In the world’s second-largest democratic vote after India’s, European Union citizens earlier this month elected a European Parliament that tilts decisively to the right.

While mainstream parties still make up more than 60 per cent of the 720-member body, the far right was the election’s biggest winner, claiming around a quarter of the seats. Far-right parties won the plurality of vote in several member states, including France, Italy, and Austria. This electoral success will give the far-right a chance to influence EU decisions more than ever before.

Climate change mitigation may be one of the policy areas where the far right’s growing clout is most painfully felt. The European Green Deal — a package of measures to turn Europe into “the first climate-neutral continent” by 2050 — will stay in place, but greater far-right influence is likely to result in less ambitious climate policies.

The election is thus another indication that political environments in Western democracies have become more challenging for advocates of climate change mitigation — as Canadians know very well.

The powers of the European Parliament are often underestimated. Its support is needed to appoint the European Commission and to pass most EU legislation. European elections, however, are not necessarily about the issues that the European Parliament will later decide on. Instead, parties and voters frequently treat them as mid-term popularity tests for member-state governments.

In this spring’s campaign, national politics clearly overshadowed the most pressing issues on the EU’s policy agenda, such as positioning Europe in geopolitical competition, resolving internal conflicts over asylum policy, accepting new member states, or deciding on the future of EU climate policy.

The national focus of the campaign helped the far right. To be sure, many of the factors that have fuelled its rise affect all of Europe: the perception that the EU primarily benefits metropolitan elites; opposition to ethnic, religious and gender diversity; pocketbook issues such as increased energy and food prices, which — just like in Canada — are often misattributed to climate policy.

Mobilization around these themes has made the far right an established component of party systems almost everywhere in the EU. However, the far right achieved the highest vote shares where it was able to link these general issues to country-specific grievances, such as ineffective or internally divided national governments.

This background is important for understanding the policy impacts of the election, including its effects on climate policy. In the short term, these are unlikely to be dramatic, as the political shift in the composition of the European Parliament is limited.

The #EU election is another indication that political environments in Western democracies have become more challenging for advocates of climate change mitigation — as Canadians know very well, writes Achim Hurrelmann #cdnpoli #EuropeanUnion

The parties that have supported the Commission’s legislative agenda in the outgoing parliament — the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), the liberal Renew Europe (RE) and (with less enthusiasm) the Greens — still hold a comfortable majority. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who presented the European Green Deal as one of the key policies of her first five years in office, has a good chance of being reappointed for another term.

By contrast, the far right is divided. It is split into two parliamentary groups, the nationalist European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and the more radically populist Identity and Democracy (ID). Some far-right parties with large delegations, such as Hungary’s Fidesz or the Alternative for Germany, are not aligned with any EU-level group.

These constellations can, however, be expected to change in the medium term, in ways that pose increasing risks to the Green Deal.

First, recent electoral successes have renewed the far right’s resolve to overcome its internal divisions. A combined far-right group in the European Parliament could easily become the assembly’s second largest. This would turn it into the primary parliamentary opposition against the European Commission’s legislative initiatives.

Climate change would not be its main rallying cry — migration and xenophobia have proven more effective. Nevertheless, a united far right would mean increased visibility for its attempts to portray climate change mitigation as an ideological, unnecessary and costly attack on Europeans’ way of life.

Even if efforts to unite the far right are not immediately successful, its influence could also grow as centrist parties, especially the EPP, become more open to embracing parts of the far right’s policy agenda.

Some of the most successful far-right parties — especially in Italy and France — have tried for years to moderate their political positions, to broaden their electoral base and build new coalitions. Particularly Italy’s Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, is viewed by some in the EPP as a potential ally.

Climate change is a field in which such issue-specific alliances could be formed. Over the past year, the EPP’s support for the European Green Deal has become increasingly lukewarm; parliamentary majorities for important pieces of the EU’s climate agenda were slim. In the new European Parliament, these shifts in the EPP’s position will make it increasingly difficult to pass further Green Deal legislation, such as measures that seek to reduce agricultural emissions.

As many key components of the Green Deal, including the EU’s Climate Law, have already become law, a large-scale backsliding on climate policy is not to be expected. The Green Deal will remain in place. But in addition to making further measures harder to pass, the far right’s increasing strength may also impact the implementation of existing measures.

In the EU, policy implementation depends on the member states. With some of them either governed by the far right (Italy, Hungary, soon the Netherlands), or by centrist governments seeking to contain far-right gains (France, Germany, Austria) we can expect more attempts to water down Green Deal policies.

In this constellation, it will be important for progressive political forces to mobilize public support that ensures that the EU’s climate laws are indeed put into practice.

Achim Hurrelmann is Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the Centre for European Studies at Carleton University.

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The far right are a very short sighted group and remind me of spoil kids who want everything their way, with no consideration of others. When it comes to climate change, the far right have their head in the sand and base their talking points on disinformation, conspiracy theories and social media influencers, who have zero idea what they are talking about. Even if they have a scientist on their side, most of them have been discredited and basically propaganda generators.

Clearly there's no longer ANY acceptable version of the good, old "right wing" in politics; the once reasonable and generally respectable brand has gone rogue, been officially "Trumped," and has become more of a cult/religion, which totally disqualifies it for modern democratic governance. Aggressively political Christianity joined the right wing years ago to further their decades old agenda and we're finally naming it what it is, i.e. "Christian Nationalism." This is after the decades of stealth maneuvering, a sort of slow moving coup that slid in the backdoor via church basements, then school boards, then municipal government to state, and now fully emboldened by the takeover of the Supreme Court in the U.S. One reason this has happened is the complicating reality that even the Democrat leader is a full-blown Catholic, just not an "extreme" one. Parsing a lie is never good, but since SO many people have been "raised" on this one, the god myth, it's very much facilitated the worst parsings, or interpretations.
Allowing any right wing elements into politics now is like adding wine to our water, instead of the other way around, because the wine of populism is both sweet AND dangerously addictive.