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The only thing the European far right hates more than the centre and the left is each other

Two factors gave this election a sense of shared purpose: the rise of the far right and the choice of European Commission president

While elections to the European Parliament involve 27 largely disparate polls at national level, it was possible in recent weeks to discern an awareness of European citizens being involved together in a single democratic exercise.

This has been seen in the shared focus on the narrative about the rise of the far-right and hard-right parties that strongly emphasised their opposition to immigration. In Ireland, the emergence of the far right is a new electoral phenomenon. However, despite getting exaggerated attention, it has attracted only marginal support. Some other conservative nationalist candidates here, who have foregrounded the immigration issue, have performed somewhat better but not spectacularly.

There are four partial parallels between developments here and the wider European trend. First, the immigration issue has made some inroads in Ireland as it has elsewhere in Europe. This can be seen, for example, in the performance of the heterogeneous candidates of the Independent Ireland Party, which considers itself fairly centrist but whose candidates include Niall Boylan, who is in favour of a more hardline stance on immigration.

The growth here in support for what might reasonably be called the “trenchant right” is nothing like as significant as support for the far right and hard right in countries such as France, Italy and Austria. It seems set to be, at most, a temporarily disruptive force here.

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Second, the significant rise of the most right-wing political groupings at European level has not been as dramatic as the international media hype over recent months would have led us to believe. The traditional pro-European parties of the moderate left, centre and right, along with the Greens, will have a reasonably comfortable majority of seats in the European Parliament. In a similar way here, despite predictions otherwise, the centrist Government parties, as well as Labour and the Social Democrats, had a much better election than predicted.

Third, the threat from the populist right, here as in Europe more generally, seems to have contributed to nudging more mainstream parties to stiffen their migration and asylum policies. However, it has not been the only factor. The principal reason is probably the need of governments to grapple more effectively with a complex and evolving challenge.

Fourth, MEPs from far-right or hard-right parties face the challenge of deciding which parliamentary grouping to belong to in the new parliament and how thus to ensure that, collectively, they can maximise their influence. Even if the broad pro-European centre is far from united, the divisions on the right are more significant. There are two major groupings on the right which are deeply divided, within and between themselves, including on the existential issue of Ukraine. The Identity and Democracy Group has kicked out the German AfD, ironically considering it too extreme. Hungary’s Fidesz Party currently has no home. As Monty Python might put it, the only thing the European far right hates more than the centre and the left is each other. Any MEP elected largely on an anti-immigration ticket will either have to accept some unpleasant bedfellows in Europe or sleep on a lonely couch, isolated and without influence.

That sense of shared purpose – that citizens were voting in a European election as well as in a national one – was also reflected in a widespread awareness that the outcome of the election across Europe could significantly determine the choice of Commission president – and specifically whether the outgoing president, Ursula von der Leyen, will be able, if nominated by the European Council, to secure the support of a majority of the 720 MEPs.

On the one hand, von der Leyen made an egregious mistake in appearing to give the Netanyahu government unqualified support last October when it was utterly obvious that a public call for restraint was also necessary. She was reflecting understandable German historical sensitivities when she should have been representing European values. On the other hand, she is widely regarded as an outstanding president of the commission, making an immense personal contribution on Covid, Ukraine and the overall coherence and impact of the commission, including in supporting Ireland on Brexit.

It is healthy for European democracy that this political issue has moved centre stage. Our MEPs will have to weigh up Ireland’s interests and values and will be answerable to the Irish electorate.

Throughout the next five years, coalition-building will be the name of the game in the parliament. The centre of gravity will, as in Ireland, remain broadly where it is – in the centre. During our recent European election campaign, the main focus was on personalities and sometimes on policies. For the most part, what was glaringly absent was passion. The issues we face together are immense and transcend national borders – from climate change to controlling social media giants to security in all its dimensions. We could soon face a pincer movement between Putin’s brutal war of aggression on our continent and the return of his friend Donald Trump to the White House. We are fortunate to have the European Union with all its imperfections. For our children’s sake, we should be more passionate about it.

Bobby McDonagh is a former ambassador of Ireland to London, Rome and Brussels

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