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Far-right surges in European parliamentary elections


To Europe now, where voters in 27 countries have just handed big gains to the far right. Yesterday saw parliamentary elections for the European Union. Ursula von der Leyen is president of the European Commission. Her own party remains the biggest group in Europe's Parliament, and here is her take on the vote.


URSULA VON DER LEYEN: The center is holding. But it is also true that the extremes on the left and on the right have gained support. And this is why the result comes with great responsibility for the parties in the center.

KELLY: Well, I want to bring in Constanze Stelzenmuller, European security expert and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. We reached her today in Munich, Germany, and asked for her top takeaways.

CONSTANZE STELZENMULLER: These are elections for the European Parliament, which is the legislative organ of the European Union. But they're managed by the member states, and they're contested by national political parties, which always means that all these elections are also referendums on incumbent governments, right? And those referendums were particularly severe in France and in Germany.

In France, in fact, the hard-right Assemblee Nationale Party of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the opposition to President Macron, swept the country literally. And Macron immediately dissolved the national Parliament and called new elections on July 7. And there is a distinct possibility that that will end up with a hard-right prime minister, still under President Macron, in the form of Marine Le Pen, making for very fraught French politics.

KELLY: Making him something of a lame-duck president.

STELZENMULLER: Possibly - because of the presidential system, he still has considerable powers. But it will make for fraught national politics, and it will make for a president who has been very forward leaning, for example, on Ukraine against a prime minister whose party has been notably pro-Russian in its pronouncements. That could make for some very fraught, you know, tensions going forward.

KELLY: And then in Germany, where you are, what's your read on the situation there?

STELZENMULLER: In Germany, it's slightly more complicated because, you know, it's always more complicated.


KELLY: You are German, so you are allowed to say that, yes.

STELZENMULLER: It's a form of national narcissism, I guess. Though we have a fraught, center-left, traffic light, three-way coalition under Chancellor Olaf Scholz, which has been struggling for a variety of reasons, and the European Parliament elections put the center-right opposition leader of the CDU firmly in first place and the extreme right AFD in second place ahead of every one of the three parties of the traffic light coalition, including the Social Democrats of Chancellor Sholz - that is terrible. And the Greens, especially, got a trouncing. They lost 8.6%. That is a very bad report card for a government that was really hoping to get a bit of a fillip ahead of very difficult state elections in the fall in September and then national elections a year later.

KELLY: So understanding that it is difficult - indeed, impossible - to generalize across a continent, what are the issues driving this? Is this about immigration? Is it about war, the economy - what?

STELZENMULLER: I think all of the above - also about climate change. And I think there's a generalized anxiety about Europe's strategic exposure at a time when the Russians are waging war on the continent, when the Chinese are interfering in European politics and when it seems unclear what the outcome of the U.S. election will be. The cooperation between Europeans and the Biden administration has been unusually harmonious, especially on the - on supporting Ukraine. But I think most of Europe still has PTSD with regard to the four years of the Trump administration and is dreading more of the same or worse.

KELLY: Stay with that for a minute - what might this portend for the U.S.? I mean, Americans listening might recall the vote back in 2016 for Brexit in the U.K., the shift to the right in the U.K. And then six months later, Donald Trump won the presidency here in the U.S.

STELZENMULLER: I think it would be stretching Europe's influence a tad too far to suggest that what happens in Europe has consequences for American political elections, presidential elections especially.

KELLY: Although those same issues are driving voters here - immigration, the economy, wars.

STELZENMULLER: That's certainly correct. Hard-right groupings in America and in Europe are watching each other very closely (inaudible) see each other as mutual enablers, are encouraged by each other's successes. And, of course, what many of them have in common is a distinct sympathy for autocrats and authoritarian governments, such as those in Russia and in China.

KELLY: You know, as you watch the main headline here, voters in Europe shifting to the right, do you hear champagne corks popping in the Kremlin?

STELZENMULLER: I think we can assume that, given the amount of disinformation and disruption that was clearly coming from Russia during the election campaign period, right? And that was clearly trying to confuse voters, trying to put them off incumbent governments and push them towards more extremist parties. But I also want to say this - the external authoritarian interference only exploits vulnerabilities that are already there, right? And those vulnerabilities are on us. They are on Democratic governments in Europe that are struggling to solve crucial problems of government, such as climate change, such as migration, such as economic stability. That's on us, and it's only being exploited by the others.

KELLY: Constanze Stelzenmuller, director of the Center on the U.S. and Europe at the Brookings Institution. We reached her in Munich. Thank you.

STELZENMULLER: My pleasure is always, Mary Louise. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.