Countering the far-right before EU elections – too little, too late?

Brussels: Shortly after Dutch populist leader Geert Wilders’ shock election victory in November’s national elections, a new poll for the next European elections has predicted significant gains for the far-right in the European Parliament as well.

The threat of a larger far-right influence in the upcoming European Parliament has led progressive parties to call for a cordon sanitaire, but political scientists warn that there are no easy solutions.

The far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) party group is projected to grow from 60 to 87 seats.

The gains raise the prospect of an unprecedented right-wing coalition in the European assembly, putting a coalition between the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), the conservative European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and ID within a hair’s breadth of a majority.

The head of the liberal Renew (RE) party Stéphane Séjourné voiced his concerns. “With a strong ID, there is a risk of a ‘blocking minority’ of Eurosceptics both left and right that will make Europe ungovernable”, Séjourné said in response to questions by the EUobserver.

To counter the threat, some have proposed a so-called cordon sanitaire at the European level — effectively a refusal to cooperate or engage with parties deemed too extreme in their views.

Terry Reintke, co-president of the Greens, already called for such a broad agreement to never collaborate with the far-right.

Similarly, Séjourné ruled out any cooperation. “[Renew] unanimously agreed for a European Parliament without extremists’ influence after 2024,” he said.

Such a cordon sanitaire was deployed in Wallonia, Belgium’s French-speaking region, where both politicians and the media made a strict agreement to never engage with the far-right.

By denying them any legitimacy and attention, the cordon nipped the far-right in the bud, according to some political scientists.

However, the Wallonian success story does not mean that a cordon sanitaire is a golden bullet.

“It’s a bit of a chicken-egg situation,” said Dave Sinardet, professor of political science at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. “It could also be the other way around, that the lack of support for the far-right in Wallonia has made it easier to ignore [the rise of the far right].”

On top of this, a Wallonian-style cordon might simply come too late.

“When parties are still small, you can keep them that way by excluding them. But when they grow bigger, that doesn’t work. You can’t simply ignore them away,” said Matthijs Rooduijn, political scientist at the University of Amsterdam.

Instead, Rooduijn observes how centre-right parties have increasingly resorted to a different strategy: outmanoeuvring the far-right by copying their rhetoric and policies, presenting themselves as a less radical alternative.

However, for Thijs Reuten, MEP for the Dutch Social Democrats, Wilder’s recent victory illustrates the bankruptcy of this approach.

By signing up, you agree to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

In a campaign move widely considered to have been crucial for Wilder’s triumph, the centre-right VVD party of outgoing prime minister Mark Rutte hinted at allowing Wilder’s PVV to join their coalition.

“Copying the positions of the far-right doesn’t work. And opening the door for them to join a government is an even bigger mistake,” Reuten concluded.

Séjourné also warned his Renew-member parties, which includes the VVD, against domestic collaboration: “I always say to my members: it always fires back at a centrist or liberal party to open the door to them”.

But even without cooperating, copying the far-right can be a dangerous game in its own right.

Professor Sinardet points out that parties tend to ‘own’ certain political topics: “The far-right often owns themes like migration, integration and security. It’s not very smart to campaign on the theme of a different party”.

According to Reuten, the real answer lies in breaking the far-right narrative. “People’s concerns are genuine, but the far-right narrative that their problems are all caused by migration is simply wrong. Such a politics of fear must be resisted.”

Despite the lack of an obvious strategy, experts argue that the success of the far-right is neither necessary nor unavoidable.

“There is certainly a fertile breeding ground for the far right in both the Netherlands and internationally, but it very much depends on all sorts of contextual factors whether this ends up being translated electorally,” Rooduijn said.,

That the rise of the far-right is by no means a foregone conclusion was demonstrated by the other political sea-change this autumn, when Poland leader Donald Tusk’s coalition managed to keep the far-right PiS from a majority in the Polish parliamentary elections in October.

In Poland, the decision to form a wide anti-PiS coalition across political differences did prove effective, according to Zofia Kostrzewa, programme coordinator for the European Council on Foreign Relations in Warsaw. “The glue of the coalition is dePiSination,” Kostrzewa said.

However, the diversity within the coalition was an important asset, argued Kostrzewa: “Because mobilisation was key, we had to give voters something to vote for,” she said, arguing that it was simultaneously important that the coalition partners had not sabotaged each other either.

Summarising the lessons from Tusk’s victory that progressive Europeans should draw, Kostrzewa referenced the EU’s motto: “You need to find some sort of unity, but diversity in what you offer is also important.”