Hard right wants more EU power to reflect likely election gains

By Philip Blenkinsop

STRASBOURG (Reuters) -From his office in a distant annexe, French right-wing lawmaker Jean-Paul Garraud has his sights set on a spot much closer to the decision-making heart of the European Parliament.

The chair of France's Rassemblement National (RN) lawmakers expects nationalist and eurosceptic parties to surge in the June 6-9 EU assembly election, giving them a first taste of influence in Brussels and Strasbourg, if other right and centre-right parties work with them.

Polls predict radical right parties will gain across the EU, including France, Germany and Italy where many seats are at stake, as voters frustrated by a cost of living and energy crisis, illegal migration, and rattled by a changing geo-political landscape seek alternatives beyond mainstream parties.

"We will be in a different position and will not be blocked.... We could have positions in the committees or a president or vice-president in the European Parliament," Garraud told Reuters, anticipating new influence as the chamber considers issues crucial to the far-right.

"What I am sure of is that we will have a majority in a certain number of votes," Garraud said, adding this could allow the blocs of far-right parties to water down green policies or restrictions of free trade. "And above all, less immigration," he said, highlighting a crucial issue for the radical right.

Polls forecast the two radical right groups Identity and Democracy (ID) and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) will add 30-50 seats, to rise to 22-25% from 18% now.

Support is not limited to a traditional base of disgruntled older men. A recent German poll showed 22% of under-30s would vote for the country's far-right AfD. RN's president is 28-year-old Jordan Bardella, a telegenic poster on TikTok, the short video platform little used by the mainstream.

Many of the parties are heavy users of social media, which mainstream groups warn will bombard EU voters with lies.

In the French port of Dunkirk, long a leftwing bastion, some parents worry about what messages young people are exposed to.

Jean-Francois Engrand, 53, said his two step-children were tempted to vote RN by messages about foreigners getting money for nothing. "It's scary. They're being bombarded. They don't check the information they get on their phones," he said.


Corina Stratulat, associate director of think tank the European Policy Centre, said radical, populist parties were filling a growing gap between the mainstream and distrustful voters in an "age of perma-crisis" from pandemic to war in Ukraine and energy price spikes.

Efforts to fill the gap have backfired. French President Emmanuel Macron's party is polling at about 16%, half that of RN. Critics say his highlighting of immigration and crime has helped the right and driven away left-leaning voters.

Green policies, heralded in 2019 after school climate strikes, have also become a right-wing target.

"People are aware the green deal can bite and that the next five years will be crucial for its implementation," said Armida van Rij, senior research fellow at Chatham House.

The centre-right European People's Party (EPP), the Social Democrats and the centrist liberals have so far shut out the hard right, dividing up top EU jobs and forging policy consensus. They are expected to have a majority, albeit reduced, after the 2024 vote.

Garraud says a shut-out will not be possible this time, while Nicola Procaccini, co-chair of the ECR group, sees Italy's government of his and Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy, the further right Lega and centre-right Forza Italia as a model.

"I think this is the way to go," he said, pointing to a situation in which the hard right would have far greater say on policy and who staffs the European Commission.


The EPP, likely to remain the biggest group in parliament, has ruled out working with the AfD. Its parliamentary chief Manfred Weber said he would tell voters of its true nature as "ambassadors of Putin and of Xi".

Garraud said allegations that his party and ID allies such as the AfD were pro-Russian or accepted money were merely efforts by rivals to demonise the right.

Last month saw the arrest of an aide of the AfD's lead candidate on suspicion of spying for China and a report that its number two received money from a website with links to the Kremlin, an allegation he denies.

The message about foreign interference is starting to resonate, with a German poll showing 75% of respondents seeing it as a danger. AfD support has since slightly dipped.

At the AfD's EU election campaign launch in Donaueschingen, several of the 500-odd attendees were certain the arrest was timed to hurt the party's chances. In the wealthy corner of southwest Germany, many supporters railed against an out-of-touch mainstream that had backed COVID-19 lockdowns and mask mandates.

"It was the coronavirus pandemic that radicalised me," said Justus, a besuited production engineer in his early 20s with a neatly trimmed beard, who arrived with equally dapper friends in a BMW convertible.

Van Rij said it was important to distinguish between the AfD along with its disparate ID allies like RN and the broadly less radical ECR, likely to be steered by Italy's Meloni, whose support European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen might need to secure a second term.

"The ECR could have a bigger impact," she said.

Stratulat said the EPP would play a central role. It might team up with the hard right on a few issues, such as migration, or simply shift rightwards itself, such as over green measures.

The Greens say the future of green policies and European security will be vital election issues.

"Do you want Russian and Chinese influence and weakening Europe?... For them a strong Europe is the biggest danger. So they want to weaken Europe. And let's be honest, the far right will weaken Europe," Greens co-leader Bas Eickhout said.

(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; additional reporting by Michel Rose in Dunkirk, Thomas Escritt in Donaueschingen; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)