How real is the threat of the populist far right in the European Parliament elections?

James F. Downes argues that elections to the European Parliament will likely lead to record representation for populist far-right parties. Lack of unity and ideological divisions, however, will make it difficult for them to wield any real power

The populist far-right threat

Elections for the European Parliament (EP) in June 2024 could be the most important in EU history. The EP has legislative, budgetary and supervisory powers. No EU laws can be passed without the approval of Parliament, which also acts as a check on the EU Commission, currently led by Ursula von der Leyen. So, EP election outcomes matter.

As the map below shows, in the last two EP elections, far-right and Eurosceptic parties significantly increased their vote and seat shares.

Populist far-right support, by EU country

Source: Mattia Zulianello and Eric Gahner Larsen, 2021

If current opinion polling forecasts are correct, this trend will continue in the 2024 elections. Far-right parties are expected to make considerable gains in countries including Austria, Belgium, France, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Slovenia. As the table below shows, this will result in an even larger number of Eurosceptic far-right parties enjoying EP representation.

Far-right parties are expected to make considerable gains in Austria, Belgium, France, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Slovenia

There are two main far-right party blocs: ID and ECR. The ID group is projected to gain 27 additional seats; ECR a further four. Predictions are that support for established centre-right parties will decline. The centre-right European People's Party (EPP), for example, is projected to lose seats. A more modest gain of two seats is expected for the centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D).

Though the EPP would still probably be the largest party grouping inside the EP, it remains likely to face difficulties in getting its policies through during the next Parliament.

Party groupings in the European Parliament, current and projected seats

Party groupingIdeologyCurrent number of seats heldProjected number of seats, according to Politico
European People's Party (EPP)centre right178175
Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D)centre left141143
Renew Europe (RE)centre10183
Greens/European Free Alliance (EFA)centre left7141
European Conservatives & Reformists (ECR)centre right and far right6771
Identity & Democracy (ID)far right57*84*
The Left (GUE/NGL)far left3832
Non-Attached (NI)n/a5241
New Unaffiliated (NU)n/an/a50
Source: Politico Poll of Polls, 27 May 2024
*Alternative für Deutschland was expelled from the Identity & Democracy Group on 23 May 2024

European Parliament elections: divisions hamper far right

While mainstream parties have their own challenges, the main obstacle for the populist far right in the EP is that no single ideological bloc is acting together.

Instead, the far right is split into two main ideological groups. The ECR grouping includes national conservative and far-right parties such as Poland’s Law and Justice Party and Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d'Italia. This grouping, the fifth-largest in the EP, with representation from 17 countries, currently holds 67 of the 705 seats.

The main obstacle for the populist far right in the EP is that no single ideological bloc is acting together

The newer ID ideological grouping was founded in 2014. It features a wide range of populist far-right parties, including Rassemblement National of France, Italy’s Lega, and Geert Wilders' Freedom Party, the biggest party in the November 2023 Dutch national parliamentary elections. ID, the sixth-largest grouping in the EP, with representation from nine countries, currently holds 57 EP seats.

Exacerbating the fragmentation of the far right in the EP is the fact that prominent far-right parties such as Hungary's Fidesz, which currently holds 12 seats, are non-inscrits or non-attached members.

Three significant divisions over policy

Far-right parties tend to be united in supporting tougher border restrictions and anti-immigration policies. Yet the ECR/ID division is visible in other policy areas.

First, the two ideological blocs are divided over whether to remain in the EU. Some far-right actors are Eurosceptic reformists; others support outright withdrawal from the EU.

Some far-right actors are Eurosceptic reformists; others support outright withdrawal from the EU

Rassemblement National used to advocate for leaving the EU. In recent years, however, in a bid for broader appeal, Marine Le Pen’s party has changed its tune. In the Netherlands, the Freedom Party is adopting a similar strategy. Fratelli d'Italia and the Hungarian party Fidesz, too, both now believe they can reform the EU from the inside. Their parties emphasise national sovereignty and oppose further EU integration or centralisation of power. Germany's Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and the Freedom Party of Austria, by contrast, still seek a hard Brexit-style EU withdrawal.

Second, there are differences on foreign policy issues. For example, some far-right leaders, including Hungary's Viktor Orbán, are sympathetic towards Russia and Vladimir Putin. Others, such as Giorgia Meloni, have condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Third, tensions recently emerged between Rassemblement National and AfD, after some AfD members discussed the 'remigration' of foreign-born Germans. This angered Marine Le Pen because it went against her continued efforts to de-radicalise and mainstream her party’s image.

Most significantly, the ID group in the European Parliament recently expelled AfD, accusing the party of ideological extremism and connections to China and Russia.

Are fears for the Green New Deal unfounded?

Some on the left fear that climate change-denying populist far-right parties could kill off Commission President Von der Leyen’s Green New Deal in the new parliament. My analysis suggests the risk is not so great. The far right is ideologically divided, and lacking in unity. Even if it manages to increase its EP representation substantially, it is unlikely to trigger a political earthquake.

The populist far right may well emerge stronger after these elections. Deep-seated divisions, however, will make it extremely difficult for it to wield any real influence.

Derived from a Special Guest Lecture delivered by the author for the University of Hong Kong (HKU) 2024 MOOC, Europe Without Borders

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of James F. Downes
James F. Downes
Assistant Professor (Senior) & Head (Programme Leader) Politics & Public Administration Programme, Hong Kong Metropolitan University

James researches the rise of populist radical-right parties in Western and Central-Eastern Europe, alongside the key issue of immigration (right-wing party competition).

His current research investigates the macro-economic effects of China's BRI, alongside EU-China Relations and EU-Governance within the fields of comparative politics and international relations.

James is also a Research Fellow at the Global Europe Centre (University of Kent/Brussels School of International Studies) alongside the Far-Right Analysis Network (FRAN) and for the Center for Research & Social Progress (Italy).

His recent research publications have appeared in the Journal of Common Market Studies and Electoral Studies, among others.

With Valerio Alfonso Bruno and Alessio Scopelliti, James is currently writing a book entitled The Rise of the Radical Right in Italy (ibidem Press/Columbia University Press).

His recent media interviews relating to European politics and Brexit have appeared in international media outlets including CNBC, CNN and South China Morning Post (SCMP).

He tweets @DrJamesFDownes

Read more articles by this author

Share Article

Republish Article

We believe in the free flow of information Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons License


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Loop

Cutting-edge analysis showcasing the work of the political science discipline at its best.
Read more
Advancing Political Science
© 2024 European Consortium for Political Research. The ECPR is a charitable incorporated organisation (CIO) number 1167403 ECPR, Harbour House, 6-8 Hythe Quay, Colchester, CO2 8JF, United Kingdom.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram