Many fear the May 26 vote will be a wake-up call for Brussels on the reality that Europe's anti-immigration and blood-and-soil patriotic forces have moved from the fringes to the mainstream. Once considered outsiders, they could now end up with one fifth or more of the seats, allowing them to shift the tone of political discourse and make a claim for legitimacy.
Key players are Marine Le Pen's National Rally (NR) in France and the Italian League of Matteo Salvini, who is hosting a meeting of like-minded right-wing groups in Milan on Monday.
In the EU's top economy, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) has become the biggest opposition party by railing against Chancellor Angela Merkel and her 2015 decision to allow a mass influx of asylum seekers. On Saturday the AfD will gather in the city of Offenburg to present its election programme, which calls for “a Europe of fatherlands” and opposes the EU's immigration, financial and climate policies.
On Monday in Milan, Italian deputy PM Salvini will follow up and gather allies from across Europe to try to lay the foundations for a future hard-right grouping in the now 751-member European Parliament.
Salvini and Le Pen also agreed to call another meeting in May, after they met in Paris on Friday, a NR source said.
“The leaders are considering a common manifesto to close the electoral campaign and announce the start of a new Europe,” said a spokesman for Salvini.
International of nationalists?
So far, Europe's right-wing nationalists have been divided into three blocs and a tangled web of alliances in the legislature that moves between seats in Brussels and the French city of Strasbourg. They are the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group, which includes the RN and League, the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD).
The dream of Salvini — and of Steve Bannon, the former advisor to US President Donald Trump — has been to unite the disparate patriotic forces and form an “international of nationalists”. But so far such efforts have met with only limited success, in part because the parties' nationalist focus runs counter to a multi-national approach.
Another problem for the groups has been that, despite their shared dislike for immigration, multiculturalism, the left and the EU, they remain divided on other key issues.
On economic policy, the AfD and their Scandinavian allies tend to believe in the market economy, while the French RN favours a more protectionist and statist approach. While Italy's League, Poland's PiS and Hungary's Fidesz highlight Europe's Christian cultural roots, the RN has shied away from taking a similar stance in a country where the majority is in favour of secularism. And even on immigration, Salvini's League favours an EU-wide redistribution
of asylum seekers while others demand an outright stop to immigration. On relations with Russia, Salvini has praised President Vladimir Putin, a view not shared by Poland's governing party.
The AfD's top candidate Jörg Meuthen said he expects big gains for nationalist parties but that they will have trouble forming a “patriotic alliance” with a common agenda.
The parties “have the same or similar positions on migration policy but very different views in other areas,” he told AFP.
There are also strategic deliberations. Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban has voiced admiration for Salvini but was considered unlikely to come to the Milan meeting given his Fidesz party still belongs to the centre-right European People's party (EPP) group, despite its temporary suspension.
Meanwhile, most parties have also toned down their anti-EU rhetoric as the Brexit debacle has made the prospect of leaving the bloc look far less appealing. Le Pen renounced a “Frexit” after the 2017 presidential election and her disastrous debates against Emmanuel Macron, while Germany's AfD has downgraded a “Dexit” scenario to a “last resort”.
Still, the potential of the far-right must not be underestimated, said Sven Hutten, political scientist at Berlin's Free University. He warned that such groups target “15 to 30 percent of the population” and that at the moment “the populist right is fighting for unity and to build a single bloc”.
By AFP's Mathieu Foulkes