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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

Election polls show surge of far-right factions ahead of 2019 EU vote

French President Emmanuel Macron compared the right-wing surge to Germany’s Nazis or Italy’s fascists.

French president Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech as part of celebrations marking the centenary of the First World War. (AFP)
French president Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech as part of celebrations marking the centenary of the First World War. (AFP)

Far-right eurosceptic parties are gaining ground in countries that cradled the European Union ahead of a much-awaited European parliamentary vote in May 2019, which is shaping up to become a referendum between traditional conservative parties and emerging nationalist groups.

National polls – generally regarded as a fair indicator of likely voting in the EU election – point to a progressive shift towards more overtly eurosceptic positions.

The French far-right party Ressemblement National (RT), formerly known as the National Front, has moved ahead of President Emmmanuel Macron’s Republique en Marche (LREM) for the first time with 21 per cent of voting preference, an Ifop poll found on Sunday.

Similarly, Italy’s far-right League party has overtaken its government ally Five Star Movement (M5S), has risen over 30 per cent in a September poll. Italians are the most unsatisfied with the European Union, with one in two citizens voting in favour of an Italian Brexit, according to a Eurobarometer survey.

At the EU level, these projections translate into far-right European groups verging close to conquering one third of the seats and gaining more weight in European decision-making.

October projections for the next European elections see the far-right Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group – whose main growth drivers are Marine Le Pen’s RN and Matteo Salvini’s League – expanding its presence from 35 seats in 2014 to 51.

A second hard-right faction, Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD), has also been strengthened by the success of the German far-right AfD party in local elections and is likely to obtain up to 50 representatives.

According to Susi Dennison Director of the European Power programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), “what the far-right is doing quite effectively right now is giving this semblance that they are a pan-European movement.”

“You are not getting this same sense of mobilisation from pro-European groups,” she said.

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The two largest European groups are in fact predicted to lose seats. The European People’s Party (EPP) – which includes German Chancellor Angela Merkel among its leaders but also the controversial Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban – is projected to retain its dominant position while following the downward spiral witnessed by conservative parties across Europe (from 215 seats in 2014 to 177).

In line with the end of the two-party politics era in national elections, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) is projected to lose over 50 representatives since the 2014 elections, leaving it closer to third place with 134 seats.

Mr Macron issued stark warnings on Tuesday, comparing the right-wing surge to Germany’s Nazis or Italy’s fascists. “As I recall, nobody, not even the wealthiest and the best educated, blocked the rise of Hitler in one country and Mussolini in another,” he told local media.

To counter what he perceives to be a threat to European values, Mr Macron is attempting to rally the liberal camp under the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group in next elections.

If turnout to the European vote will be similar to national elections across Europe, far-right European parties would likely win around a third of the seats, ECFR’s analyst Ms Dennison said.

This threshold is critical as it would allow to take control of the processes and veto powers within the European parliament, opposing for example actions against authoritarian governments in Poland and Hungary.

What could also tip the elections in favour of these parties is external meddling and misinformation, analysts say. Some leading tech companies are already seeing evidence that “the same bad actors looking to interfere in the U.S. elections” are now looking to spread false claims of meddling.

Jakub Janda, Head of Kremlin Watch Program and Director of the Prague-based European Values think-tank, said the European vote could lead to a “legitimisation of Russia inside the European parliament” if far-right groups prevail.

“I think there will be quite a massive Russia disinformation campaign, attacking the mainstream political parties in order to support the far-right,” Mr Janda told The National.

The goal, if not to gain actual decision-making power in the European parliament, would be for Russia to have friendly MEPs who would promote its agenda and boost its image by scheduling visits to the Kremlin or to president Assad’s Syria, the expert said.

A new Eurobarometer survey set to be released later this month found a huge majority of European citizens want social media sites to be more transparent in the run-up to the EU election, with social media companies making clear what content is advertisement and who is behind it.

“Negative disinformation [is currently being conducted] against the mainstream political parties,” Mr Janda said.

Italy’s M5S was found on Moday to have manipulated the translation of a clip featuring former Eurogroup chief Jeroen Dijsselbloem for its own political agenda, while Hungary’s unrelenting media campaign against EU values prompted the ALDE group to park a truck displaying a message of protest in key locations around Brussels on Tuesday.

“What has yet to be seen is whether there will be Russian financial support – usually through proxies – for far-right parties in European elections.”