Hard right is set to surge in this week’s European Union elections. Center set to tilt to right, too

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BRUSSELS (AP) — It seemed like a throwaway line by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, yet it encapsulated what is at stake for many in this week’s European Union parliamentary elections — What to do with the hard right? And should it be trusted?

The top EU leader basically had said that far-right Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni, whose party is steeped in post-fascism, could be ready for prime time as a potential coalition partner once the four-day elections across the 27-nation EU end Sunday.

During an election debate, von der Leyen declared that Meloni checked all the necessary boxes, the last of which was “pro-rule of law.” She immediately added, however, “if this holds.”

That provisional question of whether to extend basic trust to extremist and populist parties is on many minds as the EU appears poised to veer rightward unlike it has ever done in its history, which has its seeds in the World War II defeat of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy.

Since the last European elections five years ago, populist, far-right and extremist parties are already leading three governments, are part of governing coalitions in several others and are surging in polls across the bloc like never before.

As a result, the whole political pendulum of the giant bloc is likely to swing toward the right after the elections, a plethora of surveys indicate and political observers agree.

“There will be a shift to the right. So the question is, how big?” said Maria Demertzis of the Brussels-based independent Bruegel think tank. “The numbers will matter because it could very well be that one of the possible outcomes is that the extreme right actually becomes the second (largest) party. If that is the case, then it’s interesting to see how and who will govern.”

In the second-biggest exercise in democracy behind India’s recent elections, almost 400 million voters will elect 720 members of the European Parliament from beyond the Arctic circle to the edges of Africa and Asia, impacting anything from global climate policies and defense to migration issues and geopolitical relations with China and the United States.

For the longest time, the European Parliament elections had little importance, as core members France and Germany set much of the policy for the ever-increasing group and the legislature looked like a retirement home for elderly national politicians and an incubator for young talent.

But as the powers of the legislature grew on issues like banking rules, agriculture and the EU budget, so did voting interest and the quality of legislators. While breaking a 50% voter turnout threshold was considered a major step forward in 2019, an EU Parliament survey says 71% could vote in the upcoming elections, another massive step forward.

Von der Leyen’s European People’s Party, a largely Christian Democrat group, is the legislature’s biggest and bound to be the coalition kingmaker after the elections. For anyone to the right of the EPP, breaking up its coalition with the socialists, pro-business liberals and the greens should be the main issue at stake.

While bold, brazen and boisterous at best, the outer bounds on the right can be bellicose, bitter and biting at worst — bashing buddies to boot.

So even if the math adds up for a brilliant victory by the right on Sunday, the total will most likely be less than the sum of its parts.

For all the hard-right’s unity in wanting to keep migrants out, ridicule climate measures as woke fiction and uphold conservative family values, there also are fundamental divergences. When it comes to the war in Ukraine, for example, someone like Meloni stands with the West, unlike Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Others remain in a grey zone.

It doesn’t help that populist and hard-right parties are now split up in two groups in Parliament — the Identity and Democracy group to which the French National Rally of Marine Le Pen belongs, and the European Conservatives and Reformists, to which Meloni belongs.

Some are courting the center, others are courting controversy. The I&D group last month expelled its Alternative for Germany, or AfD, party after a growing list of scandals was capped when its lead candidate said that not all members of the Nazis’ elite SS unit, which was involved in major atrocities during World War II, were war criminals.

“The AfD has become the plague that no one wants to touch,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, a political analyst at Rome’s LUISS university.

It is still unclear how far-right and populist parties will form new groups after the elections.

Nowadays, some want first and foremost to be “salonfähig,” that quality of being accepted in the finest circles despite an extremist background. Le Pen is vying to become French president in 2027, and of course, Meloni has already reached that stage as Italian prime minister.

In almost two years as Italy’s leader, she has overcome initial worries and proven reliable at EU summits and willing to work for hard-fought compromises, to the extent of even keeping the combustible Orbán in line during key debates. Leaders, including von der Leyen, have glossed over national complaints about her treatment of groups that do not meet her conservative family values or accusations of placing limits on press freedom.

And with the pro-business liberals and greens set for losses, the EPP’s von der Leyen wants to keep her options open for coalition building, including Meloni, over the vociferous objections of her outgoing allies.

Even if coalitions in Parliament are brittle since legislators are sometimes beholden to national, not EU, agendas, von der Leyen is still eager to find a coalition that will give her the necessary 361 out of 720 votes to win a second five-year term as EU commission president, perhaps the most powerful position in the EU.

And this is where Meloni also comes in as a pivotal player who might have in her hands both the fate of von der Leyen and of a massive geopolitical bloc on the point of tilting ever further to the right.

“She’s one of these people — not quite the extreme right, but on the right of the right, as it were,” said Demertzis of the Bruegel think tank. “She’s been talking to EPP, but she’s also talking to more extreme right groups, Mrs. Le Pen and others. And, of course, depending on how the votes turn out, she might have a big card up her sleeve.”

___ Associated Press writers Colleen Barry in Milan and Mark Carlson in Brussels contributed to this report.

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