As Europeans prepare for 2024 elections, Ukraine watches on

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

This year’s election campaigns have shaken the status quo, and European voters will be anxious to see what transpires during the 2024 election season. The stakes could not be higher, Mark Temnycky writes.

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When Russia’s full-scale invasion began in February 2022, many were sceptical of Ukraine’s success. “Ukraine probably cannot hold off Russia forever,” read one headline. “If Kharkiv falls, Ukraine falls,” stated another headline. “Kyiv could fall to Russia within days,” said a third.

Given these assumptions, Western countries hesitated to provide Ukraine with defence assistance. 

They were fearful that, if Ukraine failed, Western weapons would fall into the hands of the Russians, similar to what occurred during the withdrawal of Afghanistan in 2021. 

Meanwhile, leaked documents from the Russian Federation showed that the Kremlin believed it could take the Ukrainian capital Kyiv in a few days, and the entire country within a month. In short, the situation looked grim.

Nearly two years later, Ukrainians have proved their doubters wrong. To date, Ukrainians have successfully defended their capital, and they forced Russian soldiers out of the centre of the country. 

Ukraine also reclaimed more than half of the territory occupied by Russia, making “steady gains in a set-piece battle against a heavily entrenched force” of fortified Russian soldiers in the south and east. While Russian troops still occupy one-fifth of Ukrainian territory, Ukraine’s success on the battlefield should not be minimised.

Russia’s war in Ukraine is not an action movie

Observers of Russia’s war in Ukraine should also be reminded that Ukrainian advancements are not a movie or a video game. 

Despite a desire for instant success, the war will not be won quickly. Time and precision are required to ensure victory, and it’s worth remembering that thousands of men and women have already died protecting their country.

Despite these successes, the same critics who initially said that Ukraine would fall within a matter of days are now saying that the war is taking too long. 

They argue that Ukraine’s counteroffensive has failed because Ukrainians did not liberate their entire country over the past two years, including Crimea and the Donbas. 

Some critics also still believe that Ukraine has “no chance” of defeating the Russian forces in the south and east. 

In these circles, the consensus is that Ukraine should be forced into peace talks with Russia, and that Ukraine should no longer be assisted in its defence efforts. 

Most alarmingly, this argument seems to be spreading like wildfire.

Delayed assistance and blaming the war on others

Some warning signs are already here in Europe. For example, over the past two years, Hungary has continuously blocked military aid and humanitarian packages from the European Union to Ukraine. 

Budapest has pushed the EU to cut back on its aid spending to Ukraine. Most recently, Hungarian officials stated that they will continue to block aid to the Eastern European state as Hungary requires “further reassurances [from Ukraine] before it would change its approach to Ukraine in any international settings.” 

These attempts to stop future EU assistance packages to Kyiv include trying to halt Ukraine’s potential accession discussions with the EU and NATO. 

These continuous roadblocks have delayed EU assistance from arriving in Ukraine. Without the necessary tools to succeed on the battlefield, it has impacted Ukraine’s timeline to force the Russians out as quickly as possible.

Hungary is not alone in these antics. Earlier this year, Slovakia held its parliamentary elections, where a populist party, Smer, won. 

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Smer, which is headed by a pro-Russian politician, Robert Fico, has now declared that it will stop sending defence aid to Ukraine. The party also “rejects NATO’s military support for Ukraine”. The party has previously blamed the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine on American manufacturing companies, stating that they support warmongering. 

Like the Hungarian officials from Victor Orbán’s party, Fidesz, Fico and his Slovakian group believe that too much aid has been sent to Ukraine.

Populists and the far-right are gaining ground

Finally, like Slovakia, the Dutch also had an election that ended with alarming results. In November, the Netherlands held a general election. In a surprising turn of events, Geert Wilders and his far-right group the Party for Freedom won. 

The party holds anti-EU and anti-Ukraine sentiments. It has also pledged to stop sending aid to Kyiv, although it remains to be seen if they will follow this plan.

The developments in Hungary, Slovakia, and now the Netherlands are no accident. 

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Simultaneously, similar movements are also spreading in countries with larger economies, such as France, Italy, and Spain, suggesting a pattern is growing throughout Europe. 

According to a Pew Research Center study, populist groups and far-right movements are indeed gaining ground, winning “winning larger shares of the vote in recent legislative elections” across the continent. Why is this the case?

Heads will turn

Nationalist and anti-establishment rhetoric, as well as opposition to the war in Ukraine, is growing throughout Europe. Millions of citizens across the continent are concerned about the economy. 

Others are discontent with their current leaders of government, and these voters are demanding new and stronger leadership. Some have even opted to improve their relationships with Moscow, believing that sanctions on Russia brought nothing but hardship.

It is important to note, however, that there are some outliers in this trend. For example, French President Emmanuel Macron successfully defeated far-right candidate Marine Le Pen during the presidential election last year. 

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Meanwhile, the opposition movement in Poland successfully defeated populist groups during the October general election. This suggests that, while the far-right is gaining ground, it can still be defeated.

Now, heads will turn to the various elections across Europe in 2024. Throughout the year, Finland, Slovakia, Lithuania, Iceland, and Moldova will hold their presidential elections. 

Additionally, Portugal, Belgium, Croatia, Austria, Georgia, Romania, and the United Kingdom will have parliamentary elections. 

Finally, the European Parliament will hold its elections in June. Based on the current political trends, some experts predict that far-right groups are set to perform well in most of these, while polls suggest right-wing and Eurosceptic parties might surge.

A different European landscape ahead?

If these far-right movements win in their respective elections, this would result in a very different European landscape. 

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The leaders and politicians of these political parties would look to turn inward, where they would hope to adopt isolationist policies in opposition to the EU. 

Furthermore, like Slovakia and the Netherlands, they would seek to reduce or halt aid to Ukraine. 

In addition, a number of European far-right actors have called for the warming of relations with Russia, meaning that they would disregard the fact that Moscow started the war as they favour peace on the European continent instead of justice. 

Such policies would be dangerous for the European continent. Pursuing options to enhance relations with the Kremlin would signal that Europeans are ready to forgive Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, forgetting the atrocities Russian troops committed. 

It would also set a dangerous precedent, signalling to Russia that it could willfully invade and annex the territory of neighbouring states without severe consequences. 

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This would only encourage other autocratic rulers across the world to act in similar ways and lead to additional conflicts and more bloodshed across the globe.

It feels like all-or-nothing

Fortunately, it is not all doom and gloom. According to a recent survey conducted by the European Parliament, 72% of participants believed that their homelands had “benefited from EU membership”. In addition, 70% of EU citizens think that “EU actions have an impact on their daily life”. 

These figures do not suggest that most Europeans have anti-European sentiments. Instead, it indicates that they support the European collective.

Meanwhile, a recent Chatham House study also suggests that a majority of Europeans favour “policies that support the Ukrainian cause, while not supporting policies that would hinder the Ukrainian war effort,” and remain committed to taking a tough stance on Russia.

Overall, times may be changing. European citizens are increasingly becoming frustrated with their leaders and the economy, and they are hoping for changes in the new year. 

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This is allowing far-right groups to succeed. And as they are gaining ground across the continent, anti-European and anti-Ukraine sentiments are growing.

This year’s election campaigns have shaken the status quo, and European voters will be anxious to see what transpires during the 2024 election season. The stakes could not be higher.

Mark Temnycky is a freelance journalist covering Eurasian affairs and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.

At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at [email protected] to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

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‘Contradictions of Macronism’: French government fights to save face after immigration bill debacle

President Emmanuel Macron’s government vowed on Tuesday to press ahead with a controversial immigration bill, a day after its flagship reform was rejected by lawmakers in a humiliating setback. The political crisis has heaped further pressure on a government that has struggled to pass reforms without a parliamentary majority.

In a surprise move, the French National Assembly voted to back a motion rejecting a controversial immigration bill on Monday without even debating it. The motion, proposed by the Greens, gained support not only from left-wing representatives but also from members of the right-wing Les Républicains and the far-right National Rally

The government’s stunning defeat in parliament prompted opposition politicians to call for its dissolution. Jordan Bardella, the president of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, told BFMTV on Tuesday he was “ready to serve as prime minister”.

The Élysée Palace, meanwhile, has moved fast to try and stop the political fallout. After an emergency ministerial meeting on Tuesday, government spokesperson Olivier Véran announced the formation of a special joint commission aimed at breaking the parliamentary gridlock “as fast as possible”’. The commission will be composed of seven representatives from both houses of parliament and will aim to return the bill to both chambers for a vote, Véran said. 

French government spokesperson Olivier Véran holds a press conference after a cabinet meeting at the presidential Élysée Palace in Paris, on December 12, 2023. © Ludovic Marin, AFP

After months of seeking to secure a majority in the National Assembly for his flagship policy, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin had a lot riding on the legislation’s success. In response to the setback, Darmanin offered his resignation, which Macron rejected.  

Darmanin had actively courted the right for months in an attempt to secure a majority, accepting a substantial rewrite of the bill in the conservative-led Senate. However, the bill presented on Monday in the Assembly bore little resemblance to the one voted on in the Senate, much to the dismay of Les Républicains.

Speaking on TF1 on Monday after the vote, Darmanin acknowledged the defeat. “It is a failure, of course, because I want to provide resources for the police (…) and magistrates to combat undocumented immigration,” he said.

The limits of ‘en même temps’

Macron’s government has touted its proposed immigration law as a way to respond to voter concerns and prevent the far right from monopolising the immigration debate.  

“The president believes it is necessary to respond to what he sees as a public demand, given the multitude of events that have highlighted immigration issues in the news. This explains the government’s desire to show citizens that it takes the initiative and acts,” said Bruno Cautrès, a researcher at the Centre for Political Research at Sciences Po Paris (CEVIPOF).

However, Monday’s debacle in the National Assembly has exposed the limitations of the politics of “en même temps” (“at the same time”) – an approach pursued by Macron since 2017, combining policy solutions from both the right and the left wings of French politics.  

What was possible with an absolute majority during Macron’s first term is no longer feasible with a minority government.

According to a poll conducted by Odoxa, 72% of French citizens consider better control of immigration to be the bill’s most important objective. But the French are far from unified on how they want to resolve the system’s issues – mirroring deep divisions between left and right.

While the proposed law is widely perceived as right-leaning, it failed to satisfy both the right and far right, who reject providing work permits to undocumented workers. Simultaneously, it proved too repressive for the left, which opposes restrictions on family reunifications and the introduction of an annual debate on migration quotas.

Politicians are urging Macron’s government to choose a side instead of attempting to please everyone. Olivier Marleix, the head of Les Républicains in the lower house, told French television channel LCI that his party was “ready to vote” if the text is revised to the version voted through by the Senate.  

“We want the government to choose sides: either it’s a right-wing text or a left-wing text, but it can’t be both at the same time.”

Even Macron’s political movement, Renaissance, exhibited internal divisions over the bill. The left wing of Renaissance, led by Sacha Houlié, the chairman of the lower house commission that amended the bill, expressed dissatisfaction with concessions made by Darmanin to the right, particularly regarding the stripping of healthcare rights for undocumented migrants.

Read moreFrench doctors vow to ‘disobey’ bill stripping undocumented migrants of healthcare rights

 

“We have red lines. It would be irresponsible to go beyond our political DNA … The adoption of the text cannot come at the cost of a division within the majority,” said Houlié in an interview with French Financial daily Les Échos on Sunday.

“It is very difficult to achieve consensus on immigration, which generates a diversity of perspectives and a clear division between right and left,” said Cautres. “There have been many hesitations by the government over the months. The balance is too difficult to find because this is typically the kind of issue where the contradictions of ‘Macronism’ can surface.”  

Fallout for Darmanin – and his colleagues

A day after having his resignation declined, Darmanin seems to have bounced back, for now. On a visit to a police station in the southeastern suburbs of Paris, Darmanin said Tuesday that “whatever path we take”, he wanted “firm measures” to be put in place by the end of the year.

But his contortions throughout the process have left a lasting impression. After expressing satisfaction with the Senate’s version which bore little resemblance to the initial bill, Darmanin had enthusiastically welcomed the version the National Assembly commission extensively revised – prompting critics to describe him as fickle.  

On Tuesday, Les Républicains party chief Eric Ciotti said he would like to work with Prime Minister Élizabeth Borne on the immigration law moving forward, suggesting his party had lost faith in the interior minister.   

“How can we talk to someone (Darmanin) who constantly insults us? It is up to the prime minister to lead this discussion,” he told Europe 1.  

If the new special joint commission fails to reach a breakthrough, it will pose a significant challenge for Borne and her government. If she still intends to adopt the bill, she may find herself compelled to use Article 49.3 – a controversial provision in the French constitution that allows the executive to bypass the National Assembly to pass a law. 

Triggering Article 49.3 for the 21st time in only 18 months would raise the political stakes even higher, particularly after the administration’s controversial use of it in the spring to pass pension reform occasioned protests and disruptive strikes across France that garnered the world’s attention.

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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The far right is already part of the European mainstream

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

The far right is not ascendant in the sense that it is banging on the door. It is already in the room and occupying part of the furniture, Tom Junes writes.

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In late November, Geert Wilders and his far-right PVV’s victory in the snap Dutch general elections seemingly stunned political observers across the media spectrum.

Analysts were quick to point out how the success of the far right was the result of “mainstreaming” by predominantly centre-right parties who tended to take over the far-right’s rhetoric and programmatic talking points on immigration.

And while Wilders’ result of 23.5% of the vote in a very fragmented partyscape was arguably a political “earthquake” in the Netherlands, dire statements about the far right’s ascendancy in Europe and pessimistic predictions about the upcoming European elections followed.

You win some, you lose some

It seemed quickly forgotten that just a month earlier in October, in Poland — a country with more than double the population of the Netherlands — a broad alliance of opposition parties managed to trounce the competing radical and far-right parties in an ugly and heavily contested election signalling the likely end of eight years of illiberal rule under Law and Justice (PiS).

Also in October, the far right underperformed in local elections in Bulgaria, a country where various far-right parties (ATAKA, NFSB, VMRO) had been junior governing partners or offered necessary silent support to minority governments for most of the past decade and a half.

Admittedly, neither Poland nor Bulgaria, owing to their post-communist transitions after 1989, have any traditional centre-right parties of the western European kind such as Christian-democratic or liberal parties that would have mainstreamed a generic far-right.

Nor is opposing immigration an exclusive talking point of the far right or centre-right in Central and Eastern Europe, as the nominally left-wing and populist SMER of Robert Fico in Slovakia proves.

Despite the claims of far-right ascendancy, populist, radical right and far-right parties have effectively been “mainstream” and part of the political status quo across Central and Eastern Europe for quite some time.

Poland’s PiS has been the requisite half of a political “duopoly” in the country since 2005, and Victor Orban’s Fidesz has ruled Hungary with a supermajority since 2010.

Slovakia’s SMER has governed for most of the past two decades, while Bulgaria’s far-right has exhibited a dynamic pluralism and series of metamorphoses in the past two decades with its current incarnation representing the third largest parliamentary force.

Seen as the “poorer periphery of the EU”, Central and Eastern Europe often fails to fit political models that are tailored to fit western European realities. But the latter has an enduring far-right phenomenon that goes back nearly a generation as well.

The West is not immune to an enduring far-right presence

Italy, the third-largest EU member state by population, is currently governed by a far-right party, Georgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia, or Brothers of Italy.

And though Meloni is the country’s first far-right PM since Benito Mussolini, her party — like Matteo Salvini’s Lega or League — is part of a right-wing bloc that has governed Italy on and off since Silvio Berlusconi’s rise back in the 1990s.

If it would not be ironic to talk about ascendancy while noting that Geert Wilders is at present the Netherlands’ longest-serving MP, the breakthrough of the Dutch far right can be traced to the general elections of 2002 with the emergence and immediate government participation of the Lijst Pim Fortuyn.

The Dutch far right’s story is overshadowed by the neighbouring Flemish far right’s trajectory in Belgium following the first so-called “Black Sunday” in 1991 with governmental participation prevented by a three-decade-old cordon sanitaire against Vlaams Belang (formerly Vlaams Blok).

This was not the case in Austria, where the FPÖ under Jörg Haider managed to enter government in 2000 triggering widespread dismay and outcry about the rise of the extreme right.

Conflicting interests means far-right would struggle to unite

More recently, far-right parties have seen breakthroughs in several countries and entered government in Finland and Sweden, but perhaps the most mediatised case has been France with Marine Le Pen’s consecutive presidential run-off defeats to Emmanuel Macron.

Yet, Le Pen’s presidential campaigns built on her father’s surprise performance back in 2002 which — though ultimately providing incumbent president Jacques Chirac with a Belarusian-style vote share — already signalled the incipient rise of the French far right.

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In the end, far-right parties’ influence has grown over the past two decades as “mainstream” parties increasingly emulated their agenda while their own performance in turn has made far-right parties now become one of several “acceptable” options for voters in many countries.

Does this mean that some broad international far-right alliance is possible in Europe? In theory, perhaps. In practice, this would be rather unlikely since far-right parties tend to have more conflicting interests than what could unite them beyond opposing immigration.

In addition, European elections tend to produce different results than national elections. 

At the moment, there are two groups that bring together radical right and far-right parties (ID and ECR) in the European Parliament. Yet, more than half of their MEPs actually come from only three countries: Poland, France, and Italy.

More so, Wilders doesn’t even have a single MEP, while Meloni’s European policies have been so mainstream that she could more probably lead her party into the EPP rather than join some large yet-to-materialise anti-establishment far-right alliance.

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The far right is already sitting on your sofa

Does this mean that the far right has no clout? On the contrary, it does, but exactly because it is already part of the mainstream in many countries and able to exert a profound influence on the policies of other parties.

The far right is not ascendant in the sense that it is banging on the door. It is already in the room and occupying part of the furniture which requires a change in thinking, meaning, how to deal with a far-right that is not going away in the short run.

And it should also tell those who wish to oppose the far right that these parties’ success and the fact that they are now deemed salonfähig is due to the existence of a large percentage of people who endorse racist, homophobic, sexist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobe, illiberal and authoritarian views. 

Perhaps that is something more profound to reflect upon when we think about Europe’s political future.

Tom Junes is a historian and Assistant Professor at the Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences. He is the author of “Student Politics in Communist Poland: Generations of Consent and Dissent”.

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At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at [email protected] to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

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Europe confronts an increasingly transnational far-right threat

Movements that could once be tackled one government at a time are more and more able to connect with each other across borders – and Elon Musk’s Twitter has given them a gift.

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Since the outbreak of the current war in Israel and Palestine, numerous European governments have warned of an uptick in two violent threats: Islamist extremism and antisemitism. Authorities in Germany, for instance, say that the threat of a jihadist attack is “higher than it has been for a long time”.

But in terms of what’s playing out on European streets and online, the threat of an organised, sometimes violent and increasingly transnational far right is becoming impossible to ignore.

Britain last month saw far-right counterprotesters attempt to disrupt a peaceful pro-Palestinian march in central London. Recent protests in Spain against an amnesty extended to Catalonian independence leaders attracted far-right elements.

And in France, the recent stabbing of a young boy in a southeastern village sparked days of protest, many of which featured out-and-out far right groups, including some from the notoriously extreme “Identitarian” movement.

The presence of extremists at the marches has been alarming enough that French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin is seeking to ban three specific far-right groups, some of whose members are on a government extremism watchlist.

Announcing the crackdown, he cited the example of Ireland, where a mob recently ran riot in the centre of Dublin after several children were stabbed outside a school in broad daylight. Warning that “there is a mobilisation on the ultra-right that wants to tip us into civil war,” he praised the authorities for helping avoid “an Irish-style scenario”.

That scenario extends beyond the violence in Dublin itself and includes a wider, long-brewing movement with international reach.

While some commentators attributed the violence in Ireland to anger among working-class people suffering in a housing crisis while immigrants and asylum seekers are provided with accommodation and welfare benefits, others dismissed that argument as an excuse for something far more sinister.

Close observers of the Irish far right insist that the roots of the violence run deep, warning that openly racist and fascist groups are galvanising their supporters using increasingly violent rhetoric directed squarely at asylum seekers and immigrants of all kinds, especially those who are not white.

The incident followed a pattern that has played out in many European countries, as ostensibly grassroots far-right movements latch onto assorted issues – transgender rights, immigration, the place of Muslims in society, or Covid control measures and vaccination – and put pressure on democratic political systems with increasingly angry rhetoric and organised, sometimes violent protests.

While they often rail against their national governments’ policies, these movements have an increasingly transnational character. And across Europe and beyond, these factions now have a newly hospitable environment in which to communicate: the platform formerly known as Twitter.

Planet Musk

Since he took over the platform last year, Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk has become increasingly erratic and politically extreme, routinely engaging positively with racist and antisemitic users. According to Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, the renaissance of Twitter/X as a haven for the far right is a major development.

“Every form of far-right extremist is using the platform now in ways that they only could before on unregulated sites like Telegram,” she told Euronews. 

“Musk has allowed prominent neo-Nazis and other white supremacists back on the platform, including very extreme people like Andrew Anglin of Daily Stormer, and they are pushing their ideas out there. The site is also monetising extremist material.

“This is true internationally as well. Our recent report on Generation Identity accounts on Twitter, which were pulled and then reinstated, shows the transnational reach of the problem.

“Twitter is an essential part of the far-right online ecosystem now, for raising money, recruiting and propagandising. It may well be the largest hate site on the internet at this point.”

The events on the streets of Dublin, which saw a tram and a bus attacked and many businesses looted, were heavily amplified online by local influencers with large followings on Twitter/X and international figures in the far-right ecosystem in the US and the UK.

But also getting involved was Musk himself, who engaged with extreme users trying to call attention tweeted that Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar “Hates Irish people” and complained that “The current Irish government clearly cares more about praise from woke media than their own people”.

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Into the mainstream

While its value has plummeted and advertisers are leaving, taking crucial revenue with them, the platform’s moderation policies have a huge impact on European countries. 

Unlike Telegram or other encrypted messaging apps, Twitter/X’s open nature means images, footage, false and misleading claims and hate speech can far more easily leach into public conversation – including via pickup from populist politicians and parties trying to appeal to receptive audiences.

And while none of Ireland’s very small far-right political parties have any hope of entering government any time soon, other countries have already seen their established ones embrace and fuel the anger on the far right, bringing outlandish and extreme ideas into the centre of electoral politics.

As for the future, Beirich warns that there are frightening scenarios in the offing – and that in many European countries, things are already well advanced down a dark path.

“What was fringe not too long ago has now breached the cordon sanitaire, especially when talking about immigration and Muslims,” she told Euronews. “We’ve just seen this in the Netherlands as well. The biggest tragedy would be if the AfD makes huge gains in the upcoming German elections.

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“At this point, there is little to distinguish say [French extremist politician Éric] Zemmour’s politics from the white supremacists in the Identitarian movement and many elements in Marine Le Pen’s party. I would argue the Finns Party, who are in coalition in Helsinki, are extremists that are already in power, meaning they have breached the mainstream. And Viktor Orbán’s government in Hungary is much the same.

“Unfortunately, the failure to take action against the far right online and off has now left us with extremism in the mainstream.”



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Will Romania be the next EU country to vote for the far-right?

Romania’s far-right party AUR is growing in popularity and could enter a government coalition next year after the country’s parliamentary election.

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Romania, a member of the European Union, will hold local, presidential, parliamentary and European elections next year – making 2024 a crucial time for the country and for Europe, as the far-right is expected to continue gaining ground.

“These elections are important for the political situation in Romania as well as for the entire European Union, where the far-right has risen in popularity in many member states like Sweden, Slovakia and now the Netherlands,” Fernando Casal Bertoa, an associate professor in Comparative Politics at the University of Nottingham, told Euronews.

The elections next year might determine “a completely new direction for the country,” he added.

A recent survey by pollster INSCOP released in early November showed that the country’s ruling coalition government – which includes the leftist Social Democrats (PSD) and centre-right Liberals (PNL) – would fall short of an outright majority in the parliamentary election next year.

The coalition government has been struggling this year with keeping the country’s public finances in check – a situation which has paved the way for the far right to gain ground in Romania.

According to the opinion poll – which was commissioned by Romanian news website News.ro and conducted among a sample of 1,100 people between 23 October and 2 November – 29.5% of Romanians would vote for Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu’s PSD and 18.4% for the Liberals in the parliamentary elections next year.

According to the INSCOP poll, the ultra-nationalist opposition party Alliance for the Unity of Romanians, AUR – an abbreviation for “gold” in Romanian – would have 20.2% of voters’ support – putting the party ahead of the Liberals.

What is AUR, and what does it stand for?

In December 2020, the little-known AUR, which had been formed in the autumn of the previous year, rose from obscurity to take almost 9% of the overall vote in Romania’s parliamentary elections. Since then, the party has been steadily gaining more support in recent opinion surveys.

The rise of the party was due in part to the overwhelming support of the Romanian diaspora, which, according to Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, a professor of Comparative Public Policy at the LUISS Guido Carli University in Rome, “has a large percentage of low-skilled, marginal people who in fact only work seasonally in Europe.”

“I called them, much to the indignation of some people, a ‘lumpen-diaspora’, to paraphrase Karl Marx,” Mungiu-Pippidi explained, referring to a term which in Marxist contexts indicates a population uninterested in revolutionary advancement.

“They needed a radical ‘F… you’ alternative to the existing political system and they found it” in AUR, she added.

The pandemic also “tremendously helped” the rise of AUR, the same way it helped Alternative for Germany (AfD) grow its base, Mungiu-Pippidi said. “They were the anti-vaccine party, and in Romania – also with the complicity of the Orthodox church – half the population did not get a vaccine. This was the main wind in their sails,” she added.

“Same as in the Netherlands, people are really unhappy with the way the country is being governed,” Claudiu Tufis, associate professor of political science, University of Bucharest, told Euronews explaining the popularity of the far-right party.

“There isn’t a lot of representation in the Romanian political system, with pretty much the same coalition uninterruptedly leading the country for almost 10 years now. They are looking for someone who speaks their own language,” he added.

AUR declares to be standing for “family, nation, faith, and freedom,” but Mungiu-Pippidi told Euronews that it actually stands for “anti-science, Christian fundamentalism and sovereignism.”

The party has also positioned itself as an anti-corruption party at a time when the country was facing significant corruption scandals – a move that has been embraced by other populist parties in Europe, like Italy’s Five Star Movement.

AUR is also known to oppose same-sex marriage and has called for the Republic of Moldova’s unification with Romania. In 2018, AUR founder – former journalist Claudiu Tarziu – called for a referendum that attempted to ban same-sex marriage, which failed.

Could AUR be part of a new coalition government?

According to Casal Bertoa, whether AUR would one day become part of a coalition government with the PSD would depend on the results of the election. “The Liberals might want to govern with the far-right party but not under them – so they might bring them if they have a bigger backing than AUR, but not vice versa. It’s difficult to predict,” he continued.

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“But anything is possible,” he added. “We have seen a trend in Europe to normalise the far right and the far left, and the elections in the Netherlands are a clear example of that.”

“I expected AUR to win a little bit more than they did in the last round of elections,” Tufis said. “But they probably will be in a position that won’t allow it to form a coalition, the political parties are arguing that AUR should be kept at a distance,” he continued. 

“It’s probably more likely that the Social Democrats and the Liberals will continue with the same coalition they had for the past 10 years.”

With the level of support currently estimated in polls, AUR could claim between 8 and 11 MEPs after the EU elections in June 2024. The party is then likely to ally with Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, which AUR president George Simion said is “a political model for us.”

Is the EU keeping an eye on Romania?

Casal Bertoa thinks that the EU is looking closely at what’s happening in Romania, as well as other countries like Spain and the Netherlands, “and the great thing is that the EU has mechanisms to intervene if these far-right parties threaten democracy or the rule of law.”

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The problem, he added, is that “it has no way to stop the rise of the far right.”

Tufis agrees, saying that even if AUR wins big in the European election, “they will be controlled within the European Parliament.”

Mungiu-Pippidi thinks the EU has no reason to worry about AUR. “Romania is well controlled by a left-right coalition solidly supported by its much too powerful secret services and military establishment,” she said.

“The church may flirt with AUR, but it always stands with the power establishment. AUR would get co-opted, like all radicals before them, with governmental perks, though until then they may provide some colourful moments in the European Parliament,” she added.



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Far right’s Geert Wilders seals shock win in Dutch election after years on political fringe

He’s received countless death threats and has been under police protection for almost two decades. He’s been convicted for inciting hate speech and his opinions once even got him banned from entering the UK. Known as the Dutch Donald Trump, far-right politician Geert Wilders and his PVV Freedom Party have now won a major victory in the country’s general elections.

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“Can you imagine it? 37 seats!” Wilders exulted to his lawmakers on Thursday, a day after his far-right PVV Freedom Party won more than double the seats it secured in the last Dutch general election.

Beating all predictions, the PVV won 37 seats out of 150 on Wednesday, coming in well ahead of a Labour-Green alliance led by former EU commissioner Frans Timmermans and the conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) of outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte, which slumped to 24 seats.

Now faced with the difficult task of forming a government, Wilders will have to convince reluctant rivals to join him.

But he is no political rookie. The 60-year-old has tried to woo voters with his anti-immigration and anti-EU policies for years, his fiery rhetoric and shock of peroxide blonde hair earning him the nickname “Dutch Donald Trump”. Yet unlike Trump, he has until now spent his life on the political fringe.

Anti-Islam policies

Born in the southern Dutch city of Venlo in 1963, Wilders grew up alongside his brother and two sisters in a Catholic family. His mother was half Indonesian, a fact Wilders rarely mentions. Aside from being colonised by the Netherlands for hundreds of years, the country is also home to the world’s largest Muslim population.

According to his older brother Paul, Wilders took an interest in politics in the 80s. “He was neither clearly on the left or the right at the time, nor was he xenophobic. But he was fascinated by the political game, the struggle for power and influence,” his brother told German news website Der Spiegel in a 2017 interview.

His hatred for Islam came later, around the time he became an MP for the centre-right VVD party in 1998. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks that rocked the US in 2001 and the assassination of far-right Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn a year later, a “large bloc of anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic voters” were left “looking for a champion”, and according to The Economist, Wilders was their man.

He left the VVD in 2004, the same year controversial Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered. After the Dutch police discovered Wilders was also on the hit list of van Gogh’s killer, he was placed under police protection.

Two years later, in 2006, Wilders founded his PVV party and placed anti-Islam policies at the heart of its agenda. He notoriously likened Islam to Nazism, comparing the Koran to Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”, and released a highly criticised film in 2008 called “Fitna” that raised a storm of protest across the world. The 15-minute film conflated Islam and terrorism, juxtaposing scenes of beheadings and the 9/11 attacks with quotes from the Koran. He was refused entry to the UK in 2009 while on his way to screen the film at the House of Lords. The Home Office issued the ban because his opinions were considered a “threat to community harmony and therefore public safety”. Wilders was subsequently put on trial in 2010 for inciting hatred and discrimination against Muslims.

Arguing that Dutch freedom of speech safeguarded his right to make incendiary remarks, Wilders was eventually acquitted. But a few years later in 2016, he was eventually found guilty of insulting people of Moroccan descent when he promised supporters “fewer Moroccans” in the Netherlands.

But the conviction didn’t stop Wilders from making hateful remarks. He went on to call Moroccans “scum” years later and launched a contest for caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed several times.

Life under police protection, ‘Nexit’ and a xenophobic manifesto

Because of multiple threats against his life, Wilders has been living under strict police protection for almost two decades. He is guarded 24/7 by armed police, lives in a government-provided safe house and must be escorted anytime he shows up in public.

Geert Wilders prepares to cast his ballot as security guards stand by him during the 2023 general election. © Remko De Waal, AFP

To make up for his lack of public appearances, the “Dutch Donald Trump” (who currently has more than 1.2 million followers on X) has taken to social media to spread his populist ideas. His PVV party landed its first victory in 2010, when it scored major gains in parliament and came in third behind Rutte’s VVC and the Labour party.

Between 2010 and 2012, Wilders briefly experienced a right-wing coalition with the conservative Christian Democrats (CDA) and the VVD. It quickly fell through after he refused to back a package designed to lower the budget deficit.

In addition to his Islamophobic and xenophobic stance, Wilders is also staunchly anti-EU and opposes the euro. Years after the UK voted for Brexit, the idea of a “Nexit” (an exit of the Netherlands from the EU) became a core plank of his political platform. This didn’t stop the far-right leader from being elected a member of the European Parliament in 2014. In fact, Wilders forged a Eurosceptic alliance with France’s Marine Le Pen to push their nationalist agenda from within that body.  

Le Pen was one of the first to congratulate Wilders on his victory in Wednesday’s elections.

Although he is close to several European far-right movements, he doesn’t always align with their traditional ideologies. When it comes to social issues, Wilders supports the fight against homophobia and defends the right to abortion.

During the final weeks of his campaign for the 2023 general election, Wilders somewhat softened his anti-Islam and anti-EU stance, so much so that he gained the moniker Geert “Milders”. He vowed he would try to become a prime minister for all Dutch people and focused on issues other than immigration, such as the cost of living crisis, to broaden his electorate.

The PVV manifesto, on the other hand, does not mirror Wilders’ “Milder” façade. His party calls for a ban on “Islamic schools, Korans and mosques” and “Islamic headscarves”, a “reduction in the asylum and immigration flood to the Netherlands” and a “sovereign Netherlands … in charge of its own currency, its own borders and [which] makes its own rules”.

This article was translated from the original in French

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Why are UK’s Conservatives embracing European conspiracy theories?

At its last party conference before an election it’s expected to lose, Britain’s ruling party is bringing fringe ideas into the mainstream.

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With an election due to be held within the next year, the British government is struggling desperately to win over public support – and with perhaps only months to go till it faces the electorate, its rhetoric is morphing into what looks like full-on populism.

Among the latest ideas the ruling Conservative Party’s MPs have floated are preventing a “tax on meat” (which the opposition has never proposed), and banning “15-minute neighbourhoods” which would supposedly allow local government to restrict people’s movements.

These are false claims that have been widely debunked, but they have lately gathered traction among fringe right-wing groups active on social media. And by European standards, the Conservative government is in fact a relative latecomer to these particular theories.

The concept of a 15-minute neighbourhood was first formulated in France in the mid-2010s, and adopted by Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo as her city began to re-emerge from the COVID pandemic.

As the idea spread to other world cities, it became the target of conspiracy theorists radicalised during the pandemic, who see it as the next wave of an insidious plot to make lockdowns permanent on the pretext of combating climate change.

This idea dovetails with other fringe theories about creeping totalitarianism in everyday life among them a wariness of the “cashless economy” and claims that a “globalist” elite is conspiring to ban meat consumption and force citizens to subsist on insects instead.

The insect theory has enjoyed a surge of interest in Lithuania, where public authorities have had to push back hard against it. It’s also caught on in Bulgaria, including with the help of a loudmouthed fringe politician – and a prominent Russian state TV host.

But these outlandish theories are not just the province of Russia-amenable far-right media and fringe grassroots protest movements: they also have their advocates in certain European governments.

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, which is fighting to secure another term in a 15 October election, has actively propagated the insect-consumption story.

Earlier this year, several PiS politicians accused opposition leader Donald Tusk and his party of planning to deny Poles access to meat. One PiS lawmaker, Bartosz Kownacki,​​ declared that “Instead of chicken, eat a worm” because “this is their real election programme”. Tusk derided the claim as embarrassingly desperate.

Also subscribing to the insect theory is far-right Italian politician Matteo Salvini, whose party supports the current government in Rome.

While the Conservatives have not mentioned insects specifically, that they are raising the twin spectres of government control of meat consumption and limits on personal movement indicates that they have identified an audience potentially receptive to this sort of rhetoric.

So why now? According to Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary, University of London, the dire state of the party’s polling and its exhaustion after 13 years in power are both weighing heavy.

“The Conservatives know fully well that the fundamentals – the economy, the NHS, and even asylum and immigration – are running against them so they are basically throwing a whole bunch of ‘war-on-woke’ and ‘green crap’ stuff against the wall in the hope that some of it will stick. I’m not sure it’s that coordinated or coherent, more clutching at straws.”

Bale, whose book The Conservative Party After Brexit charts what has happened to the party in the last five years – which have seen it led by four different prime ministers – is unconvinced that the government’s sudden investment in outré paranoid ideas has much of an audience among the electorate.

“The Tories target voters are middle-aged to elderly, mainly white, mainly home-owning, car-driving, non-university graduates with culturally conservative views,” he explains. 

“They’re hoping that the ‘war-on-woke’ and ‘green crap’ stuff will mobilise them to turn out and vote and, even better, stem any losses to Labour which might result from the loss of their reputation for economic competence and the dire state of public services.

“It may also bring a few supporters of the radical right-wing populist party Reform UK back into the Tory fold. And who’s to say it might not work. The question is will it be enough – to which the answer is probably not, but what else have they got?”

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The Reform UK party that Bale mentions is the rebranded version of the Brexit Party, formerly led by Nigel Farage. The party has not won any electoral representation since the UK left the EU except for a tiny handful of local government seats. That in turn raises the question of how much the Conservatives have to gain from competing with it.

Yet when Farage, who has traded on the insect theory himself, arrived at this week’s Conservative conference in Manchester, he was all but mobbed by enthusiastic supporters. And The Spectator, the British press’s top establishment right-wing political magazine, recently named him the most powerful figure on the British right, ranking him above the sitting Tory prime minister.

Having stepped back from running for office himself, Farage’s main mouthpiece is his show on GB News, a right-wing news channel whose anchors include full-on conspiracy theorists and notorious provocateurs attacking “wokeness” in all its forms.

Meanwhile, as the Conservatives use their conference to vent more bizarre ideas than ever, Bale is not optimistic about the state of the party – or of British politics in general.

“It’s pretty depressing, really,” he says. “when you’ve got a government that’s reduced to telling people that, among other things, it’s going to make it easier for people to appeal against parking tickets, we’re not exactly in visionary territory, are we?”

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Kosovo attack: Who benefits?

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe. 

The European Union and the United States have been trying to persuade Serbia and Kosovo to end their enmity and normalize relations for more than a decade.

There were finally signs of promise in April, when Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti finally gave tacit, if begrudging, approval to an EU-brokered plan that would see the two finally sprinkle some soil over the hatchet.

But despite all the cajoling and coaxing, it wasn’t to be.

U.S. and European officials have insinuated that Kurti was more to blame here, with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell drawing attention to the failure to establish an association of municipalities in northern Kosovo, which would have allowed Kosovo’s Serbs some autonomy in an enclave where they’re a majority.

Behind the scenes, U.S. and European officials have also quietly praised Vučić for a slow and halting tilt toward the West, secretly supplying some arms to Ukraine and moving to reduce Serbia’s dependency on Russian energy supplies.

This is why last week’s astonishing clash between armed Serbs and police in the village of Banjska, in northern Kosovo’s Zvečan municipality, is especially perplexing — and it’s worth asking whose interests it serves.

Kosovo’s leaders quickly blamed Vučić for the attack, which also involved a siege of an Orthodox monastery. A Kosovan policeman and three Serb gunmen were killed in the clash. And Kosovo’s President Vjosa Osmani said Friday that “the (armed) group simply exercised the intentions and the motives of Serbia as a country and Vučić as the leader.”

Osmani maintains Belgrade was trying to copy Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, which began with so-called little green men infiltrating the Ukrainian peninsula. “They are trying to carry out a Crimea model in the Republic of Kosovo, but we will absolutely not let that happen,” she added.

Kurti has called for sanctions to be imposed on Serbia for what he describes as a state-sponsored terrorist attack, warning that if the crime goes unpunished, Belgrade will repeat it. Vučić planned and ordered an attack in northern Kosovo “to destabilize” the country with the goal of starting a war, he said.

In response, Vučić has angrily denied these allegations but has noticeably hardened his rhetoric, possibly as a sop to Serbian ultra-nationalists. More alarmingly, however, Serbia has been building up its forces near the border with Kosovo since the deadly clashes, which the White House has described as “unprecedented.” And according to U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, on a phone call with Vučić, Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged an “immediate de-escalation and a return to dialogue.”

If Belgrade did have a hand in the attack, however, it would appear to pull against the caution Vučić has displayed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, hedging his bets between the West and Serbia’s traditional Slavic ally. Vučić didn’t join in on Western sanctions against Russia but has condemned the invasion, and says he’s keen to pursue Serbia’s bid for EU membership.

If Belgrade did have a hand in the attack, it would appear to pull against the caution Aleksandar Vučić has displayed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine | Andrej Cukic/EFE via EPA

Marko Đurić, the Serbian ambassador to the U.S., echoes Vučić’s argument that planning or approving an attack in Kosovo at this juncture would make no sense and potentially ruin Belgrade’s improving relations with the West. “We have a lot to lose by any kind of escalation in Kosovo,” he told POLITICO — including harming the country commercially.

Đurić also said the attack has complicated the country’s domestic politics, noting that “the far right in Serbia is going to try and exploit this to the greatest extent possible.”

But Kosovo’s leaders have a case against Belgrade that needs answering.

To support the allegation that Vučić endorsed the attack, they highlight the role of Milan Radoičić, the deputy leader of the Serb List — a party that dominates Serb politics in northern Kosovo and has close links with Vučić’s Serbian Progressive Party.

Nicknamed the “boss of the north,” Radoičić admitted to organizing and leading the attack in a statement issued by his lawyer, saying he was solely responsible. “I didn’t inform anyone from the government structures of the Republic of Serbia about this, nor from the local political structures from the north of Kosovo and Metohija, nor did I get any help from them, because we already had had different views on the previous methods of resisting Kurti’s terror,” he said.

But Kurti dismisses the idea that Radoičić would have gone ahead without Vučić’s approval. “I have no doubt that Radiočić was only the executor. The one who planned and ordered this terrorist, criminal attack on our state, in order to violate our territorial integrity, national safety and state security, is none other than President Vučić,” he told reporters.

Other officials in Pristina also say it would be stretching credulity to think Aleksandar Vulin, the head of Serbia’s BIA intelligence agency, would have been unaware of a planned attack.

Bojan Pajtić, a Serbian law professor and former president of the autonomous province of Vojvodina within Serbia, agrees the Banjska provocation wouldn’t have gone ahead without the security agency’s knowledge, saying it is improbable that the BIA would have failed to notice an operation being prepared by a heavily armed formation consisting of dozens of people in such a small area. “The BIA normally knows who drank coffee with whom yesterday in Zvečan,” he said.

“When an incident occurs that is not accidental, but the result of someone’s efforts, you always wonder whose interests it is in,” Paltić said. “In this case, it is certainly not in the interest of Aleksandar Vučić, because after the last attempt at dialogue in Brussels, in the eyes of the West, in relation to Kurti, he still looked like a constructive partner.”

Pajtić isn’t alone in querying who’s interest the attack was in, and so far, both Washington and Brussels have been extremely cautious in their comments. European Commission spokesperson Peter Stano said the EU will wait for the completion of the investigation before coming to any conclusions on what he described as a terrorist attack. Washington, careful to keep its language neutral, hasn’t been specific about who it blames either.

This, of course, stands in sharp contrast to Moscow, which predictably grandstanded as Serbia’s traditional protector, accusing Pristina of ethnic cleansing in northern Kosovo — the very same lie used to try to justify Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

“This incident, the most serious example of violence in Kosovo for years, turned the tables on Vučić,” said Dimitar Bechev, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. And he, too, questioned whether the attack was a rogue operation by Serbian ultra-nationalists and Kosovo’s Serb leaders.

“Should the story of Radoičić freelancing be corroborated, it would appear that Vučić has lost control over his erstwhile proxies,” he said.



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Vienna seeks to calm Selmayr ‘blood money’ furor

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Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg signaled his government was de-escalating a row with the EU’s senior representative in the country, Martin Selmayr, who last week accused Vienna of paying “blood money” to Moscow by continuing to purchase large quantities of Russian gas.

“Everything has already been said about this,” Schallenberg said over the weekend in a written response to questions from POLITICO on the affair. “We are working hard to drastically reduce our energy dependency on Russia and we will continue to do so.”

Austrian officials insist that the country’s continued reliance on Russian gas is only temporary and that it will wean itself off by 2027 (over the past 18 months, the share of Russian gas in Austria has dropped from 80 percent to an average of 56 percent).

Some experts question the viability of that plan, considering that OMV, the country’s dominant oil and gas company, signed a long-term supply deal with Gazprom under former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz that company executives say is virtually impossible to withdraw from.

Those complications are likely one reason why Vienna — even as its officials point out that Austria is far from the only EU member to continue to rely on Russian gas — doesn’t want to dwell on the substance of Selmayr’s criticism.

“We should rather focus on maintaining our unity and cohesion within the European Union in dealing with Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine,” Schallenberg told POLITICO. “We can only overcome the challenges ahead of us in a united effort.”

Schallenberg’s remarks follow a decision by the European Commission on Friday to summon Selmayr to Brussels to answer for his actions. A spokesman for the EU executive on Friday characterized the envoy’s comments as “not only unnecessary, but also inappropriate.”

Given that the Austrian government is led by a center-right party, which is allied with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s European People’s Party bloc, the sharp reaction from Brussels is not surprising. An official close to the Austrian government said Vienna had not demanded Selmayr’s removal.

Selmayr made the “blood money” comment, by his own account, while defending the Commission chief. He told an Austrian newspaper that he made the remark during a public discussion in Vienna on Wednesday in response to an audience member who accused von der Leyen of “warmongering” in Ukraine and having “blood on her hands.”

“This surprises me, because blood money is sent to Russia every day with the gas bill,” Selmayr told the audience.

Selmayr expressed surprise that there wasn’t more public outcry in Austria over the country’s continued reliance on Russian natural gas, which has accounted for about 56 percent of its purchases so far this year. (A review of a transcript of the event by Austrian daily Die Presse found no mention of the comments Selmayr attributed to the audience member, however.)

Austria’s deep relationship to Russia, which has continued unabated since Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, has prompted regular criticism from its European peers.

Even so, the EU envoy’s unvarnished assessment caused an immediate uproar in the neutral country, especially on the populist far right, whose leaders called for Selmayr’s immediate dismissal.

Europe Minister Karoline Edtstadler called the remarks “dubious and counterproductive” | Olivier Hoslet/EPA-EFE

Schallenberg’s ministry summoned Selmayr on Thursday to answer for his comments and the country’s Europe Minister, Karoline Edtstadler, called the remarks “dubious and counterproductive.” Some in Vienna also questioned whether Selmayr, who as a senior Commission official helped Germany navigate the shoals of EU bureaucracy to push through the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline — thus increasing Europe’s dependency on Russian gas — was really in a position to criticize Austria.

Nonetheless, Selmayr’s opinion carries considerable weight in Austria, given his history as the Commission’s most senior civil servant and right-hand man to former Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Though Selmayr, who is German, has a record of living up to his country’s reputation for directness and sharp elbows, even his enemies consider him to be one of the EU’s best minds.

His rhetorical gifts have made him a considerable force in Austria, where he arrived in 2019 (after stepping down under a cloud in Brussels). He is a regular presence on television and in print media, weighing in on everything from the euro common currency to security policy.

After Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer recently pledged to anchor a right to pay with euro bills and coins in cash-crazed Austria’s constitution, for example, Selmayr reminded his host country that that right already existed under EU law. What’s more, he wrote, Austrians had agreed to hand control of the common currency to the EU when they voted to join the bloc in 1994.

A few weeks later, he interjected himself into the country’s security debate, arguing that “Europe’s army is NATO,” an unwelcome take in a country clinging on to its neutrality.

Though Selmayr’s interventions tend to rub Austria’s government the wrong way, they’ve generally hit the mark.

The latest controversy and Selmayr’s general approach to the job point to a fundamental divide in the EU over the role of the European Commission’s local representatives. Most governments want the envoys to serve like traditional ambassadors and to carry out their duties, as one Austria official put it to POLITICO recently, “without making noise.”

Yet Selmayr’s tenure suggests that the role is often most effective when structured as a corrective, or reality check, by viewing national political debates through the lens of the broader EU.  

In Austria, where the anti-EU Freedom Party is leading the polls by a comfortable margin ahead of next year’s general election, that perspective is arguably more necessary than ever.

Victor Jack contributed reporting.



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Procedural glitch clears French suspects in plot to attack Morocco World Cup fans

A court in Paris has dismissed a high-profile case against seven suspected far-right activists, including a prominent figure in the French “ultra-right”, citing procedural errors in the investigation. The suspects were accused of planning to carry out a racist attack on fans of Morocco during the recent football World Cup, in the latest evidence of rising far-right militancy in France. 

Shortly after 10pm on December 14, moments after France defeated Morocco en route to the World Cup final in Qatar, a flood of football fans hit the streets of Paris, converging on the Champs-Elysées, the French capital’s traditional rallying point for jubilant supporters. 

Most were draped in the French tricolour, though a sizeable contingent – including many French citizens of Moroccan descent – waved the red-and-green flag of the Lions of the Atlas. Both were in celebratory mode, with Morocco’s fans determined to pay tribute to an extraordinary World Cup run.  

One group’s attire, however, pointed to other plans. 

Outside a bar in the capital’s swanky 17th arrondissement, about a mile away from the Champs-Elysées, police officers acting on intelligence detained several dozen individuals suspected of planning to carry out a racist rampage.  

Body searches revealed an arsenal of weapons that included batons, tear gas canisters, shin guards and tactical gloves. One was held in possession of stickers with the three letters GUD, standing for “Groupe Union Défense”, a far-right student group notorious for its violence, which became dormant at the start of the century but has recently made a comeback. 

Ten months later, seven of them were brought before the Paris Criminal Court on Friday on charges of “carrying prohibited weapons” and “forming a group with a view to committing violence and damage”, offences punishable with up to 10 years in jail. 

In a startling twist, however, the entire case was thrown out on procedural grounds just hours into the trial, with the presiding judge arguing that police had exceeded their mandate in carrying out the arrests – and ordering the seven suspects to walk free. 

Ultra-right pedigree 

Among the 38 people detained on December 14, about half were known to have belonged to a variety of far-right groups, most of them now outlawed. A dozen were labelled “fiché S”, indicating a potential threat to national security. The majority were from the Paris region, though a handful had travelled from as far as Brittany. 

The seven men in the dock on Friday included Marc de Cacqueray-Valménier, a central figure in the French ultra-droite (ultra-right) – a term used to refer to extreme-right groups with neo-Nazi sympathies. He is believed to have led the militant group Zouaves Paris – a GUD offshoot that was banned last year.

At just 24 years of age, the scion of a family of ultra-Catholic aristocrats has already had multiple run-ins with the law, including a suspended jail sentence for his involvement in violent clashes on the sidelines of a Yellow Vest protest at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in December 2018. 

In January 2022, Cacqueray-Valménier was sentenced to a year in prison for attacking the Saint-Sauveur bar in Paris, a popular anti-fascist hideout, though he has appealed the conviction. He is also under investigation for a violent attack on anti-racism activists who disrupted a campaign rally in support of far-right presidential candidate Eric Zemmour

Far-right protesters wave a flag of the GUD at a rally in Paris on May 26, 2013. © Thomas Samson, AFP

Police investigating the alleged plot to attack Moroccan fans believe Cacqueray-Valménier summoned his acolytes via a Telegram message that called for a “general mobilisation to defend the flag from the Moroccan hordes”, French daily Libération reported on Thursday, citing transcripts of police interrogations. 

He is also believed to have instructed participants to delete all messages, a tactic that hindered investigators’ efforts to gather evidence – and partly explained the small number of defendants in the dock, one of whom tried unsuccessfully to delete the messaging app before investigators seized it. 

During his interrogation, Cacqueray-Valménier denied any role in the alleged plot, claiming he was “no longer a militant” and that he “identified with no ideology”. Hailing the court’s decision to quash the case on Friday, his lawyer Clément Diakonoff accused politicians of “creating a myth around” Cacqueray-Valménier and “designating him as a target”.

‘Clash of civilisations’ 

Police’s decision to carry out preventive arrests, before any violence had been committed, ultimately undermined the case against the seven suspects. While it may have helped avert disturbances in Paris, racist attacks involving far-right activists were reported elsewhere in France, despite the deployment of 10,000 police officers across the country.

In Lyon, a hotbed of far-right militancy, several dozen men wearing balaclavas attacked fans in a central square to cries of “bleu, blanc, rouge, France for the French”. One officer spoke of a “volatile mix of ultra-right activists and football hooligans”. 

Racist assaults were also reported in Nantes, Montpellier and Nice, where masked men chased after Moroccan supporters shouting “Out with the Arabs”, while hooligans marched through central Strasbourg waving neo-Nazi symbols.  

While the incidents involved only a few hundred people across the country, they reflect the growing visibility and assertiveness of France’s militant far right, with small groups jostling for influence and notoriety in a fragmented landscape. 

In a July interview with Le Monde, Nicolas Lerner, the head of France’s internal intelligence agency, the DGSI, spoke of a “highly alarming rise in violent actions or intimidations by a segment of the ultra-right”, whose targets include immigrants, rights activists and elected officials

Anti-racism advocates and politicians on the left have accused the political far right of spreading inflammatory rhetoric in the run-up to the World Cup match, stoking hostility towards populations of immigrant descent with ties to former French colonies, such as Morocco.  

Damien Rieu, a close ally of Zemmour, described the historic semi-final as a “clash of civilisations”, while Zemmour himself reiterated his complaint that the French squad featured too many players with “foreign-sounding names”. 

When French citizens “have a heart that beats for another country (…) it raises questions about their assimilation” into French society, argued Sébastien Chenu, a lawmaker in Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally and a deputy head of the French National Assembly, speaking on France 2 television. 

“In the week leading up to the France-Morocco game, parts of the far right and some in the media shaped public perceptions by repeatedly warning that incidents were bound to occur,” left-wing lawmaker Thomas Portes, the head of the National Observatory of the Far Right, told FRANCE 24 earlier this year. “When you fan the flames of hatred and blow on embers that are already burning, unacceptable things happen.” 

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