since the Green Deal is the signature policy achievement of her first mandate and she often claims it is Europe’s growth strategy. Nevertheless, in Bucharest she appeared willing to reconsider parts of the strategy aimed at making the EU climate neutral by 2050, claiming to stand for “pragmatic solutions, not ideological ones” – wording often used by policymakers aiming to water down climate measures. 

Asked whether this rightward shift has anything to do with the growing competition from hard-right parties, the EPP group’s lead spokesperson in the European Parliament, Pedro López de Pablo, said: “Our political agenda corresponds to what all our EPP national parties propose back home.”  

Getting the numbers 

Even if the centre right is willing to work with the far right in theory, pragmatism is the order of the day. If far-right parties don’t get the numbers to change the electoral calculus, they won’t get access to the levers of power. 

Victory and defeat “are based on objective facts but also on subjective expectations,” says Nathalie Tocci, director of the Rome-based think tank Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) and a former foreign policy adviser to two EU diplomatic chiefs. As a result, “the overall picture emerging from the European Parliament elections might be somewhat different from what we imagine it to be today,” Tocci says. 

She draws a parallel to the 2022 mid-term elections in the United States: “The expectation was that of a red wave and of a strong success for the Republicans. But in the end, the overall narrative was that the Democrats had actually prevailed, since the conservatives’ success was not as a clear cut as expected.”  

The perception of the right-wing surge is already driving policy solutions in Europe.

Tocci expects the current three-way de facto governing coalitionEPP, S&D and the liberal Renew Europe group – to remain intact in both the European Parliament and the European Council, meaning ECR and especially ID will remain on the fringes for most issues. Occasional calls for the two groups to merge, meanwhile, have not advanced beyond the theoretical stage. 

Still, she says, the change in the EPP’s policies is likely to remain in place regardless of which other groups they work with. “The projected surge of the far right has led to a policy shift in the EU – and to an unfortunate bending from Von der Leyen to the likes of Meloni,” she says. With nationalist leaders in power in several EU countries, and rising in the polls in others, “the perception of the right-wing surge is already driving policy solutions in Europe,” Tocci adds. 

Henning Voepel, the director of the Centre for European Policy (CEP) network, a pan-European think tank, believes that the EPP’s shift is aimed at laying claim to the centre ground in a more right-leaning European Parliament. “A new Parliament is always and by principle a democratic process of restoring legitimacy,” he says. 

Senior figures in the EPP and its constituent parties are also aware that they may be “forced to potentially collaborate with the radical right in order to enhance strategic options in negotiations,” he says. But this doesn’t mean that an alliance with far-right parties is the likely outcome: “Their parliamentary power to change [the] majority is often overstated.” 

Whether or not the ballots will confirm the most favourable polls for the far right, they have already achieved one of their most important long-term goals: disrupting the usual centrist governing majority and raising the once-unthinkable possibility that they might one day take power. 

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