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Why the European Elections Will Test Democracy

The danger is greater than the rise of far-right parties. In fact, there is a risk that in their eagerness to contain the far right, European leaders may do greater damage to democracy itself.

By Richard Youngs

April 2024

Elections for all 720 seats in the European Parliament are set for June 6 through 9 of this year. The results may confront democracy with a severe stress test. Polls suggest that far-right parties will achieve significantly higher vote shares, reflecting trends in several countries — prominent among them Germany — which have been pointing that way for several years.

Much preelection commentary has focused on this prospect. The conservative EU Parliament grouping known as the European People’s Party (EPP) is likely to win the contest, while the center-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) are expected to come in second. The centrist group Renew Europe and the Greens on the left are set to lose seats. Taken together, the two farthest-right groupings — the European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR) and Identity and Democracy (ID) — are on course to win over 20 percent of the popular vote and a seat tally rivaling that of either of the two principal groupings.

This outcome could — in theory at least — allow the EPP, ECR, and ID to form a majority that would take the place of the centrist coalition that has long dominated the European Parliament. While a formal rightist governing coalition is unlikely, the results will at the very least place many areas of EU cooperation under greater strain. With far-right parties generally wishing to claw back some powers to the national level, most focus has been on assessing their varying degrees of Euroskepticism. But what about the elections’ impact on democracy?

There is fear that a powerful far-right in the EU Parliament could put in doubt the basic equality of rights upon which democracy rests. In both their respective countries and at the EU level, several rightist parties have been calling for laws that would place more limits on the rights of non-nationals and seek to reverse advances in civil liberties as well as gender and minority rights.

Even if not overtly authoritarian, these parties will in some cases try to weaken EU efforts to defend democracy both internally and externally. Several of them are not keen on the revived process of EU enlargement, the Union’s most effective tool for incentivizing democratic reform, and the ID is generally less supportive of Ukraine against Russia than is the ERC. More indirectly, to the extent that far-right parties sap EU unity, they could leave the Union’s democracy-anchoring value compromised. If, as seems likely, mainstream conservatives opt to reach out to hard-right parties on an ad hoc basis in some areas of policy, the guardrails against political illiberalism could easily give way.

So, even though votes for the far-right in European Parliament elections do not carry quite the same impact as in national elections, there are grounds for grave concern. Still, three subtle but important distinctions are in order — each of which goes against the grain of current commentary about the European elections.

First, rightist parties display a spectrum of positions on democracy. Hungary’s ruling Fidesz and Poland’s recently unseated but still formidable Law and Justice party (PiS) already have proven records of subverting democracy in their respective countries, while other parties such as Germany’s AfD and Spain’s Vox also have positions that sit uneasily with basic democratic norms. Other hard-right parties may propose regressive policies on migration, climate change, and the like, but do not seem directly to menace democratic institutions. Most are cool toward the EU’s external democracy support, though some including the PiS and Sweden Democrats are assertive against authoritarian powers.

Much debate continues about Giorgia Meloni, whose Brothers of Italy party is set to be a significant power broker in the European Parliament: As Italy’s prime minister since 2022, she seems largely to have stuck to democratic rules of the game and has not challenged the underpinnings of Italy’s democratic political system. Some still fear, however, that she is hiding her intent to pursue a hypermajoritarian political project. Most of Europe’s less-extreme rightist parties profess a commitment to reviving democratic engagement through more devolved and direct (less liberal) templates of democracy. When involved in national or local governments, however, these parties have rarely followed through on such promises.

In short, apart from its unsettling impact on certain EU policies, the far right’s relationship to democracy remains less than clear and will be put increasingly to the test in the next several years. A key question is how far rightist parties will diverge from one another on democracy issues. The differences are there, so it is fair to wonder if there are policy initiatives that can lead to at least the less-extreme right-wing parties agreeing more firmly to avoid crossing redlines into nondemocratic behavior.

A second nuance is that current talk is so much about the far right that few are considering the larger (and troubled) picture of EU democracy itself. Europe’s democracy challenge is not merely about the far right, whose surge is but one symptom among many of deeper democratic shortcomings. The democratic malaise that now grips Europe is too deep and extensive to be blamed wholly on the far right.

The last European Parliament elections were in 2019, and wider democracy-related developments since then have been mixed. The standard democracy-trackers maintained by Freedom House, V-Dem, and the Economist Intelligence Unit report that across most of Europe, decade-long democratic declines have in the last two or three years flattened out. Poland’s 2023 election was a particularly hopeful turnaround. Yet serious underlying problems continue to intensify. Even as they remonstrate against the far right, most “mainstream” governments have themselves eroded civil liberties and, in their foreign policies, increased security-oriented support for autocratic regimes such as those in Egypt, Tunisia, and other Arab states. EU policies on youth and women’s political engagement have not had a resounding impact, while anticorruption strategies have struggled.

The media are full of speculation about what coalitions might emerge after the elections. A primary concern is whether the EPP will restrict itself to working with other mainstream parties or reach out to parts of the far right. The deeper structural problems that must be solved to ensure the health of European democracy get far less attention. Europe’s democratic challenge is to boost the overall quality of EU democracy rather than simply defeat the far right, yet sobering reminders of this are missing from current election commentary.

Meeting that challenge will be especially difficult because it remains unclear what an EU-level or transnational democracy should look like. Brussels buzzes with talk about whether the new Parliament will get to choose the European Commission president. Still, given the EU’s sui generis institutions and the complex relationship between EU bodies and the elected governments of member states, many call for EU democracy to involve more in the way of direct citizen engagement rather than processes that replicate national democratic processes.

The Commission has launched a series of citizen panels, but these fall far short of what is needed to improve citizens’ feeling of involvement in and influence over EU decisions. And national governments are so far not supportive of any ambitious democratic rethink that would involve transnational direct participation by citizens. Regardless of who gains and who loses in the June elections, the structural questions of how national and EU-level democracy should relate to each other will remain.

A third counterintuitive point is that the justifiably urgent focus on containing the far right risks generating policy measures which could themselves be problematic for EU democracy. The conundrum is that pro-European, democratic parties need to stem the far-right surge but without closing off avenues for deeper and more pluralistic democratic engagement. In previous parliaments, these pro-European parties have clubbed together to shield vital areas of EU cooperation. This has come at a cost, however, in the form of a narrowing of democratic debate and policy options that feeds far-right charges of EU democracy being little more than an elite stitch-up. Many are tempted to push this constrictive logic even further: There is talk of pro-European parties signing a formal coalition deal, while some recommend that mainstream parties downplay certain issues as a way of reducing turnout among Euroskeptical citizens.

In the name of containing the far right, European governments have been treating mis- and disinformation primarily as national-security problems — an approach that many fear will curtail democratic freedom. New EU measures to limit external funds coming into Europe for far-right groups risk penalizing prodemocracy groups as well. The instinctive EU response to many challenges is to depoliticize them, that is, to safeguard the cooperative liberal order by moving heated and sensitive issues into a rule-bound sphere of technocracy. Even where this succeeds in protecting important policy goals and EU integration, it takes the energy out of democratic pluralism. This risk to pluralistic discourse and policymaking already looks set to intensify after June’s election.

The tension will be especially acute in relation to action meant to mitigate climate change. Fearful of losing momentum, the EU keeps pushing through climate measures with negligible public debate or popular participation. Frustrated at having little voice in these policies, citizens and especially farmers across Europe have taken to the roads and streets in protest. Green parties are set to be the biggest losers in the elections, highlighting the deepening tension between environmental and democratic imperatives. Europe’s wave of protests both in favor of and against climate action show the ever more pressing need to get the democratic politics of climate change right, and how far the EU is from designing an open and participative approach to climate action.

In sum, there are more complexities than one would glean from coverage of the European elections. Analysts, journalists, and policymakers talk about the far right in ways that are qualitatively different from what they say about any other political force, as a threat that transcends standard party ideologies. While this viewpoint may be clearly justified in relation to many policy issues, with regard to democracy a wide range of other factors is also at play. Safeguarding democracy is not synonymous with the aim of securing a pro-European majority and holding far-right forces at bay in the June elections. As we ponder the disconcerting preelectoral scene, we should realize that far more comprehensive strategies to shore up EU democracy are needed.

Richard Youngs is a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at Carnegie Europe, and co-founder of the European Democracy Hub.


Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy

Image credit: Sina Schuldt/dpa/AFP via Getty Images




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