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Portugal’s electoral outcome sparks concerns over right-wing populism in Europe

The European elections in June will determine if conservatives and Christian Democrats align with the far-right or stick with their long-standing coalition of social democrats and liberals

Ursula von der Leyen
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen with Manfred Webber, both members of the European People's Party, during a meeting in Berlin; March 11, 2024.Liesa Johannssen (REUTERS)
María R. Sahuquillo

The upcoming European elections in June will pose a challenge for European conservatives and Christian Democrats. The fate of the long-standing coalition between populists and social democrats in the European Parliament hangs in the balance. Recent events in Portugal, where the center-right alliance barely clinched victory and the extreme right gained ground, highlight the complexities faced by the populist coalition. The broader focus is on the crucial European Parliament elections in June, which will serve as a barometer for the European Union (EU) during challenging times. Polls indicate a rise in support for ultra-conservative and populist parties. The European People’s Party (EPP) faces the task of identifying acceptable right-wing factions and potential alliances, as seen in Italy’s recent political landscape where conservative support lifted far-right Giorgia Meloni to power.

The EPP, with its recent manifesto approved at a congress in Bucharest, has shifted further right, leaning towards a stricter stance on immigration and greater skepticism of the EU. Despite being seen as the leading party in polls, internal dynamics are changing as right-wing forces aim to bolster their influence.

The Portuguese conservatives from the Democratic Alliance (AD) stated they will lead as a minority and won’t align with the populist, far-right Chega Party. According to Ignacio Molina of Spain’s Elcano Royal Institute think tank, recent events in Portugal, where the Socialist Party held an absolute majority just two years ago before a corruption scandal led to the downfall of António Costa’s administration, highlight the growing normalization of the radical right. With Costa gone, socialist representation in the European Council is significantly weaker.

Far-right and populist parties have a significant presence in various European governments, and currently govern Ireland and Greece. Their support ranges from 10% to over 40% of the voting public, as seen in parties like Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France and the right-wing coalition led by Meloni’s Brothers of Italy. “The EPP can’t ignore this reality, especially in the European Parliament elections, where discontent can be channeled more easily,” said Molina.

European populists have drawn specific red lines, but carefully avoid being overly strict. Recently, Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president seeking reelection, criticized “Putin’s friends,” populism, extreme right and extreme left movements. She singled out Le Pen’s party, which is expected to garner significant votes in France, and the far-right members of the Alternative for Germany (AfD). “They want to destroy Europe,” she warned. However, her words left a wide margin for acceptance of other, less extreme right-wing groups. After all, she belongs to an increasingly conservative EPP that shares many elements with those parties.

Convenient yet uneasy alliances

EPP President Manfred Weber of Germany openly supports alliances with more radical partners to form new governments. He emphasizes the importance of being “pro-EU, pro-rule of law, pro-Ukraine and pro-NATO.” However, some conservative national parties have ignored certain aspects of this premise. For instance, Spain’s Popular Party is linked to the Euro-phobic, far-right Vox party, with which they share power in various local governments. This alliance fell just shy of a majority in the July 2023 general elections, and often criticizes the “Brussels bureaucrats.” It has even attacked the autonomous government provisions of the Spanish Constitution, which clearly contradicts Weber’s pro-rule of law stance.

The laboratory for the model Weber supports is the Meloni government in Italy. Her Brothers of Italy party belongs to the European Reformists and Conservatives (ECR), a center-right political group in the European Parliament mainly comprising anti-federalist factions. This group, at times self-identifying as “Euro-realists,” also includes Vox, Poland’s Law and Justice party, and the more moderate party of Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala. A conservative member of the European Parliament notes that the EPP has long courted Fiala and Meloni, hoping to lure them into their more moderate sphere. Alternatively, the EPP could deepen its ties with that faction. “The ECR plays a significant role in the European Parliament, and I hope to collaborate with them,” said Antonio Tajani of Forza Italia (within the EPP), the party founded by Silvio Berlusconi.

EU conservatives are facing an identity crisis, leading to questions about the future of the long-standing coalition between the EPP and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), with the liberals playing a central role. Will this coalition hold up? Von der Leyen will likely remain president of the European Commission, but faces a tricky balancing act that requires support from the governments of various EU member states and the diverse European Parliament. This complexity highlights the need for a flexible approach.

The socialists have already warned von der Leyen that alliances with the extreme right are a red line that can’t be crossed. “We must secure the EU’s future and uphold alliances with pro-European political forces,” said Iratxe García, president of the S&D group in the European Parliament. “We are concerned about the EPP’s drift.” García has accused von der Leyen and European conservatives of “whitewashing and normalizing” the extreme right, leaving openings for future alliances.

Ignacio Molina thinks the EPP aims to avoid getting snagged on the horns of this political dilemma. “They can handle the grand coalition concept without jeopardizing it. Five prime ministers from key member states (Germany, France, Spain, Austria and Belgium) are not part of the EPP and wouldn’t back von der Leyen aligning with the extreme right. But they may form legislative coalitions later to enact specific policies that align more to the right,” he said. “If this coalition [between the EPP and the S&D] were to fall apart, the EU and its legitimacy would suffer.”

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