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politics

Europe’s democratic masquerade

Nicolai von Ondarza is a political scientist and head of the EU/Europe research division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

This summer, the composition of the European Parliament will undergo a significant change, with changes arising not only from the decisions of voters but also from the maneuvers undertaken by the parliamentary groups themselves.

Although European discourse often treats party groups – such as the European People’s Party (EPP) or the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) – as homogeneous actors, they remain overall national party alliances that can change at any time, easily modify the composition of Parliament.

And this time, this fluidity is most evident among the EU’s far-right parties, who appear to be preparing for a major post-election reconfiguration.

Normally, apart from a few high-profile changes, the number of changes between political groups in Parliament is overlooked. Take, for example, the center-right EPP – the largest and, in many ways, the best organized of these groups. According to data from Europe Elects, in the current legislature alone, 12 MEPs from other political groups have joined the EPP, seven of whom previously belonged to one of the two far-right groups. Conversely, 19 MEPs left the group, first and foremost the 11 Hungarian Fidesz MEPs, who left the group in March 2021 to avoid being excluded.

However, it seems that we can at least expect all current EPP member parties to remain in the group within a few months.

However, the same cannot be said of the liberal Renew group, itself an alliance of several different European parties. Renew is the third largest group in the current Parliament and has often taken on the role of kingmaker. But it has also been a reservoir, accepting 10 MEPs from almost every other political group – including the Greens, S&D, EPP, through to the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR).

And currently, Renew is debating whether to expel the Dutch People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy – one of its founding members – for entering into a coalition with Geert Wilders’ far-right Freedom Party.

The S&D, on the other hand, ended up with a net loss, having recruited “only” five MEPs from other groups since 2019, while losing 13 in the process.

Yet for all this exchange, the most significant changes are occurring within the divided far-right party groups within the EU.

In the current parliament, these groups include the national-conservative ECR party – home to Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy and Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party; the right-wing Identity and Democracy (ID) group, ranging from populist to extremist, which brings together French opposition leader Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, the Italian League and the Austrian Freedom Party; and finally, there are the non-aligned far-right parties, such as Fidesz and the Alternative for Germany (AfD).

With Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán seeking a new political headquarters for his Fidesz party and the recent expulsion of the AfD, a major reconfiguration is on the agenda. And that means we are faced with three distinct possibilities:

The first is a continuation of the status quo, in which the ECR and ID win seats in elections, but the expulsion of the AfD makes the ECR the larger of the two. As part of efforts led by Meloni and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the ECR would then attempt to work with the EPP as a “traditional” negotiating partner, leaving the ID on the sidelines.

The second possibility is that a renewed ID comes with Fidesz – and potentially with the ECR’s PiS. Although the group would still remain on the fringes, in this scenario ID could overtake the ECR group to become the third largest group in Parliament. The EXR, for its part, would be even more open to cooperation with the EEPP.

Finally, the third scenario would be a merger of the ECR, ID and Fidesz. Such a far-right supergroup would lead to huge political differences – notably on how to deal with Russia – and this is Le Pen’s stated ambition and considered as an option by Meloni. This would also come at the cost of a retoxification of the ECR, which would then probably lose some of its most centrist parties to the benefit of the EPP. Such a group would become the second largest in Parliament – ​​which would be unacceptable as a partner of the EPP – significantly changing the balance of power.

These three possibilities all illustrate how Parliament could look very different depending not only on voters’ choices but also behind-the-scenes post-election negotiations. They also highlight the big decision facing Meloni: accept the open hand offered by the center right or try to forge a broader national conservative/populist alliance.

For many voters, these fluid European party affiliations make the upcoming elections even less comprehensible. Even Brussels insiders cannot predict which European political group the largest national delegations from France, Italy, Hungary, the Netherlands or Austria will belong to, after all the behind-the-scenes negotiations.

And this adds to the gap between voters’ choices and European politics.

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