The European elections could leave the far right stumbling over its decisions

Nationalists are on the rise and are expected to make big gains when voters in 27 nations vote for the European Parliament starting this week. But the prospect of success is already raising questions among far-right parties about how far is too far.

This question has become urgent as far-right popular parties, especially in Italy and France, seek to make themselves more appealing to the mainstream, dividing those who have sanitized and gained acceptability from those who are still considered taboo.

Today, the far right is a movement marked by rifts and shifting alliances.

Last year, Marine Le Pen, the French nationalist, appeared to disparage Italy's far-right prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, who has sought to become a reliable partner for traditional conservatives since coming to power. “Meloni is not my twin sister,” she told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, making it clear that she considered herself tougher.

Now, Le Pen has offered to form an alliance in the European Parliament, although it is unclear whether Meloni wants to allow her to ride the wave, given that Le Pen's party is still despised by many in central Europe. Right.

Le Pen, for her part, has distanced herself from Alternative for Germany, or AfD, a far-right party that appears to have become too extreme even for its fellow travellers. In May, Le Pen and her group in the European Parliament, none of them shy about nationalism, kicked out the AfD after one of its leaders made statements that appeared to justify the membership of some in the SS, the Nazi paramilitary force.

“Throwing the AfD under the bus was a fantastic political gift” for Le Pen, said Jacob F. Kirkegaard, a political analyst in Brussels and senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a research organization. “You can position yourself as 'not far right.'”

There is no doubt that nationalist parties across Europe have helped each other, as each success opens a path of acceptance for others. As like-minded political actors, they converge on key issues shared beyond their borders, such as the protection of Christian traditions and family values, opposition to immigration and criticism of the European Union.

But now, for the far right, it is a question of nuances of acceptability. It has proved a disorienting place for parties that, not long ago, were almost all considered unacceptable by the European establishment.

The erosion of that barrier has been driven by the success of far-right parties and the adoption of parts of their agenda by mainstream parties.

It also posed a problem for the European mainstream: which nationalist parties would it be willing to collaborate with, if necessary?

Mainstream parties “are moving the red line,” said Nicolai von Ondarza, a political scientist at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “And where the red lines are drawn matters for who will form the majority in the European Parliament.”

This challenge is particularly acute for Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, the EU's top executive, who also leads the majority of parliament's conservatives.

With opinion polls predicting a decline on the left and a gain on the far right in the Thursday-Sunday runoff, von der Leyen has signaled she may seek allies on the far right to garner enough votes to pass for another term. by Parliament. But such a move would risk alienating the center-left forces on which she also depends and for whom any far-right party, including Meloni's, is too extreme.

She has tried to be firm about who would be an acceptable partner, drawing a clear line across the far-right camp.

“It is very important to establish clear principles: who we want to work with,” he said in a recent election debate. The parties must be “pro-Europe”, “pro-Ukraine”, “anti-Putin” and “pro-rule of law”, she said.

Le Pen's National Rally party, the Alternative for Germany and the Polish Confederation party “are friends of Putin and want to destroy our Europe,” von der Leyen said, excluding them.

Meloni, he pointed out, is on the acceptable side of this divide. This could leave Meloni in a critical position after the elections. The choice could be up to you where to position yourself.

Le Pen hopes an alliance with Meloni will allow the far right to become the second largest force in the European Parliament, and Meloni has also said she wants to send the left into opposition.

But experts say working with Le Pen could hinder the Italian leader's efforts to broaden his influence in Brussels and serve as a partner to traditional conservatives.

Although she has political roots in a neo-fascist party and is fighting culture wars at home, Meloni has emerged as a pragmatic operator on the international stage, firmly aligned with the European leadership on key issues such as supporting Ukraine in its war against Russia.

Mrs Le Pen finds herself in a more difficult position. While Meloni leads one of the bloc's founding nations, Le Pen remains marginalized in France, where her opponents still fear that she and her party threaten the values ​​of the Republic.

Perhaps more importantly, Le Pen, along with some of her other far-right allies, have been much more ambiguous than Meloni on issues such as support for Ukraine.

While Le Pen and some senior officials in her party have condemned Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, other party officials have expressed equivocations. The party has repeatedly opposed sanctions on some Russian imports and rejected the possibility of Ukraine joining the European Union or NATO.

“The group would be re-toxicized,” said von Ondarza, becoming “an unacceptable partner for the center-right.”

In Germany, members of the AfD have also been accused of having links to Russia, while in Italy Matteo Salvini, an ally of Le Pen, recently referred to President Vladimir V. Putin's stamp election as a legitimate expression of independence Russian. will of the people.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, another prominent far-right figure, has embraced and emulated Putin and continues to oppose sending weapons to Ukraine or imposing a ban on Russian oil imports.

Immigration is another issue that has exposed the contradictions of nationalist parties in trying to forge an international alliance. While the parties largely agree on their opposition to immigration, their national interests clash at the European level.

Meloni has supported legislation to distribute migrants from the border countries where they arrive (such as Italy and Greece) to other European Union nations. Nationalist leaders in countries further from the coast, such as Orban in Hungary, were less enthusiastic about the idea.

“Isn't it paradoxical that a nationalist party allies itself with parties beyond its borders?” asked Alberto Alemanno, professor of European Union law at the HEC business school in Paris, adding that these parties are “intrinsically incompatible”.

Such divisions are not so new. As much as far-right parties have financed, applauded, embraced, imitated each other and dreamed of creating a grand coalition of nationalist parties, they have also clashed and berated each other.

In 2014, Nigel Farage's United Kingdom Independence Party, which helped lead Britain to Brexit, rejected a deal with Le Pen's party, citing “prejudice and anti-Semitism.” Before offering an alliance, Le Pen accused Meloni of plotting to help von der Leyen “contribute to exacerbating the policies that make the people of Europe suffer.”

However, for now, Meloni has not ruled out any possibilities.

Asked whether he would collaborate with far-right parties, he said he would not issue “certificates of presentability” to any party. “They have given them to me all my life.”

Aurelien Breeden contributed a report from Paris.

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