As 2024 begins, the EU’s leaders are not short of key challenges to tackle - including the urgent foreign policy issues of Gaza and Ukraine, climate change, migration, new debt rules and more. But it is the upcoming European Parliament elections in early June that are worrying many, as polls show growing support for far-right parties. And, from July, Hungary – the EU’s least democratic poster child – is set to take over the EU presidency from Belgium until the year’s end.

Five months is a long time in politics, especially when an election is conducted across 27 different EU member states: national as much as European issues will be to the forefront. So, there is plenty of time for the EU’s more mainstream and left parties to make their case.

But politics is in flux. Migration has remained a neuralgic issue since 2015. Voters care about climate change but face cost of living crises that are not receding quickly. And, in the face of Russia’s war against Ukraine, and Israel’s destruction of Gaza, the wider geopolitical and security environment is deeply disturbing. There is too a more general unease at the current state of democracy across Europe.

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The far right, with its disdain for human rights and many democratic and legal norms, is not the obvious grouping to appeal to voters concerned about the corruption of domestic or EU politics. But the far right has often been adept at using anti-elite, us-and-them lines in the face of voter disenchantment and anxiety (see Brexit and the upcoming US presidential election).

And the far right will continue to encourage xenophobia around migration questions, and to exaggerate the costs of a green transition while questioning its necessity.

After the UK’s Brexit vote, some of the EU’s far-right parties toned down their eurosceptic rhetoric. But, in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders put a "Nexit" referendum on leaving the EU in his party’s manifesto for last autumn’s election. His PVV Freedom party came first with 24% of the vote. For now, though, Wilders is struggling to form a government.

Interestingly, public opinion across the EU remains remarkably positive about its benefits. A December Eurobarometer poll found 72% thought their country benefitted from being in the EU while only 22% disagreed.

The Herald: Geert WildersGeert Wilders (Image: Agency)

But scratch the surface and the picture is less rosy. Asked if the EU was going in the right direction, only 33% agreed while 48% thought it was going in the wrong direction. For their own country, a huge 60% said it was going in the wrong direction. And for both the EU and for individual countries, an average of only 53% of respondents were satisfied with how democracy is working. It’s a majority but only just.

None of this is very reassuring. The EU is not facing a serious eurosceptic moment. But it is a moment of substantial voter concern and anxiety on both individual issues and the state of democratic politics.

On climate change, the EU has achieved a lot in the last five years since the launch of the European Green Deal in 2019. But both EU and national leaders must make the idea of a socially-just transition convincing and visibly deliver it. More disturbingly, the EU’s centre-right grouping, the European People’s Party (EPP), has adopted much more negative, critical positions on several climate policies, with the EU’s nature restoration law only squeaking through the parliament last summer. The climate backlash is from the centre-right too, not only the far-right.

On migration, the EU’s leaders have adopted increasingly restrictive, negative language, heading in the direction of a fortress Europe rather than an EU that welcomes migrants given its own demographic challenges. In December, the EU agreed a new asylum and migration pact making it easier for member states to hold asylum-seekers in detention centres near EU borders and fast-track removals. This has been widely condemned by human rights NGOs but is expected to pass its final steps in the European Parliament before election campaigning starts.

Overall, it’s unlikely that speaking the language of the far right will help centre-right and centre-left parties in the European elections. Some voters may register a protest vote or actually prefer the far-right who’ve argued for such restrictive migration policies or against climate policies for longer.

Current polls suggest the two hard/far-right European parliament groupings (the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and Identity and Democracy (ID)) could end up with a quarter of the parliament’s MEPs - perhaps 180 in total. In Germany, the far-right AfD (Alternative for Germany) is polling at 23%; in France, Marine le Pen’s Rassemblement National is polling around 28%. It doesn’t look pretty.

Yet, the two biggest European parliament groupings could win a similar number of seats as in 2019, with around 175 MEPs for the EPP and 145 for the Socialists & Democrats group. But polls suggest Europe’s Greens losing a third of their seats - just as action on climate change is ever more vital. The liberal ‘Renew’ group may lose seats too. The mainstream parties would still dominate (as they do in the European Council) - but only if they agree. Getting new laws through the parliament will get harder.

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In 2019, after the elections, the mainstream European parties established a so-called cordon sanitaire stopping the ID group getting to chair any of the key European parliament committees. But that will be trickier if 25% of voters choose far-right parties, and the ID ends up as the third-largest party grouping. And the centre-right EPP could be tempted to do deals with the far-right, at least with the ECR (which Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni presides over).

All is still to fight for. In Poland last year, the hard-right government was defeated. In Spain, the far-right Vox party performed worse than expected. But across the EU, politicians will need to argue for their European vision and policies with conviction and honesty, if the far-right is not to surge, and to disrupt and damage the EU as it heads into the crucial, uncertain years ahead.