Far-right victories in EU elections imperil Ukraine support

The sweeping gains made by far-right parties in the European Union (EU) parliamentary elections over the weekend puts support for Ukraine on thinner ice as more skeptical lawmakers take up a bigger share of seats in the legislative chamber.

Voters largely elected moderates and leftists, but the gains of far-right members in Europe imperil efforts to support Kyiv or rein in Russia. The biggest threat comes from France’s far-right National Rally party, which won the most seats in France and forced new elections in Paris.

The election was driven by domestic concerns across Europe, such as immigration, jobs and efforts to address climate change, but the largest land war on the continent since World War II was the biggest foreign policy question for Europeans as they headed to the polls, and security and defense are among the top priorities for voters.

The growing influence of Ukraine-skeptical lawmakers in countries from Germany to Austria also mirrors the ongoing fight in the U.S., where far-right lawmakers have worked to block military aid to Kyiv.

Far-right isolationist ideology was something President Biden spoke out against while he was in France to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day over the weekend, just as the EU elections were underway. Biden called for unity and strong alliances to defend freedom and democracy.

But the EU elections highlighted splintering relations rather than harmonic alliances, with once-fringe parties making gains and grabbing headlines. Liana Fix, a fellow for Europe at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the election gains from the far-right parties could lead to more backroom deal-making that increases their fringe influence.

“The most interesting thing to watch out for is to what extent … European countries will go into coalitions with the far right, because that’s the most interesting trend,” she said. “It’s not the far right taking power, but instead the far right finding themselves as being more mainstream and therefore acceptable for the center-right parties as coalition partners.”

The weekend election delivered the most seats in the 720-seat Parliament to the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), which has long held the majority, and the second largest share to the liberal group Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats.

But nationalist lawmakers won a record number of seats, with the European Conservatives and Reformists and the Identity and Democracy far-right groups considerably expanding their influence.

These lawmakers made surprising gains in Germany and France, both key members of the Western security alliance NATO and among the biggest suppliers of arms to Ukraine. The expansion of far-right parties in the elections could upend both nations’ respective decisions on Ukraine.

If they take more power, it could go one of two ways, experts say, citing Italy and Hungary as models.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, which has been a dominant force in Italy for the past two years and cemented its influence in the EU election over the weekend, has not been anti-Ukraine and has worked with mainstream EU parties.

In contrast, far-right Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has blocked action in the EU to support Ukraine or sanction Russia and has refrained from providing aid to Kyiv. Orbán also met with Russian President Vladimir Putin last year.

Péter Krekó, a nonresident senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, said any far-right parties taking control are likely to emulate Italy rather than Hungary.

“It does not seem to look good, apart from the fact that he’s keeping power for a long time,” he said of Orbán’s rule in Hungary. “Orbán is isolated in the European landscape, and I don’t really think that anyone regards it as their dream scenario.”

Still, another example is Slovakia, whose far-right Prime Minister Robert Fico immediately halted military aid to Kyiv when he took power last year. Fico’s party lost to a progressive group in the EU elections as voters rejected several of his controversial policies.

In France, the far-right National Rally trounced French President Emmanuel Macron’s party by more than 15 percent, forcing him to call for snap elections later this month and in July. That could shift the power structure and decision-making on Ukraine in Parliament, even if Macron still holds the presidency.

The National Rally, long led by Marine Le Pen, is now headed by 28-year-old Jordan Bardella. While National Rally lawmakers have been less pro-Russia now than in previous years, Bardella has said that he supports withdrawing France from NATO when the Ukrainian war with Russia ends. The far-right French party has also criticized Macron for not ruling out a plan to send NATO troops to the country to fight against Russia.

Fix, of the Council on Foreign Relations, said the National Rally is “not so pro-Russian as they were in the past,” but that the shift could be partly about appealing to voters rather than a real change in policy.

“The possibilities [for National Rally] have always been quite pro-Russian, even if they have toned down their rhetoric,” she said, saying it was “difficult” to assess where the party is now.

Another worrying sign for Ukraine is the rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which snatched second place in the German elections to beat out the Social Democratic party headed by the country’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz.

The AfD’s success came despite scandals engulfing some of its members, including a leading candidate who had to step back after saying the SS, a Nazi paramilitary group, were “not all criminals.” Another candidate was accused of taking Russian bribes, and an aide for an influential member was arrested on charges of spying for China.

The AfD is adamantly anti-Ukraine and has vowed not to send more weapons to the country in the fight against Russia, though its leaders claim they are not aligned with the Kremlin but seek a balance in the war.

“The glorification of one warring party and the demonization of the other side will not lead us to a solution,” AfD co-leader Alice Weidel told German outlet Deutsche Presse-Agentur ahead of the elections.

Daniel Hegedüs, a senior fellow focused on Central Europe at the German Marshall Fund, said the AfD victory “will be seen as a further sign of political chaos” and could lead to Scholz pausing the delivery of sensitive weapons systems like the Taurus missiles to Ukraine, which Berlin has so far held back.

“The government is weaker in its legitimacy,” Hegedüs said of Scholz’s ruling party. “Coalition parties will be more cautious, and they’re [already] trying to refrain from internal conflicts around Ukraine.”

Other far-right parties swept forward in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and Austria, posing a renewed threat to Ukrainian support in Eastern and Central Europe.

In Austria, the Freedom Party secured a first-place victory ahead of September national elections. Austria remains neutral and does not provide arms to Ukraine, but could pose a bigger problem on the European stage, much as Hungary has.

The Freedom Party is also strongly against Ukraine and considered to be pro-Russian, with the war a big issue in Austria.

Krekó, from the Center for European Policy Analysis, said Austria was an important country to watch because the far-right parties there could “influence a lot of decisions in a pro-Russian direction.”

Overall, he warned that Russia has also seen the far-right surge across Europe as “prime channels” for influencing European politics.

“Russia will definitely explore these opportunities,” he added. “They are lacking mainstream connections, so the only thing that they can do is go to the extremes.”

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