The shifting balance of power in the European Parliament

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Ash Crow

Timothy Murphy explores the internal dynamics of the European Parliament and the potential creation of a new right wing alliance.

The European right is re-emerging with the news that three powerful right-wing political parties across Europe have joined forces to create a new political alliance. On Thursday the 1st of April, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Matteo Salvini the leader of the League, an Italian populist party, met in Budapest to discuss the first steps in their new European project.

Speaking at a joint news conference, the three leaders pledged to work together to create a new political alliance within the European Parliament to challenge the main conservative group, the European People’s Party (EPP). Orbán stated that their goal was for a “European renaissance” and a return to traditional values against what he deemed was an overly liberal Brussels. Beside him, Morawiecki called for European integration respecting “national sovereignty, the family, Christianity”. Prior to the meeting, Salvini had announced that the aim of the alliance was to “make Europe great again”.

Currently, the European Parliament is comprised of seven different political groups which themselves are formed by a broad alliance of national parties that share the same set of core principles. Fine Gael and its MEPs are members of the largest group, the centre-right EPP, which has dominated conservative politics within the EU since its foundation. Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin MEPs are members of the liberal group Renew Europe and the socialist bloc GUE/NGL respectively. However, the latest announcement in Budapest is sure to act as a warning to these groups that the balance in power may be shifting towards the right.

This follows last month’s news that Orbán was withdrawing his national party Fidesz from the EPP in retaliation to a change in the EPP’s rules of procedure which would have enabled the European group to suspend the Hungarian party’s membership. It was the end of a long-soured relationship where the EPP had criticised the Hungarian party for their undermining of the rule of law, but had until then refrained from taking the necessary steps to expel Fidesz. The EPP and Fidesz had been in a direct conflict over the mechanism that would tie EU budget funds to respect for the rule of law, a concept that Orbán vehemently opposed.

Now, Orbán has found a partner for Fidesz in the Polish ruling party Law and Justice who have also been in dispute with the EU over respect for the rule of law. Just one day before their joint press conference, the European Commission announced that it was taking Poland to the European Court of Justice over a national law which would undermine judges’ independence and prevent them from applying EU law. A letter sent to Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, by leaders of the main political groups in the European Parliament warned that Poland’s behaviour ”may eventually end in the collapse of the union”.

Salvini’s position is not as clear cut. While the League were founded as a Eurosceptic, nationalist party with strong anti-immigration policies, they are currently one of the parties underpinning the new Italian government of Europhile Mario Draghi. Since then, Salvini has been promoting a more EU-friendly discourse advocating the need to work with Europe to help steer Italy out of the pandemic. This change of position is likely linked to the €209 billion in grants and loans the country expects to receive from the EU’s Covid recovery fund.

It is still unclear what shape the new political alliance will take with the three allies holding back from revealing any firm details. For the time being, they will not create a new political group within the European Parliament using the 64 seats which their parties currently hold together. The Polish party Law and Justice are already a member of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR) within the Parliament while The League are currently in the Identity and Democracy (ID) group. With this latest announcement it appears that the preference may be to use one of these already established Eurosceptic groups as their alliance’s vehicle for change.

At the meeting, Salvini spoke of a “path which begins today and which will continue in several stages in different European capitals, expanding the group”. Additional members of the alliance could potentially include the French populist party National Rally led by Marine le Pen which is also currently a member of the ID group with 23 MEPs.

Nationalist and right-wing parties have tried and failed to unify their forces within Europe for a long time partly due to clashing national interests and big differences in views on relations with external parties such as Russia. However, the Budapest meeting is the strongest indicator yet that the splintered far-right is starting to unite behind an alternative vision of the EU. The trio will meet again in May either in Warsaw or Rome to continue their talks with the exact date depending on the coronavirus situation.