Perspectives | Politics

EU voters are normalizing the far right

By - 19.06.2024

The left is failing to attract disaffected voters.

Center-right, hard-right and far-right parties had strong showings during the 2024 European Parliament (EP) elections. The hard-right and far-right groups in the EP, which are made up of individual national parties, are set to hold over 18% of EP seats. More surprisingly, the center-right also gained a small number of seats, outperforming projections

As has often been the case with EP elections, the immediate consequences and implications fall more on the domestic political level in individual European Union (EU) members than at the EU level. In this cycle, the results in France have grabbed headlines, as President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party received less than half of the number of votes than the far-right National Rally party, led by Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella. Macron called a snap election, hoping to galvanize voters against the far right, betting that he can show that the National Rally cannot win at the domestic level in France. 

At this point, the policy implications are unknown, and will remain so until the majority coalition forms and candidates for the top EU institutional jobs are selected and confirmed. What is more clear, however, is that EU states who style themselves as liberal democracies are facing serious challenges from within, their pledges to uphold supposedly universal values challenged by their own citizens, those they are supposed to serve. 

What do voters want?

None of it would matter if people didn’t vote for these parties. Amid the hand-wringing and political analysis focused on Macron dissolving parliament, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo resigning after his center-right party was soundly defeated by a hard-right rival in national elections that coincided with the EP ones, or German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s governing coalition being humiliated by the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the center-right Christian Democrats, it’s easy to lose sight of that fact: none of it would matter if people didn’t vote for them. Voters, who may feel like they have been abandoned by their political leaders, left with nowhere else to turn to, voted for them because of what they offer at a policy or rhetorical level. 

Democratic societies rest on the premise of everyone’s vote counting equally, every vote having an equal moral and legal weight. In most democracies across the EU — Hungary under Viktor Orbán being the clearest exception — this idea of democracy is married to the idea of liberal values; democracy is not just an end, but it is a means for building a society on universal human rights. It’s a value statement as much as it is an institutional structure.

What happens when voters elect populists who equate majority will with moral good?

What’s now being tested is what happens when voters elect representatives who actively push back on those norms and values that countries pledge to uphold. What happens when voters elect populists who equate majority will with moral good? Or even more dangerously, the majority of the dominant ethnic group? Or when democratic legitimacy is extended to politicians and political movements who treat those that they consider different from themselves as enemies and threats by default? 

For states that purport to represent and look out for the interests of all citizens, hard-right and far-right voters’ rights to express political preferences through the ballot box is the same as anyone else’s. One could argue that such voters are wrong, of course. One can make moral arguments, policy-based arguments, arguments grounded in the logic that climate catastrophe is coming for us all and no industry should be untouchable in the effort to try to preserve human life as we know it. One might seek to convince people that they’re wrong because the politicians they are electing are not interested in maximizing human flourishing. One may say that people are wrong because the political representatives they are electing are grifters interested in power for power’s sake alone and are probably willing to take any deal and sell out their own people for power and a cushy salary as a member of the European Parliament. 

But what if these arguments fail to sway voters? Where does that leave democratic states in the EU, a union “founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities,” as the Consolidated Version of the Treaty on European Union states? Such values, the EU says, exist in the effort to build societies in which “pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.” But what happens when the people vote for parties who offer an alternative, non-pluralistic vision of the future, which insists on the righteousness of maintaining a white and Christian Europe, in such great numbers that it is impossible to avoid taking them seriously? 

Growing inequality and economic insecurity have created a fertile ground for insurgent political parties to make inroads among voters whose concerns have not been assuaged by mainstream political parties and other political alternatives.

This is the challenge faced by voters and political parties across the EU in the aftermath of the 2024 EP elections. Even if the far-right sweep that some feared never materialized, the campaign and results further cement the fact that these parties are fixtures in electoral politics across the EU. Growing inequality and economic insecurity have created a fertile ground for insurgent political parties such as these to make inroads among voters whose concerns have not been assuaged by mainstream political parties and other political alternatives. Parties that have traditionally occupied the center-left and center-right are being punished by voters seeking to hold them accountable for the social and economic changes that have occurred in the past decades. 

Yet if the far-right vote was exclusively a protest vote, one might expect to see strong showings from far-left parties whose socialist ideological foundations might suggest that they would be perceived as venues for people casting protest votes. This did not happen. The left across the EU has apparently failed to convince a meaningful number of voters that it could be a vehicle for their grievances, implying that there’s something more than mainstream rejection behind these parties’ success. 

The market of political ideas

In deeply simplified terms, democratic politics can be thought of in terms of supply and demand in the market of ideas. Politicians provide the supply of ideas, typically organized in political parties united in the goal of winning elections on the basis of a given set of policies or ideas. On the demand side, potential voters have pre-existing notions and instincts about what they want in their elected representatives, and which ideas they want those people to stand for. 

Supply and demand provide feedback to one another; if voters don’t like what a certain party is presenting, they will seek out others, and that party will be forced to recalculate or become irrelevant. Conversely, a voter who finds her views not represented by any party vying for her vote is forced to choose between compromising and selecting the party or candidate that is closest to what she’d want, or alternatively, opting out of the market and not buying at all.  

In the context of contemporary EU politics, it seems that this demand side has been under-emphasized, leading to an excess of coverage of the hard and far right without equal attention to the actual voters on whom hard- and far-right parties depend. It may be too easy to write off farmers protesting environmental regulations as poorly-educated rural folk disconnected from the existential threat of climate change, while historically viable professions such as agriculture have been whittled away by a mixture of capitalist economic logic, environmental regulation and the overall automation and technologization of the economy. 

The EU has historically propped up the agricultural sector in an effort to keep food prices stable, making its relationship with agriculture rather atypical. Indeed, in 2022, agriculture received 23% of all subsidies from the EU budget, despite accounting for only 1.6% of economic production and 4.2% of employment in the EU. Yet 80% of those subsidies go to just 20% of farmers, meaning that despite support for the sector, many farmers in the EU operate on slim margins, around or under the poverty line.

Furthermore, it is not too challenging to envision that farmers feel specifically targeted by environmental regulation that calls on them to cull dairy cattle — a euphemism for killing these rather pleasant animals — while mass emitters such as airlines receive bailouts from the state. 

Voters are normalizing the far right

But what if such voters are, simply, disconnected from climate change science? What if they vote for the far right simply because they like the anti-immigrant stances and the pledges to defend a white and Christian Europe, morally deficient and ahistorical as such a position may be? What can opposing political forces and the political establishment do when people who actively question tolerance, diversity and inclusivity as foundations for healthy societies have the exact same rights to vote, organize, protest and lobby policymakers as everyone else? What happens if there’s enough of these voters that the political system begins to fully reflect such policy preferences in the way that democratic political systems are intended to reflect their citizens’ views? Do states serve a greater purpose than channeling their citizens’ policy preferences? Do they owe anything to humanity more broadly? 

Discourse about far-right parties reflects the political establishment’s unending sense of self-importance.

Discourse about far-right parties reflects the political establishment’s unending sense of self-importance. That discourse continues to think of the establishment’s actions as the independent variable upon which voting is dependent, assuming that voters’ basic preferences align with it, if only those voters were properly informed on the issues at stake. Media, social media, disinformation, center-left political parties and center-right political parties are blamed for normalizing the far right; while it is of course true that these things are impactful, it is ultimately voters who are normalizing far-right policies. None of it would matter if people didn’t vote for them.

The onus is on other political parties to actively compete with their far-right challengers to capture the votes of disenchanted citizens rather than search for any reason to distract from the fact that many people don’t like the political establishment and don’t trust that it has their self-defined best interests at heart.    

The discontent is there. The demand is there for new ideas to break away from a status quo dominated by rising inequality and rural-urban divides, all of which create a rich environment where outsiders can be scapegoated. Until other parties are able to attract meaningful numbers of disaffected and dissatisfied voters to vote for them, little seems like it’s going to change. People vote for them.


K Read also: Why do the 2024 EU elections matter for the Balkans?

Feature Image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0

Want to support our journalism? Become a member of HIVE or consider making a donation. Learn more here.