An influx of climate-denying far-right MEPs could pose a “toxic” threat to EU climate policy after the European elections, according to senior MEPs and academics.
Populist parties are expected to take up to a third of the parliamentary seats in Thursday’s vote, with Matteo Salvini’s League in contention to be the largest single party, and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) overtaking Emmanuel Macron’s La République En Marche in some polls.
Cooperation among the fractious far-right forces is far from assured, but those at the centre of an alliance Salvini is trying to craft with Le Pen, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice party (PiS) in Poland view climate action as a potential barrier to fossil fuel-led growth.
With key decisions looming on EU emissions targets, fears are growing that rightwingers could block or water down EU climate action.
Alexander Carius, the director of the Berlin-based Adelphi Institute thinktank, said: “Climate policy is going to be the new battleground between the democratic centre and rightwing populists attacking institutions and questioning the scientific foundation of decision-making. The challenge for democratic parties will be to find an answer to that.”
The UK Labour party’s environment spokesman in the EU parliament, Seb Dance, said: “They [populists] will seek to be disruptors and saboteurs. If they return in sufficient numbers, my fear is that they will act as a magnet moving the political centre to the right.”
A strong populist vote could also “lead to nasty nominations from member states for European commission posts”, he added. “That combination could be quite toxic.”
A bigger number of populist MEPs would win greater visibility and access to resources. They would also have more leverage in battles to select commission officials, committee members, rapporteurs and legislative amendments.
“The tone in discussions is going to change,” Carius warned. “EU climate policy and debate on the level of ambition in the next European parliament will be significantly lowered.”
An Adelphi study in February found populist groups were using the electoral campaign trail to raise tropes of scientific dissent, sovereignty, economic loss and a multilateral global elite to oppose the Paris climate agreement.
The extreme-right Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) bloc had the most negative voting record of any grouping in the last parliament on 22 climate proposals analysed in the study.
Salvini’s League voted against almost all key climate proposals in the last parliament, while RN rejects the United Nations framework convention on climate change as a “communist project”. Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, like Ukip in the UK, denies climate change, arguing that “CO2 is not a pollutant, but an indispensable component of all life”.
Last week, French politicians demanded an inquiry into links between Le Pen’s RN and Donald Trump’s electoral strategist, Steve Bannon, who has described wind turbines as “bird-slicing, bat-chomping eco-crucifixes”.
The backdrop to the EU poll has been one of escalating school climate strikes and protests by groups such as Extinction Rebellion. Surveys show more than three-quarters of Europeans want politicians to prioritise the climate crisis. But populists have profited from the backlash created when such action has targeted poorer constituencies.
Many environmental NGOs believe the greater threat to climate policy comes from centrist and traditional hard-right parties, which have a weak climate record.
The Dutch Green MEP Bas Eickhout said that although the climate crisis would become a more polarised debate in the next parliament, “the real challenge will be with the Christian Democratic right”.
“The European People’s party usually does deals with the Socialists and Democrats but that will likely not be possible this time, as those two blocs won’t have a majority. That’s a good element. I think that the increase in right populists will more and more force the EPP to turn to us for a serious conversation on policy.”
However, Stella Schaller, who co-authored the Adelphi study, said any realignment would take place in the context of far-right groups “trying to create a new culture war and line of conflict on climate change”.
Greece’s neo-fascist Golden Dawn party views the environment as “the cradle of our race, it mirrors our culture and civilisation, and it is therefore our duty to protect it”. Orbán’s Fidesz party has also raised ecological issues, such as the threat posed by invasive species.
Carius said: “Nature conservation and the protection of cultural landscapes that is rooted in the romanticism of the 19th century seems to be very appealing to far-right parties as a way of putting an ideological cloud around the countryside and nation.”