Western Europe’s far-right moment

In Ireland, Austria and the Netherlands, the far right is expected to make significant gains at the June 9 European Parliament elections, capitalizing on public frustration with mainstream parties’ responses to crises faced by the EU since the previous EP election in 2019, including immigration, housing and the cost of living.

In Ireland, the European election is being held on the same day as local elections. Both will be closely observed by political pundits to gauge the voter mood ahead of the next general election, not due until March 2025. Amid frustrations over housing and immigration, centre-right parties face challenges from the populist nationalist Sinn Féin on the left and increasing anti-immigration voices on the far-right (unheard of in Ireland until recently).

In Austria, the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) has been capitalizing on frustration with the coalition’s handling of high inflation, the war in Ukraine, and immigration issues. As centre parties continue to lose support, any momentum the FPÖ gains in the EU election could significantly influence the national election in autumn.

In the Netherlands, coalition talks between right-leaning parties will likely overshadow the EU election. With immigration the primary voter concern, the far-right Party for Freedom (PVV) is set to become the largest Dutch party in the European Parliament, following its surprise win last November.

EU elections attract little attention in Switzerland, the non-member state at the heart of Europe. Although the collegial executive has recently resumed negotiations with the EU, Europe remains both a sensitive and distant topic, with the Eurosceptic far-right Swiss People’s party (SVP) still comfortably the largest party in the country. In the statelet Liechtenstein, where EU policies are mostly managed through Switzerland, the EU elections are expected to go largely unnoticed.

Ireland

Despite speculation in Ireland about an early election, prompted in March by the unexpected resignation of Leo Varadkar as prime minister, attention has now shifted back to the race for the 14 Irish seats in the European Parliament.

The EU vote will be a crucial trial of strength for the fragile coalition government formed by Fine Gael (EPP) and Fianna Fáil (Renew). In power since 2011, the two the centre-right parties have faced criticism for failing to address the housing crises in the country, with a housing shortage, soaring prices and rents and homelessness levels reaching record levels  The two parties are expected to face significant losses to the leftwing nationalist Sinn Féin (GUE/NGL). The main opposition party, Sinn Féin has gained popularity over the years by focusing on the cost-of-living and housing crises. According to recent opinion polls, it has around 27% of support in the country, more than any other party.

Centre-right parties are also facing pressure for a new development in Ireland – the growing voice of anti-immigration movements. Immigration was for long not considered a key issue by most Irish voters, but recent polls show it now tops the list of concerns.

The backlash has been fuelled by a surge in asylum applications. Asylum seeker numbers have more than tripled since 2021, with numbers already reaching record levels in the first months of 2024. Like many other European countries, Ireland houses refugees in hotels. Far-right groups have exploited this, falsely claiming that the government prioritises refugees over its own citizens and promoting an anti-immigrant ‘Ireland is full’ message. The increase in crime has also been targeted by misinformation accounts accusing asylum seekers of being at its source.

This has led to a rise in anti-immigration protests and even arson attacks on asylum-seeker facilities. Violent riots in Dublin last November, triggered by a stabbing and escalated by far-right misinformation about the attacker’s nationality, have shocked a country that is not used to this type of violence.

Ireland has long been immune to anti-immigration sentiments, bucking the trend of many European countries. Currently, there are no anti-immigration or far-right parties with local or national representation. This has often been attributed to the presence of Sinn Féin, which channels discontent and attracts voters who might otherwise support far-right parties. However, this could change now that several independent ‘far-right’ figures and fringe parties have entered the race for the European elections. With Sinn Féin’s base apparently weakening among anti-immigration voters, they are hoping for a breakthrough.

Austria

Austria is gearing up for a super-election year, with the EU elections in June and national elections in autumn. The outcome might be a reverse of the tumultuous 2019 election year, when the EU elections saw the liberal-conservative Austrian People’s Party ÖVP (EPP) make gains and the far right FPÖ (I&D) falter, just nine days after the Ibiza affair broke. The video sting operation led to the resignation of the FPÖ deputy chancellor and the fall of the coalition. Snap elections later that year restored the ÖVP to power, which then formed a new coalition with the left-liberal Die Grünen (Greens) as the FPÖ’s support plummeted.

Five years later, the tables have turned. Forecasts indicate that nearly 30% of Austrians plan to vote for the FPÖ in the EU elections, potentially doubling its MEP count. In contrast, the ÖVP and the centre-left Social Democratic Party of Austria SPÖ (S&D) are struggling to break out of the low 20s. The ruling ÖVP is currently in a downward spiral, plagued by a series of scandals, two years after the fall from grace of their former leader and ex-chancellor Sebastian Kurz. The SPÖ, the main opposition party, is also performing poorly due to internal conflicts.

For months, FPÖ has stood atop all polls, capitalising on frustration with the ruling coalition’s poly-crisis management. During the pandemic, the party opposed Covid-19 countermeasures and vaccine mandates, tapping into public discontent with the government’s actions. High inflation has also boosted FPÖ’s support, after the government’s one-off cash payments and energy price caps failed to regain voters’ trust. The war in Ukraine has further strained relations with the government, with the FPÖ opposing support for Ukraine under the guise of Austrian neutrality. This position resonates with a large percentage of the Austrian public, with around 78% supporting neutrality according to a recent survey.

But the issue that most clearly defines the FPÖ is immigration. Always an FPÖ staple but all the more so since 2015, immigration is the second highest concern among voters, behind inflation. FPÖ leader Herbert Kickl advocates for a strict immigration policy and openly promotes the concept of ‘fortress Austria’ to put a stop to asylum applications, while deliberately calling himself the Volkskanzler – a term used by Adolf Hitler in the 1930s.

Austria is a special case in Europe, in that collaboration with the far right has long ceased to be a taboo. When the ÖVP entered a coalition with the FPÖ in 1999, the country became the first western democratic government since the Second World War to incorporate an explicitly far-right party. The FPÖ has repeatedly been included in regional governing coalitions and effectively normalised over the years.

The Netherlands

The Netherlands will go to the polls on June 6 to elect 31 MEPs. It is far from certain whether a government will be in place by the time of the election, or whether the country will be heading towards a new national election. Coalition talks have been ongoing since November – with no breakthrough in sight.

Either way, Geert Wilders’s far-right and Eurosceptic party PVV (I&D) is set to emerge as the largest Dutch party in the European Parliament. In the 2019 European election, his party failed to win a single seat.

In the national election last November, the PVV became the largest in the Dutch parliament. During the campaign, Wilders capitalized on voters’ frustration with immigration, which had become the main campaign topic after a row over asylum policy within the four-way centre-right coalition led to the fall of the government in the summer. The right-leaning parties all promoted tougher migration policy – to the benefit of Wilders, confirming the rule that voters prefer the original over the copy. Issues such as housing shortages, the cost-of-living crisis, and loss of trust in mainstream politics also contributed to the widespread discontent, which crystallised in a protest vote for his party, eclipsing the mainstream right.

Since this political earthquake, the Netherlands has been facing unprecedented political uncertainty. Wilders has been unable to form a coalition with three other right-leaning parties and has reluctantly accepted that he will not be the country’s prime minister. Negotiations have been difficult, and a partially technocratic government now seems the most likely outcome.

But new elections are also an option, with the latest polls showing that support for Wilders has even grown since his shock victory. Although he recently dropped his pledge for a Nexit referendum, he can still harm Europe: ahead of the EU elections, the long-time Eurosceptic said the new strategy was to erode the EU’s power from within.

Recent polls indicate that migration remains the primary concern for Dutch voters in the EU elections. The coalition talks between the four right-leaning parties will also impact the election outcome, with over 40% of voters intending to express their views on this process through their EU votes.

If the campaign continues to focus on domestic politics, this could benefit Wilders, the most dominant actor in the debate. But it could also favour the leftwing alliance GL-PvdA, led by former EU Commissioner Frans Timmermans, which is on track to take second place. Timmermans said in April he is ready to step in and lead negotiations for a new cabinet if the current talks fail.

EU politics is not a central topic in Dutch public debate, and EU elections usually do not generate much enthusiasm in the Netherlands, where turnout is generally low – at the 2019 EU elections 10% lower than the EU average Traditionally, the Dutch are more pragmatic than passionate about Europe, viewing the EU as a necessary and convenient market rather than a close union. The current lack of campaigning for the EU elections is a stark reminder of this reality.

Switzerland

The European elections may not be front-page news in Switzerland, but they are of interest in a country surrounded by the EU and home to many European nationals. Almost 2 million EU citizens living in Switzerland have the right to take part in the European elections – 20 per cent of the country’s population. The EU is also Switzerland’s primary trading partner, while Switzerland ranks as the fourth largest trading partner for the bloc.

The EU elections matter all the more in light of the ongoing negotiations for a rapprochement between Switzerland and the EU. The two parties are currently linked by more than 100 bilateral agreements on issues including police cooperation, trade, tax and agricultural policy. They have been trying for years to establish a broader cooperation agreement, but the Swiss collegial executive left the negotiations in 2021 due to disagreements over state aid, wage protections and freedom of movement. After two years of efforts to resume talks, negotiations restarted in March.

The far-right People’s Party (SVP) is vehemently opposed to an agreement with the EU, warning that it might signal the country’s ‘total subjugation’ to the EU. The profoundly Eurosceptic party won the most seats in the Swiss general election in October 2023. The SVP has finished first in every national election since 1999, gaining popularity by opposing immigration, the loss of Swiss neutrality and closer EU ties. The party recently launched a popular initiative to put a cap on the country’s resident population; if accepted in a popular vote, this could jeopardise the agreement on the free movement of persons with the EU.

But beyond the far-right, Europe remains a sensitive topic in the wealthy and neutral Alpine nation, amid concerns over wage protection, judiciary independence and Swiss sovereignty. The country has long harboured powerful and broad internal resistance to closer integration with the EU. Even supporters of closer ties, mostly from the centre-left and centrist parties, caution that Switzerland cannot expect to benefit from the bloc without making concessions.

Most parties try to avoid talking about Europe, as it generally yields little benefit; today, the vast majority of Swiss people do not want to join the EU, a sentiment that has been increasing since the 2000s due to the diminishing economic appeal of membership, along with the fact that Switzerland’s special status works quite effectively.

Europe has often caused considerable political upheaval in recent decades. EU membership is no longer on the agenda, nor is abandoning neutrality, although Switzerland aligned with the EU by imposing sanctions against Russia over its war in Ukraine. Yet, it is very unlikely that the EU elections will stir any significant interest. For most Swiss voters, relations with the EU are not a priority; in the last election, the issue ranked only seventh in importance, far behind other concerns such as the cost of living, climate change and immigration.

Liechtenstein

Mainly due to the country’s tiny size, politics in Liechtenstein is quite different from that in larger European democracies. Much of this difference stems from the role of the unelected Prince of Liechtenstein, who serves both as the head of state and the informal head of government and possesses a veto right. In February, the population rejected a proposal in a popular vote to elect their government directly, thus retaining the electoral system unchanged since 1921.

This situation makes politics in the principality quite static. In the last elections of 2021, the two governing parties were the largest, separated by just 23 ballots. These two centrist conservative parties are politically similar and have dominated political life in the country for decades. Liechtenstein is one of the last countries in Europe without a far-right party, yet it remains one of the most conservative countries. The influence of the Church is still very strong and abortion remains forbidden in most circumstances. However, this year the Parliament approved a bill to legalise same-sex marriage after the Prince lifted his veto.

Liechtenstein is closely linked to Switzerland and has shared both a customs union and the same currency with the country for over 100 years. It is also highly integrated with the Swiss economy. Unlike Switzerland, however, Liechtenstein is a member of the EEA, which grants it access to the EU single market, meaning it is more integrated in the EU than its neighbour. This sometimes presents a challenging balancing act between two economic areas but also provides the country with extra flexibility.

Liechtenstein has made a few bilateral agreements with the EU but mainly relies on Switzerland to handle its EU matters, with experts say it is unlikely for Liechtenstein to join the EU without Switzerland. Liechtenstein condemned Russia’s invasion, applied EU sanctions against Russia, and welcomed a few hundred Ukrainian refugees.

The population of Liechtenstein is largely Eurosceptic, as shown by their strong rejection of EU membership. Scepticism towards EU integration exists on both the right and left sides of the political spectrum, with even stronger views on the right. Concerns about joining the EU include fears of high costs, restrictions on their direct democracy, loss of autonomy, and increased bureaucracy. Overall, in Liechtenstein, the EU elections might garner limited interest.

Prospects

The EU vote will likely show that far-right politics in western Europe has entered a new phase. In countries like Ireland, Austria and the Netherlands, far-right parties have moved from the margins to the mainstream, becoming the dominant voice on the right. Their electoral gains make it harder to exclude the far-right from future coalition governments, putting pressure particularly on conservative parties, which are struggling to figure out how to accommodate their new challengers.

Unlike in central-eastern Europe, far-right politics in western Europe has not yet undermined the liberal democratic system. After the elections on 9 June, this this could start to change.

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