A Far-Right Resurgence In Europe. What Does it Mean?

The opinion polls were right: the far-right made a strong resurgence during the European elections last week. In France, the UK, and Denmark far-right parties obtained more than 20% of the vote. In other countries, mainstream and leading parties came in behind far-right or populist groups. In the Netherlands for example, the Dutch Prime Minister’s liberal party came in behind the anti-Islam Freedom Party. In Austria, the far-right party jumped from 12% in 2009 to nearly 20% of the votes. Despite the predictability of these results, Europeans are wringing their hands, wondering what happened, and now trying to understand what the real impact of this vote will be – not just at the level of the Union, but at the national level as well.

>> To view the full results of the 2014 election, as well as comparisons with 2009 results, check out the European Union’s multimedia tool

As the French far-right National Front party leader, Marine Le Pen, appeared, beaming, in front of posters reading Front National – Premier Parti de France (“National Front – First Party of France”), French media almost ran out of metaphors on Sunday evening to describe the enormous gains made by the National Front, historically considered extremist – a tidal wave, a political tsunami, an earthquake, a shock, a europhobic wave.

Similarly, in the UK, the far-right UKIP party won their bet to be the dominant party in these elections, and British media also spun the victory as a political shock. But, as mentioned last week, these results were not unexpected – and neither was the mediocre participation rate in the elections, reaching – across the European Union – a paltry 43%. Symbolizing the disconnect between the European institutions and its citizens – in particular, in the most recent countries to have joined the EU – less than 30% of voters participated in the election in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, .

Representative of this trend, only 43% of French voters cast a ballot in the election, while in the UK, the turn out rate was a measly 36%, leaving many to wonder if the far-right surge could have been avoided had a majority of voters participated in the polls. And while these numbers suggest that, overall, support for far-right politics is somewhat overestimated in these countries, this unfortunately doesn’t alter the fact that in both countries – which contribute large numbers of members to the EU Parliament – far-right parties can legitimately claim having won their first national level elections, dealing a serious blow to mainstream, historically dominant parties. In France, the National Front is calling for the French Parliament to be dissolved. Toeing a careful line, Marine Le Pen declared that President Francois Hollande “has no more legitimacy“, but stopped short of asking him to step down.

What does this mean for the institutions of the European Union? First, it’s important to remember that mainstream parties continue to clearly dominate the European Parliament, and that the dramatic gains by far-right parties are not translating into major changes as far as the composition of the parliament is concerned. Indeed, the two dominant parties – the European People’s Party and the Social-Democrats, representing, respectively, center-right and center-left sensibilities, went from sharing 470 seats among them to 405 of the total 751 seats. Meanwhile, far-right parties surged from a few dozen seats to well over 100 – significant gains, to be sure, but likely not enough to sway voting patterns in the parliament.

Still, there could be some controversy over who gets to be the next head of the European Commission.  Traditionally, this post has been an appointment, based on the recommendations of the Council of the EU, composed of the heads of state and government of member states. The Treaty of Lisbon, which amends the Treaty of the European Union, was enacted in late 2009. One of the many changes to the political structures of the Union instigated by the new treaty is that the appointment of the head of the European Commission – a powerful role at the heart of the EU’s executive branch – must “take into account” the results of the parliamentary elections. There is a certain degree of vagueness associated with this provision – what will taking the results of the recent election into account look like when the time comes to appoint the head of the European Commission?

This will be the battleground to watch in the EU in the coming weeks, as appointments are slated to take place by the end of June, prior to the summer break. Until then, expect far right parties to use their new megaphone to tout their far right ideologies. But do not expect much to change in the day-to-day workings of the EU.