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Courted by Le Pen and von der Leyen, powerbroker Meloni holds the cards ahead of EU election

Marine Le Pen (left), Giorgia Meloni (centre), Ursula von der Leyen (right)
Marine Le Pen (left), Giorgia Meloni (centre), Ursula von der Leyen (right) Copyright Euronews 2024
Copyright Euronews 2024
By Mared Gwyn Jones
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As she walks a tightrope between centre- and far-right forces, Meloni’s next move could have profound consequences for the EU’s future political path.

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Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has been cast as the unlikely kingmaker ahead of June’s European elections, as she is courted by both Ursula von der Leyen on the centre-right and France’s Marine Le Pen on the far-right.

On Sunday, Marine Le Pen told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera she was seeking Meloni’s backing to unite the European Parliament’s hard-right parties into a far-right supergroup. The parties are currently divided between Le Pen's Identity and Democracy (ID) group and Meloni’s nationalist European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR).

Euronews’ polling ahead of June’s EU elections suggests these two groups could scoop up as many as 144 seats between them — not including Germany's Alternative for Germany (AfD)which was expelled from ID last week — and, if unified, could overtake the centre-left and liberals to become the parliament’s second-biggest political force.

Le Pen's far-right party Rassemblement National (RN) is racing ahead in the polls and could clinch a staggering third of the French vote in June's ballot. The party recently broke ranks with the more radical, pro-Russian AfD and has softened its Eurosceptic stance in a clear bid to move closer to the mainstream right wing.

But at the same time, Ursula von der Leyen of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) is also coveting the backing of Giorgia Meloni and her Fratelli d’Italia lawmakers to secure her second term at the helm of the European Commission, the bloc’s powerful executive arm.

Von der Leyen is in pole position to lead the executive for the next five years as she is the lead candidate of the EPP, which is tipped to top the pan-European poll.

On the campaign trail, von der Leyen has made it clear she feels Meloni has demonstrated her pro-EU and pro-Ukraine credentials since sweeping to power in Italy in 2022 following a fiercely Eurosceptic campaign, making her party a credible partner in Brussels.

Meloni’s new dilemma has left analysts torn. Some say the Italian premier can only pursue the courtship of either von der Leyen or Le Pen.

"Meloni finds herself with two outstretched hands (...) one from Le Pen, the other from von der Leyen. Meloni will be able to take only one," political scientist Nicolai von Ondarza said.

Von der Leyen has explicitly blacklisted Le Pen’s RN for its historically sympathetic stance towards Russia, blasting the party as “Putin’s puppets and proxies.” It means that cosying up to Le Pen could quickly wind up Meloni’s opportunity to wield greater influence in Brussels.

Von Ondarza says that if Meloni accepts von der Leyen's invitation to "directly co-steer EU policy," she has no choice but to "keep out Le Pen, Orbán & co."

But Bruegel's Francesco Nicoli told Euronews that Meloni will want to use her new-found "pragmatism" to extract the most political clout possible by tactically responding to both Le Pen and von der Leyen's overtures.

"From a political perspective, I still believe that these two options (Le Pen and von der Leyen) are actually not necessarily in contradiction," Nicoli said.

According to Nicoli, it's "perfectly possible" for Meloni to join forces with Le Pen to form a bolstered far-right group in the European Parliament, and for parts of the group to "lend support" to a von der Leyen-led coalition.

"Even if they create a joint group, this does not mean that the joint group will then vote coherently," Nicoli explained.

He added that the far-right supergroup could even be formed after the parliament votes to elect the next Commission president, expected in mid-September, a move that could allow frontrunner von der Leyen to count on the support of her traditional centrist and left-leaning partners as well as Meloni's right-wing lawmakers.

But those historical allies, particularly from the centre-left, have recently doubled down on their warnings to von der Leyen not to flirt with Meloni and similar hard-right allies.

On Friday, Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who leads a three-way coalition government with the centre-left and liberals, warned von der Leyen not to count on far-right partners when forming her new Commission.

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Earlier in May, von der Leyen's traditional allies - the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D), the liberal Renew Europe group and the Greens - co-signed a declaration vowing to never team up with the far-right on "any level" and calling on the Commission president to "firmly reject any normalisation, cooperation or alliance with the far-right and radical parties."

Far-right seeks to purge itself of extremists

Le Pen’s manoeuvre comes at a time of turmoil for her Identity and Democracy (ID) group of parties, which expelled Alternative for Germany (AfD) members last week over comments made by their lead candidate Maximilian Krah alleging that not all Nazi SS militants were “automatically” criminals.

ID - which also harbours Meloni's government partners Lega, as well as Geert Wilders' Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV) - were previously polling as the third biggest political force in the new parliament, closely at the heels of the liberals. But AfD's expulsion means their numbers will be dented by around 17 seats, seeing Meloni's ECR edge in front of ID in the polls.

But AfD's demise has also thrown the possibility of a right-wing reshuffle wide open.

Last week, Anders Vistisen - ID's lead debater in the European election campaign and Le Pen ally - told Euronews that the fusion of the European Parliament's two hard-right factions "will happen someday."

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According to an RN source, Le Pen is also gauging the possibility of joining forces with Viktor Orbán and his ruling Fidesz party, which has been politically homeless in the European Parliament since it was forced out of the centre-right EPP in 2021. Fidesz is set to win around 10 seats in June.

But with Orbán continuing to block key European decisions on Ukraine - including the use of frozen Russian assets to buy arms for the Ukrainian forces and the formal kick-off of Kyiv's EU accession talks - the move could prevent Le Pen from purging herself of her traditional ties to Putin's Russia.

"Marine Le Pen has understood that if she wants to have a real chance at becoming the next president of France, which is her ultimate goal, the Meloni approach is the one that probably yields the highest chances of success," Nicoli explained.

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