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Euroskeptic parties seek nationalist EU reform

Lucia Schulten in Brussels
August 10, 2023

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party's new European election campaign agenda features euroskeptic rhetoric. But the populist party is not alone in the European Parliament when it comes to such sentiment.

A member of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party holds a red voting card with the word 'no' in the air
Germany's far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has described the EU as a 'failed project' Image: Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert/dpa/picture alliance

This past weekend, the far-right and, in part, extreme far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party concluded its European Parliament election congress in the eastern German city of Magdeburg. The result: a finalized list of 35 candidates and a program for next June’s European Parliament election.

The AfD, which the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) classified as a suspected right-wing extremist party in March 2021, named Maximilian Krah as its top candidate. Krah has been a member of the European parliament since 2019, but he is not uncontroversial, even within his own parliamentary faction.  

At its party convention, the AfD changed its stance on the European Union. In a draft program from June, the party had said it wanted to abolish the EU altogether; now, it wants to fundamentally reform the 27-member bloc to be a "federation of European nations." With this vision, the AfD would seek to temporarily strip the European Parliament of its powers and see them returned to the constituent nation-states.  

Maximilian Krah stands at a rostrum as he delivers a speech introducing himself as the party's top candidate for the European elections at the AfD national party conference in Magdeburg, Germany
Maximilian Krah (pictured) was selected as the AfD's lead candidate with over 65% of the voteImage: dts Nachrichtenagentur/IMAGO

Additionally, news agency reports cite the AfD program as saying that Europe should become a "fortress" when it comes to migration. The abolition of the euro, the currency used in 20 EU countries, is another point on their agenda.

The EU election program finally adopted by the party has not yet been made public.  

Which euroskeptic parties are there in the EU Parliament? 

The AfD is not alone in the European Parliament when it comes to anti-European sentiment. Together with eight other parties, it formed the Identity and Democracy Group (ID).

The largest representative in the ID group is the right-wing populist Italian Lega party, which is chaired by Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini and is a current partner in Italy's coalition government. France’s right-wing nationalist Rassemblement National, or the National Rally party (formerly known as Front National) and Austria’s anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPÖ) — a government coalition partner from 2017 to 2019 — are also part of the 62-member group.  

The ID is chaired by an Italian member of the European Parliament, Marco Zanni. In his welcome message on the group’s website, he writes that "the [ID] upholds the sovereignty and identity of our European nations and peoples." It goes on to say that the group "is actively opposing the current trend towards a bureaucratically led European superstate."

Other EU-skeptic parties are without a larger parliamentary framework or represented in the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR), says political scientist Bartek Pytlas, who researches radical right-wing parties in Europe.

All in all, 66 representatives from 16 countries sit on the ECR panel. Among them are members of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's ultra-right Brothers of Italy party and of the Polish conservative nationalist Law and Justice Party (PiS).

On its website, the group describes itself as the driving force behind "euro-realist reform," whilst offering "a bold alternative vision of a reformed EU as a community of nations cooperating in areas where they have some common interests that can best be advanced by working together."

Paradox: EU-skeptical parties in the EU Parliament? 

At first glance, it may seem paradoxical that highly EU-critical parties are sitting in the European Parliament.

But, in fact, these parties want to fight Europe from within, explains Uwe Jun, professor of political science at Germany’s Trier University. In the opinion of these parties, he says, the EU has no future, but they still consider it conceivable to have the bloc in another guise.

Bartek Pytlas points to how such parliamentary groupings allow smaller parties to establish themselves, in a financial respect as well, and to show their ability to work together with other parties.  

A number of people can be seen in the European Parliament building in Strasbourg, France
The AfD is calling for the European Union to be refounded as a 'federation of European nations'Image: Philipp von Ditfurth/dpa

At the same time, Jun says, EU-skepticism gives right-wing populist parties a certain sense of identity. Even if the degree of skepticism varies between the different parties, he says, it is a unifying element — along with the desire to weaken the EU. 

What are the parties calling for? 

The concrete demands from the individual parties are rather vaguely formulated, but the bottom line is that they all want to either weaken or dissolve the EU in its current form, says Pytlas. For strategic reasons, he adds, right-wing populist parties are no longer calling for the dissolution of the EU but for an "intrinsic" or "authentic" Europe, by which they mean one with a nationalistic character.  

Recurring catchphrases that regularly pop up in this context are those of a "Europe of fatherlands" or a "Europe of nations." Ultimately, says Jun, the idea behind this is to put many responsibilities currently held by the European Union back into the hands of the nation-states. As examples, he names the opening of international borders through the Schengen Agreement, the euro as a common currency and policy areas such as agriculture.  

Are right-wing populist forces a danger to the EU? 

These demands would unquestionably pose a threat to the European Union in the form in which it currently exists, says Jun. At present, he says, the bloc is posited upon close interaction between countries.

But, he concedes, right-wing populist forces would have to be much stronger than they are at present in order to exert more pressure within the European Parliament and possibly the European Council, where the governments of member states are represented.  

Bartek Pytlas, too, sees the demands for any new founding of the EU as nothing more than calls for the dissolution of the bloc in its current form.

European voters will decide next year how strongly right-wing populist and euroskeptic parties will be represented  in the European Parliament.

But how the other parties position themselves regarding right-wing populist groups will also play a role.  After years of dispute, for example, Hungary’s Fidesz party, chaired by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, left the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) grouping after being suspended in March 2019.  

Dealing with the German far-right AfD on a local level

This article was translated from German. 

DW Mitarbeiterin Lucia Schulten
Lucia Schulten Brussels Correspondent