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OPINION

An unequal and opposite reaction: The rise of ‘Putin understanders’ in the European Parliament could consolidate support for aid to Ukraine

Despite the efforts of centrist forces, recent elections to the European Parliament only strengthened the influence of radicals on the body. Given the various hardships faced by the European Union, the rise of populism is hardly surprising, argues Ivan Preobrazhensky, an expert in Eastern and Central European studies who notes that two former Socialist bloc countries, Poland and Slovakia, went against the trend. Not only has panic over the rise of the European right been overblown when it comes to the EU, its consequences for Ukraine could actually prove beneficial — consolidating support for Kyiv as the central idea providing a sense of purpose for the bloc as a whole.

RU

The French have been told to vote again

In today's Europe, France is struggling with an unrivaled level of popular discontent. French right-wing populists have successfully reinvented themselves, winning first place in the country’s vote for representatives to the European Parliament (EP) with more than 30% support — twice as much as Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party. The former National Front, which was passed down through the Le Pen family, has long since changed its name to National Rally. On the eve of the EP elections, the party even replaced Marine Le Pen with 28-year-old Jordan Bardella, who is widely seen as a more palatable face of the movement.

Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella after the European Parliament elections
Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella after the European Parliament elections

This does not mean that the National Rally’s messaging has become any less controversial. The party retained its anti-migrant rhetoric while putting forward even more radical social demands than the local Trotskyists dared to. Conveniently, many of their voters see the fight against migrants as a fight for a decent income.

Many French voters see the fight against migrants as a fight for a decent income

French President Macron responded to his party's defeat by dissolving the lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, and scheduling new elections for the end of June. And while Macron says that circumstances forced his hand, many suspect the call for another vote was a premeditated move on his part, as now may prove to be the most opportune moment to rally French society in support of a protest vote against the forces of Le Pen — the idea being that the National Assembly will benefit for being the lesser of two evils, rather than for offering voters any more substantive hopes.

Macron’s objective will be aided by the two-round structure of elections to the National Assembly. In recent years, populists have been successful in the multi-candidate first round of French parliamentary elections, but most of them lost in the second round when forced to go head-to-head against more mainstream candidates, as centrist voters tend to unite with the left against any kind of nationalists or right-wing radicals.

Hello, Lenin!

If we are to believe the German press, the latest election was won by right-wing populists — the Putin-friendly Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. In reality, however, the Christian Democrats won handily — 30% to 15.9% — but the AfD did come out on top almost everywhere in the former East Germany except for Berlin. This is hardly surprising, considering the persistent economic gap between east and west almost 35 years after the Wall came down. A mentality shaped by an authoritarian past also played its part — in particular, a greater fear of migrants among voters from the former German Democratic Republic (GDR).

Alternative for Germany members Beatrix von Storch, Alice Weidel, and Tino Chrupalla after the European Parliament election
Alternative for Germany members Beatrix von Storch, Alice Weidel, and Tino Chrupalla after the European Parliament election
Reuters

As if playing on a theme from the famous German movie “Goodbye, Lenin!,” the GDR is not only returning but is also gaining new voters in adjacent areas of the former Federal Republic of Germany (FRG).

East Germany is not only returning but is also gaining new voters in adjacent areas of the former West Germany

The allegory also applies to Russian support for the populist AfD party. According to Czech intelligence, the AfD’s most likely European Parliament candidates traveled to Czechia, where they received money from associates of former Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk — an old friend of Vladimir Putin's whom Russia received in an exchange that saw over 200 Azov battalion fighters returned to Ukraine. Just as Vladimir Lenin had the reputation of a German spy, AfD members are widely perceived as Russian agents. Paradoxically, their loyal voters appear to appreciate this mark of notoriety.

There and back again

In contrast to the former GDR, other ex-Eastern bloc countries’ voting patterns demonstrated the opposite trend. Populist forces suffered defeat in Poland, where the Law and Justice party lost to the ruling political alliance Civic Coalition in a result that suggests the allies of conservative icon Jaroslaw Kaczynski still have not recovered from their humiliation in the Oct. 2023 national parliamentary elections.

Poland's Civic Coalition after the European Parliament elections
Poland's Civic Coalition after the European Parliament elections

In Slovakia the liberals won as well, and it is thanks to Slovak votes and mandates that the liberals remain the second largest faction in the European Parliament. Even the recent assassination attempt on populist Prime Minister Robert Fico, who incidentally ended Slovak support for Ukraine, did not bring his Direction – Social Democracy party any closer to victory.

Finally, in authoritarian Hungary, no one was surprised by the victory of Fidesz — Hungarian Civic Alliance, the party of Putin-sympathizer Viktor Orbán. Nevertheless, Fidesz scored less than 50% for the first time in a long time, while the main opposition force, the TISZA – Respect and Freedom Party, took home almost 30% of the vote.

While Western Europe has looked down on the populist habits of younger EU members for the last decade or so, the trend appears to have reversed. Today, the Slovaks and the Poles have replaced the French and the Germans in their efforts to save the EU from the much-feared “right turn.”

Today, the Slovaks and the Poles have replaced the French and the Germans in their efforts to save the EU from the much-feared “right turn”

A green turn in the wrong direction

In the EU as a whole, the main losers of these elections have not been the center-left, but the further-left Greens, who lost around 20 mandates. Even worse, the Greens are no longer mainstream. Not long ago, even centrists and conservatives had to promote a de-facto green agenda, as almost everyone thought such an agenda was the wave of the future.

However, Russia's full-scale aggression against Ukraine has turned the EU back toward the past. Building new defense plants and reinvigorating major enterprises for the sake of national security is poorly aligned with green transition goals and the phasing-out of non-renewable energy. In essence, the unprovoked war unleashed by ultra-conservative Vladimir Putin has blocked the path to a bright green future for years to come.

Meanwhile, support for Ukraine is becoming the unifying thread necessary for strengthening the European Union — just the sort of unobjectionably important cause that EU politicians have been unsuccessfully seeking for the past two decades. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, who will most likely retain her post, is explicitly calling for a “pro-Ukrainian” coalition of center-right, liberals, and leftists in the European Parliament, leaving out potentially pro-Russian right-wing populists.


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