Europe may be headed for “something unthinkable”

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion in Ukraine in February 2022, the European Union has been preoccupied with integrating the country

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion in Ukraine in February 2022, the European Union has been preoccupied with integrating the country — widely seen as a geopolitical necessity — and with the internal reform required to make that possible. But over the course of this year, as the Ukrainian counteroffensive stalled, tensions among member states have increased, ‘The New York Times’ writes with deep concern.

As members have disagreed on issues such as climate policy and the war in Gaza, the unity around supporting Ukraine has shown signs of cracking, too. With no end to the war in sight, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary has stepped up efforts to limit the bloc’s backing of Ukraine; the election of Robert Fico in Slovakia has given him another ally in the cause. In an even bigger shock last month, Geert Wilders’s far-right party became the biggest force in the Dutch parliament. Whether or not Mr. Wilders can form a government, his strong showing may lead to further disruption in Europe, on Ukraine and much else.

European elites are right to worry. But the focus on divisions within the bloc obscures a much more disturbing development taking place beneath the surface: a coming together of the center right and the far right, especially on questions around identity, immigration and Islam. With European parliamentary elections next year, this convergence is bringing into clearer view the possibility of something like a far-right European Union. Until recently, such a thing would have seemed unthinkable. Now it’s distinctly plausible.

For the past decade, European politics have widely been understood in terms of a binary opposition between liberalism and illiberalism. During the refugee crisis in 2015, for example, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Mr. Orban were seen as political opposites — she the figurehead of liberalism, he of illiberalism. Yet their parties, the center-right Christian Democrats and far-right Fidesz, were in the same grouping in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party. In other words, they were political allies. (Fidesz was suspended from the grouping in 2019 and finally quit in 2021.)

Since then, the convergence between the center right and the far right in Europe has gone further.

Yet the most striking illustration of this convergence is the harmonious relationship between the European center right and Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the post-fascist Brothers of Italy, who became prime minister of Italy last year. As soon as she indicated that she would not disrupt the bloc’s economic policy and would be supportive of Ukraine, the European People’s Party was willing to work with her — and its leader, Manfred Weber, even sought to form an alliance with her. The center right, it turns out, doesn’t have a problem with the far right. It just has a problem with those who defy E.U. institutions and positions.

The blurring of boundaries between the center right and the far right is not always as easy to spot as it is in the United States. Partly that’s because the process, taking place in the complex world of the bloc, is subtle. But it is also because of a simplified view of the far right as nationalists, which makes it seem incompatible with a post-national project like the European Union. Yet today’s far right speaks not only on behalf of the nation but also on behalf of Europe. It has a civilizational vision of a white, Christian Europe that is menaced by outsiders, especially Muslims.

Such thinking is behind the hardening of migration policy. But it is also influencing Europe in a deeper way: The union has increasingly come to see itself as defending an imperiled European civilization, particularly in its foreign policy. During the past decade, as the bloc has seen itself as surrounded by threats, not least from Russia, there have been endless debates about “strategic autonomy,” “European sovereignty” and a “geopolitical Europe.” But figures like President Emmanuel Macron of France have also begun to frame international politics as a clash of civilizations in which a strong, united Europe must defend itself.

In this respect, Mr. Macron is not so far from far-right figures like Mr. Wilders who talk in terms of a threatened European civilization. His electoral success in the Netherlands could be a prelude, many fear, to a major rightward shift in the European parliamentary elections next June, stresses ‘The New York Times’.

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