There was a time when clear blue water separated Europe’s mainstream centre-right from the Eurosceptic populists and xenophobes of the hard right. A Christian Democrat such as Helmut Kohl or Angela Merkel would have had nothing in common with – and nothing to do with – a nativist such as Marine Le Pen or Geert Wilders.
No longer. In the run-up to the 2024 European Parliament elections, once-sharp lines between pro-European conservative parties and the nationalist far right are blurring as both seek to tap into public anger or anxiety over migration, the cost of living, the green transition and gender diversity.
The longstanding “cordon sanitaire” against cooperation with the hard right is fast crumbling, first at local and national level and now potentially in Brussels too. That matters because the European Parliament must approve all the EU’s net zero climate and energy legislation, and the right is already trying to water it down.
In recent weeks, Spain’s conservative People’s party has fallen just short of victory in a general election despite declaring its readiness to govern with the anti-immigration Vox party, which has intellectual roots in Franco’s fascist ideology. The leader of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) opposition, Friedrich Merz, suggested his party should work locally – though not at national or European level – with the extreme-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which has soared to second place in national opinion polls. However, Merz had to row back after protests from within his party.
And the successor to Dutch Prime Minister Marc Rutte as leader of the centre-right liberal VVD party, Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius (Rutte resigned in July triggering a snap election that will be held in November), has ditched a longstanding refusal to work with Wilders’ anti-immigrant PVV party.
Mainstream conservative Governments in Sweden and Finland meanwhile have taken office thanks to the support of hard-right nationalists in, respectively, the Sweden Democrats and the Finns party.
In Italy, the hard right last year won power in a Government headed by Giorgia Meloni of the post-fascist Brothers of Italy. In France, the conservative Gaullists of Les Républicains are vying to outdo Le Pen and her extreme-right rival Éric Zemmour in demonising Islam and proposing new ways to stop asylum seekers. Party leader Éric Ciotti wants to officially declare that the French constitution has primacy over European law in order to impose quotas of asylum seekers.
That is the same assertion with which hard-right nationalist Governments in Poland and Hungary are defying the EU’s treaty order over the independence of their judiciary.
The reasons for this lurch to the right are clear. Europe’s big-tent centre-right parties are now succumbing to the electoral fragmentation that has afflicted the mainstream left, with green and radical-left groups luring voters away from social democratic parties. In a more diverse, individualistic society, conservative voters are no longer so bound together by the church, family values or free market ideology. They differ on economic protectionism, European integration, climate action and social issues such as LGBTQ+ rights.
In Germany, the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, which bestrode the country’s postwar political landscape for decades, scored just 24.1% in the 2021 general election following Merkel’s retirement. Even with its current 26% rating, the centre-right has no hope of forming a conservative Government without the AfD, which is polling above 20%. Yet cooperating with the nativists has hitherto been taboo, not least because of the long shadow of Germany’s Nazi past.
But all over Europe, mainstream conservatives face the same dilemma as they struggle to win back lost chunks of their electorate among blue-collar, rural and middle-class voters, and to attract younger people tempted by a far-right protest vote or abstention.
Marginalising and demonising the radical right has failed to staunch the losses. Adopting part of the populists’ vocabulary and policy on issues such as migration and identity has not worked either, except perhaps for Denmark’s Social Democrats.
Other options include seeking to engage and moderate the far right through coalitions, or making targeted pitches to discontented voter groups such as farmers and suburban motorists who fear that the EU’s Green Deal, pushed by a European Commission led by German Christian Democrat Ursula von der Leyen, will take away their cars and ruin their livelihoods.
Manfred Weber, leader of the European People’s party (EPP) centre-right umbrella group, is experimenting with both approaches as he seeks to reposition the long-dominant political family before next June’s EU-wide vote.
In January, he met Meloni to explore a possible alliance between the EPP and the nationalist European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR) after next year’s elections. The EU legislature is currently dominated by a three-way centrist pact between the EPP, the Socialists and Democrats, and the market-liberal Renew Europe group.
The ECR includes Poland’s rightwing ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), Spain’s Vox, the Sweden Democrats and the Finns party. Yet Weber has repeatedly declared that the EPP would not work with “far-right extremists”, explicitly naming Le Pen, the AfD and PiS.
In July, he made an unsuccessful attempt alongside the ECR and the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) group to defeat the EU’s nature restoration law, a key environmental protection measure that he said would burden farmers and force up food prices. Weber is trying to project the EPP as the farmers’ and motorists’ friend without embracing the hard right’s denial of climate science. It is a precarious balancing act, especially when it pits him against Von der Leyen from his own party.
A formal alliance with the ECR seems unlikely, not least because it would require the support of liberals including French president Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party. If such a pact did come about, it would probably push back against ambitious European Green Deal targets, take a tougher line on asylum and migration policy, and resist any erosion of national sovereignty.
More plausible is that Weber is trying to lure Meloni’s rising party into joining the centre-right EPP, which would strengthen its hand with its current partners. While EPP officials say this is just about tactics and responding pragmatically to public concerns, Weber and his political family face a fundamental choice.
In deciding whether to ostracise, imitate or forge alliances with the nationalist hard right, Europe’s mainstream centre-right parties must choose between potentially losing voters and losing their souls.
* Paul Taylor is a senior fellow of the Friends of Europe thinktank and a former European affairs editor at Reuters
On the cover photo, plenary room of the European Parliament in Strasbourg © Drop of Light/Shutterstock.com