The European Union is often regarded as one of democracy’s largest triumphs. But as countries all over Europe face an increasingly threatening movement from the extreme right, should we be worried about its survival?
France is an important country to study in relation to the EU because its extreme right party, the National Rally (Rassemblement National) has a formidable presence in the EU parliament. Launched into the eyes of the global public during the 2017 presidential election (where the party president made it to the final round of the election), the National Rally party has won a disproportionately large percentage of seats on the EU French ticket since the 1980s. As with many right-wing parties, the RN is extremely effective in mobilizing their supporters to vote at the European Union elections. Because France has notoriously low turnout to these elections, RN supports are disproportionately represented. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the former president of the RN finished his seventh term as an EU deputy just this week. What is most ironic about this strong presence in the EU is the party’s absolute hatred of the institution itself. Le Pen, who spent 35 years of his career as a deputy, described the EU as “worthless” and an “illusion”https://www.lemonde.fr/politique/article/2019/04/16/les-adieux-de-jean-marie-le-pen-au-parlement-europeen_5451184_823448.html?xtmc=le_pen&xtcr=8. The RN views the EU as a federalistic power, one that that threatens the sovereignty of the member nations. They believe the best way to fight its growing power is through an internal approach. As deputies, RN party members are pushing for border control and an end to the European Commission. https://www.lemonde.fr/politique/article/2019/04/15/marine-le-pen-presente-son-contre-projet-europeen-a-strasbourg_5450572_823448.html?xtmc=le_pen&xtcr=11
These changes are massive, and as of right now, the RN does not have nearly enough say in the EU to make any of these changes. There is however, growing talk of a union between European populist movements. Matteo Salvini, the deputy prime minister of Italy has formed an alliance with Boris Kollar, the leader of an extreme right-wing group in Slovakia, allied with Germany’s AfD party, Finland’s True Finns party, and Denmark’s People’s Party. The RN is another member of this alliancehttps://www.lemonde.fr/international/article/2019/04/17/marine-le-pen-et-matteo-salvini-se-font-un-nouvel-allie-en-slovaquie_5451698_3210.html?xtmc=le_pen&xtcr=5. In 2015, the Europe of Nations and Freedom, an extreme right-wing group in European Parliament brought together deputies from a number of extreme right parties from several countries. France’s RN boasts the largest number of members in this grouphttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Europe_of_Nations_and_Freedom.
These latest movements towards compromise among the extreme right represent the growing populist movement across Europe. As Ginsburg and Huq write in How to Save a Constitutional Democracy, populism is dangerous because it masquerades as democracy but sets up a weak and dysfunctional farce of a democracy . Both the RN and other extreme right groups have demonstrated an unwillingness to recognize the authenticity of opponents (the RN paints Macron as a thiefhttps://www.lemonde.fr/politique/article/2019/03/29/vote-utile-contre-vote-sanction-lrm-et-rn-rejouent-2017_5443054_823448.html) and claim to solely speak for the interests of the people. Populism itself is the latest installment in new forms of “soft” democratic takedowns (see Bermeo’s article On Democratic Backsliding ) and represents a chilling threat to democracy. As the champion of democracy, the European Union stands as the largest institution powerful enough to counter threats of democratic erosion. It is vital to take these threats seriously and find ways to counter the populist tide within the EU. Ginsburg, Tom, and Aziz Z. Huq. How to Save a Constitutional Democracy. University of Chicago Press, 2018, pg. 78-79.  Bermeo, Nancy. “On democratic backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 1 (2016): 5-19.