What Data Tells Us About the Far-Right Surge in Europe

A lot has been said and written about the specter of a far-right wave in the upcoming European Parliament election. I believe this metaphor is entirely misplaced.

The data tells us that instead of a wave that usually crashes and ebbs away again, what we have seen in Europe over the last decades is more akin to rising sea levels when analyzing the growing support for far-right parties in election results and especially the far-right surge in the European Parliament election.

To illustrate the growing support for far-right populist parties in Europe, I reference the analysis by Rooduijn M, Pirro ALP, Halikiopoulou D, et al. (2023). The analysis is based on the dataset from popu-list.org which uses expert classification of where parties are positioned on the political spectrum and whether they can be labeled as populist. The data is combined with the share of votes won by these parties in national elections from the parlgov.org dataset and weighted by the population size of the respective country.

In the chart above, we can clearly observe that far-right parties constitute the largest segment of populist parties in Europe and that support for them has been steadily increasing. This assessment spans the past 20 years, and looking ahead to the 2024 European Parliament election with the exclusive seat projection model from corneliushirsch.com, the trend looks almost certain to persist.

The vast majority of the far-right parties analyzed in the popu-list.org dataset are organized at the European level in either the Identity & Democracy group (ID) or the European Parliament group of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). As of early April when I ran my seat projection model for the upcoming European Parliament election, these two party groups are expected to gain the most seats compared to the number of MEPs the different groups currently hold in the European Parliament today.

And where is the surge in support for right-wing and far-right parties most profound? Where can ID and ECR expect to pick up the most additional seats in the European Parliament election?

The German AfD, the French National Rally, and the Dutch Party for Freedom contribute the most to the seat gains for the ID group. The ECR benefits from the shift within the far-right camp in Italy away from Lega, which is part of ID, toward the ECR’s Brothers of Italy party. If current polls hold true and the Polish PiS experiences losses in the June election, the Brothers of Italy party is likely to emerge as the largest national group within the ECR.

The rising sea levels of far-right support is set to continue in the European Parliament election. Nationalist and far-right groups could secure nearly a quarter of the seats in the European Parliament. This outcome could significantly impact EU policy, potentially challenging core values such as the rule of law and human rights, and impeding major legislative efforts, particularly concerning environmental policies, as POLITICO noted in February.

The success of the far-right will hinge on the center-right (I recommend the book “How Democracies Die” by Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, which emphasizes the crucial role played by conservative parties committed to democracy). Attempts to sway center-right parties towards aligning with right-wing talking points raise concerns about potential cooperation with far-right groups.

Traditionally, divisions within far-right groups, their lack of coordination, and the existence of a cordon sanitaire, in the form of agreements by other parties to block far-right MEPs from power positions, limit their ability to consolidate power and influence. However, sticking to the metaphor of rising sea levels, which signifies the continuing trend in support for far-right parties, currently, the tide is already high.

Links and sources about the far-right surge in the upcoming European Parliament election: