Cutting Across the Center, Cooperation With the Radical Right Becomes the Main Cleavage in EU Politics

June 06, 2024
The rightward shift in EU politics will not come from a breakthrough in the European Parliament elections by the radical right, but from parties in the center being willing to work with it.

Whether to cooperate with the radical right or maintaining the cordon sanitaire against it has been the most crucial issue for all parties in the political center in the run-up to the European Parliament elections. This will be the main cleavage in EU politics in the coming years. 

The fear of a breakthrough by the radical right has dominated the campaign. Given its apparent level of support, the conservative European People’s Party (EPP) political group and some members of the liberal Renew Europe one have come to the conclusion that the cordon sanitaire is not sustainable and that working with part of the radical right is inevitable. 

This is why the EPP’s Ursula von der Leyen will not rule out, if she gets a second term as European Commission president, cooperation with the radical-right European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group led by Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and her Fratelli d’Italia party.

No radical-right party will be needed to forge a majority in the European Parliament as long as the parties in political center reach a consensus. According to the latest polls, the traditional grand coalition of the EPP, Renew Europe, and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) could have a clear majority of over 380 seats in the new 720-seat parliament. But this coalition will no longer be the sole path to a majority because the EPP has other preferences than keeping power in the center.

As always, party politics in member states will also be an important factor. This was again demonstrated in May when, only days after Renew Europe signed the joint declaration of progressive European parties against the radical right, one its key members, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy in the Netherlands, signed a coalition agreement with Geert Wilder’s Freedom Party, which is part of the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) group.

Cordon Sanitaire No More

If some parties in the center no longer see the cordon sanitaire against the radical right as sustainable, this is ultimately not because the latter might increase its number of seats in the European Parliament by 10–15%, but because it is in government in some member states and thus has seats on the Council of the EU and the European Council. 

Fratelli d’Italia and Meloni have embodied this since they came to power. No one is ready to seriously consider a cordon sanitaire against Italy in the Council. And Meloni has shown that she is a partner one can work with on the European stage. By pursuing a constructive policy toward the EU, staunchly supporting Ukraine, and occasionally pacifying the likes of Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, she has surpassed the expectation of other EU governments. 

This is why the other member states ignore the illiberal and semi-authoritarian domestic developments in Italy, such as the increasingly heavy-handed political control of the media or the proposed electoral reform that would enable Fratelli d’Italia to form a single-party government for the foreseeable future. If European leaders had to choose between embracing Meloni’s constructive radical-right government and isolating her at the risk of her radicalization, few would pick the second option.

Meloni has proved that a radical-right party can form a stable government while also increasing its influence in the EU and its standing within the West.

Meloni has also become a reference point for the radical right and conservative illiberals. Orbán proved that it is possible to create a semi-authoritarian nondemocracy within the EU, but at the cost of being largely isolated and exposed to China and Russia. In contrast, Meloni has proved that a radical-right party can form a stable government while also increasing its influence in the EU and its standing within the West. Her blueprint will guide the radical right for years, making it more successful. 

Some commentators think that Meloni’s example shows that the radical right can become more moderate in the process. In fact, this blueprint makes such parties more dangerous to the political center—and ultimately to democracy. 

These considerations guide von der Leyen and the EPP as they entertain the idea of working with Meloni and the ECR. The EPP’s aim is to have an alternative to the grand coalition with the S&D and Renew Europe (and the Greens in the outgoing parliament). An alternative majority of the EPP, Renew Europe, and the ECR, for example, could dismantle some parts of the Green New Deal in the name of competitiveness and European industrial policy, as well as open the door to even more right-leaning policies on topics like migration. This would empower not only the ECR but also the radical right more broadly. 

The rightward shift in EU politics would therefore come not from a breakthrough by the radical right in the European Parliament elections but from the center right’s desire to cooperate with it. 

Sensing the danger, the S&D and its largest member, Germany’s Social Democrats, have warned von der Leyen that, after the elections, she can have their support or the ECR’s, not both. If the S&D and Renew Europe together keep to this stance, they could force her to stick to working with the political center if she wants a second term. However, Renew Europe has not ruled out cooperation with the ECR—and therefore the likelihood of maintaining the cordon sanitaire is gone. 

The Reshuffling of the Radical Right

This situation opens opportunities for Meloni and her party. But to maximize their chance of entering the very heart of power in the EU, she will have to streamline the ECR and its membership after the elections. Meloni’s goal is to maximize the group’s influence rather than its size. She needs the ECR to be as large as possible without jeopardizing its ability to enter a coalition with the EPP and potentially Renew Europe, and without risking the progressive parties forming a united front against the ECR. She will therefore carefully vet every party that may want to join the ECR, whether newcomers in the parliament or current members of the far-right ID group. 

Two factors could cause Meloni headaches. One is Marine Le Pen and the Rassemblement National (RN), which is part of ID, in France. After years of building a more moderate image and the recent split with Alternative for Germany, Le Pen has proposed an ECR-ID merger to create the potentially second- or third-largest group in the European Parliament. But this is likely not an option for Meloni. The RN could significantly increase the number of the ECR’s seats, but it might not be an acceptable partner for a large part of the EPP and Renew Europe. This would run counter to Meloni’s strategy. 

The RN could significantly increase the number of the ECR’s seats, but it might not be an acceptable partner for a large part of the EPP and Renew Europe.

The RN winning more seats than Fratelli d’Italia may not trouble Meloni, at least initially. Her seat in the European Council cements her leadership of the ECR. But Le Pen winning France’s presidential election in 2027 would be a game changer for the balance of power between them. So Meloni’s caution is more than justified. 

The second factor is Orbán and his Fidesz party, which is seeking a new political home in the ECR, having spent three years as an independent party after leaving the EPP. Faced with a domestic political crisis, Fidesz may see its number of seats shrink from 12 to 9–10. But the party remains important because Orbán sits on the European Council and will be able to nominate a member of the next European Commission, something that in the ECR only Fratelli d’Italia and Czechia’s Civic Democratic Party can do. A weakened Orbán may be a more attractive partner than a strong one for Meloni, but he will be still difficult to control and, even as the undisputed leader of the ECR, she would have few ways to influence him in the European Council.

At the same time, Meloni represents a danger for Orbán’s political power. He may no longer be able to say EU decisions he does not approve of are part of a “left-wing conspiracy” if the ECR becomes a key EU player. This would deprive Orbán of an important domestic political tool. As a member of the ECR, he may also have to moderate his actions or risk repeated conflicts with Meloni. It is not surprising that he embraced the idea of an ECR-ID merger. Unlike in an ECR dominated by Meloni, being in a widened political group with her and Le Pen could allow Orbán to play a balancing game between them.

The results of the elections will influence the shape of the ECR and of the broader radical right, which is why Meloni is keeping her options open. Political power in the EU will certainly shift to the right with the EPP and the ECR drawing nearer. But the EPP’s central position could be secure only for the short term. National elections could soon change the political balance in the European Council in favor of the radical right. If ECR and ID members come to power in Austria, France, and Poland in the next three years, the EPP’s ability to continue to act as the conductor of EU politics may not be so secure.