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Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini surge ahead of European Parliament elections

PARIS — For months, surging right-wing, populist leaders across the European Union have been breathlessly talking about the “new era” that will come with European Parliament elections this week.

They may be right.

Largely dismissed as a talking shop in which few issues of consequence are permitted to emerge, the European Parliament in Brussels has come under intense focus this year. The election results will be seen as a barometer of the political center of gravity and will indicate whether the continent has taken a decided turn to the right.

Analysts and pollsters predict a major surge for the strongly conservative, anti-immigrant parties across the 28-member bloc, many of which are skeptical of the European Union itself. In fact, anti-EU parties are projected to become the second-largest bloc in Parliament with up to 35% of seats — a gain of as much as 14 percentage points over 2014’s elections, according to a poll for the Berlin-based European Council of Foreign Relations.

In a concerted effort to pool their resources, some of the EU’s most prominent far-right figures have been campaigning as a bloc, with Britain’s Brexit architect Nigel Farage, France’s Marine Le Pen and Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini.

“The political elites in Brussels cannot be trusted,” far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilder told a rally hosted by Mr. Salvini in Milan over the weekend, as Ms. Le Pen looked on. “They want to impose their orders on us. They want to take away our identity and our security.”

Looking to stem the far-right surge are beleaguered establishment figures from the EU’s highest ranks, including French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose 2015 decision to welcome a massive wave of Middle Eastern immigrants into Germany is seen as a galvanizing event in the continental debate.

“Our values mean that we can be proud of our country and at the same time work to build Europe,” Ms. Merkel told a weekend rally in Croatia. “There are populist currents that in many areas disdain these values, that want to destroy our European values.”

If the polls are right, the European Parliament will be divided almost evenly among the far right, the left bloc with 34% and the center-right with 32%. Although the far-right populists likely won’t win a majority of the 751 seats, they will probably crack the center-left and center-right control and will be able to leave the Parliament in perpetual gridlock, analysts say.

“They won’t be able to take control,” said Adriano Bosoni, an analyst with Stratfor based in Barcelona. “But it will be a much more fragmented parliament. And while they won’t necessarily be more influential directly, they will likely force the center-right more to the right.”

The European Council of Foreign Relations said it expects the conservatives’ gains to translate into a bloc advocating for “a return to a ‘Europe of the nations,’” which questions the Brussels orthodoxy in favor of free trade and more open borders. Many of the new populist forces are also far more “supportive of Moscow’s arguments about the need to flout international law in the Russian national interest in Ukraine,” the council wrote in an analysis.

“And, in the longer term, their ability to paralyze decision-making at the center of the EU would defuse pro-Europeans’ argument that the [EU] is imperfect but capable of reform. At this point, the EU would be living on borrowed time,” the study said.

A different electorate

In a major logistical exercise, voters in the 28 EU nations will vote over four days starting Thursday to pick the ninth European Parliament since direct voting was established in 1979. The delay in negotiating a Brexit deal means voters in the United Kingdom will take part even as the country negotiates its departure from the bloc later this year.

One reason many predict success for the upstart, anti-establishment parties is that voters act differently in European Parliament elections than in national elections.

“Voters are more likely to indulge themselves in the nontraditional candidates,” said Ben Tonra, a politics professor at University College Dublin. “They are more likely to make choices they might not have otherwise made in national elections. That tends to benefit the [far left and the far right].”

Most far-right parties in Europe remain in the opposition, but their overall support has been rising steadily in recent years and they have garnered 10% to 20% of the vote in most countries. Their strongest support in the last election, at 26%, was in Austria.

Many of the same discontents and economic stagnation that fueled Donald Trump’s surprise election and Britain’s decision to leave the EU in 2016 are being expressed in Europe today. Mr. Macron on Tuesday attacked the role of Steve Bannon, a longtime political adviser to Mr. Trump, for his role in helping European populist parties coordinate their strategy for the vote.

Even in Ms. Merkel’s Germany, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), founded just six years ago, has become the third largest party in the federal Bundestag.

The European Parliament vote this week “mirrors the development taking place on the national level,” said Mr. Bosoni. “In most states, the traditional mainstream parties are losing ground to the right and the left. That’s because of a decline of trust in the mainstream parties.”

At the same, voter apathy in the EU helps the far right, analysts say. Turnout since the first EU elections were held has been dropping steadily, from 61.8% in 1979 to 42.6% in 2014.

In the Bastille neighborhood of Paris over the weekend, members of Mr. Macron’s centrist La Republique En Marche party — running for the first time in the EU elections — were distributing flyers and talking with voters shopping in the busy district. The pitch: Please, please vote.

“We don’t care if they vote for us,” one campaign worker said. “It’s just important they show up because when they don’t, it’s the far right that wins.”

Motivated by fear

Analysts say many voters are motivated by fear of the far right.

“I’m worried about the European elections because I think they’ll just give more power to the nationalists,” said Antonio di Renzo, 51, a civil servant in Rome. “There have been some mistakes [in the development of the EU], but I think it’s the only way forward.”

Still, for all the optimism by far-right leaders, their movement is facing some serious issues.

Austria had one of the most firmly established right-wing governing coalitions on the continent after bellwether elections in 2017. But the government in Vienna was in chaos over the weekend as Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache of the far-right Freedom Party stepped down after the surfacing of a video that appeared to show him offering government contracts in exchange for campaign support to a woman pretending to be the relative of a Russian oligarch.

For all their attempts to coordinate strategy and messaging for the parliamentary campaign, unity is another question for the often fractious right-wing parties.

Despite Mr. Salvini’s efforts to drum up support for a united far-right movement, “Toward a Europe of Common Sense,” differences among the far-right parties across Europe are stark and tensions linger — especially over relations with Russia.

Ms. Le Pen, Mr. Salvini and others are strongly pro-Russia. They have called for closer ties with Moscow and aligned with the Kremlin’s critical take on the EU as a whole. But that stance puts off Eastern European members such as Poland’s Law and Justice party, which have a long and turbulent history with Russia. Other issues include friction over which countries will take migrants.

Rosa Balfour and Laura Gelhaus, in new analysis Tuesday for the German Marshall Fund, say the record suggests the new far-right bloc will have more success reframing the terms of the debate than in pursuing a united agenda.

To date, populists in the European Parliament have shown very low levels of cohesion, their groups have frequently split along national lines, and their members often do not turn up to vote,” they wrote. “The European Parliament will most likely continue to have a pro-EU majority, but one based on more variable coalitions than before.”

At the Milan rally Saturday, Mr. Salvini and his allies tried to paper over the differences. “This is a historic moment,” said Ms. Le Pen. “Five years ago, we were isolated. Today, with our allies, we will finally be in a position to change Europe.”

Another open question is what the far-right bloc will do with its increased clout. With greater power, some argue, comes greater responsibility to stop throwing bombs and focus on legislating.

“Once you have to start making decisions, it’s harder than being in the opposition,” Mr. Bosoni said.

Even so, it is the Brussels establishment and the longtime status quo that are bracing for the bigger rejection in the vote, losing support to the far-right and far-left.

“There’s a revolution happening,” said Federica Romano, 31, a hairdresser in Rome and a supporter of Mr. Salvini’s League party. “I think we will start to see the changes we need after the election. That’s when we will be the strong voice.”

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