It would be funny if it weren’t so potentially tragic — and consequential. No, I’m not thinking about Donald Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign but a related development: The latest decisions from the European Union (EU) about Ukraine.
As 2023 ended, European nations failed to agree on a $54-billion package of assistance for Ukraine at a time when that country was desperately trying to stay afloat and continue its fight against Russian occupation forces. Bizarrely, the failure of that proposal coincided with a surprising EU decision to open membership talks with that beleaguered country.
In other words, no military aid for Ukraine in the short term, but a possible offer of a golden ticket to join the EU at some unspecified future moment. Ukrainians might well ask themselves whether, at that point, they’ll still have a country.
One person, right-wing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, is largely responsible for that contradictory combo. He single-handedly blocked the aid package, suggesting that any decision be put off until after European Parliamentary elections in early June of this year. Ever the wily tactician, he expects those elections to signal a political sea change, with conservative and far-right forces — think of them as Donald Trump’s allies in Europe — replacing the parliament’s current centrist consensus. Now an outlier, Orbán is counting on a new crop of sympathetic leaders to advance his arch-conservative social agenda and efforts to cut Ukraine loose.
He’s also deeply skeptical of expanding the EU to include Ukraine or other former Soviet republics, not just because of Russian sensitivities, but for fear that EU funds could be diverted from Hungary to new members in the east. By leaving the room when that December vote on future membership took place, Orbán allowed consensus to prevail, but only because he knew he still had plenty of time to pull the plug on Ukraine’s bid.
Ukrainians remain upbeat despite the aid delay. As their leader Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted about future EU membership, “This is a victory for Ukraine. A victory for all of Europe. A victory that motivates, inspires, and strengthens.”
But even if Orbán’s resistance were to be overcome, a larger challenge looms: the European Union that will make the final determination on Ukraine’s membership may not prove to be the same regional body as at present. While Russia and Ukraine battle it out over where to define Europe’s easternmost frontier, a fierce political conflict is taking place to the west over the very definition of Europe.
In retrospect, the departure of the United Kingdom from the EU in 2020 may prove to have been just a minor speedbump compared to what Europe faces with the war in Ukraine, the recent success of far-right parties in Italy and the Netherlands, and the prospect that, after the next election, a significantly more conservative European Parliament could at the very least slow the roll-out of the European Green Deal.
And worse yet, a full-court press from the far right might even spell the end of the Europe that has long shimmered on the horizon as a greenish-pink ideal. The extinguishing of the one consistent success story of our era — particularly if Donald Trump were also to win the 2024 U.S. presidential election — could challenge the very notion of progress that’s at the heart of any progressive agenda.
For decades, Dutch firebrand Geert Wilders, leader of the far-right Party for Freedom, has regularly garnered headlines for his outrageous statements and proposals to ban Islam, the Quran, and/or immigrants altogether. In the run-up to the November 2023 parliamentary elections in the Netherlands, it looked as if he would continue to be an eternal also-ran with a projected vote total in the mid to upper teens. In addition to the usual obstacles he faced, like the lunacy of his platform, he was up against a reputed political powerhouse in Frans Timmermans, the architect of Europe’s Green Deal and the newly deputized leader of the Dutch center-left coalition.
To everyone’s surprise, however, Wilders’s party exceeded expectations, leading the field with 23% of the vote and more than doubling the number of Party for Freedom seats in the new parliament.
Although mainstream European parties had historically been reluctant to form governments with the far right, some have now opportunistically chosen to do so. Far-right parties now serve in governments in Sweden and Finland, while leading coalitions in Italy and Slovakia.
Wilders, too, wants to lead. He’s even withdrawn a 2018 bill to ban mosques and the Quran in an effort to woo potential partners. Such gestures toward the center have also characterized the strategy of Giorgia Meloni, the head of the far-right Brothers of Italy party, who downplayed its fascist roots and pledged to support both NATO and the EU to win enough centrist backing to become Italy’s current prime minister.
But what happens if there’s no longer a political center that must be wooed?
That’s been the case in Hungary since Viktor Orbán took over as prime minister in 2010. He has systematically dismantled judicial, legislative, and constitutional checks on his power, while simultaneously marginalizing his political opposition. Nor does he have to compromise with the center, since it’s effectively dropped out of Hungarian politics — and he and his allies are eager to export their Hungarian model to the rest of Europe. Worse yet, they’ve got a strong tailwind. In 2024, the far-right is on track to win elections in both Austria and Belgium, while Marine Le Pen’s far-right party leads the polls in France and the equally intemperate, anti-immigrant Alternative fur Deutschland is running a strong second to the center-right in Germany.
No less ominously, the Identity and Democracy bloc, which includes the major French and German far-right parties, is projected to gain more than two dozen seats in the European parliamentary elections this June. The European Conservatives and Reformists bloc, which contains the Finnish, Polish, Spanish, and Swedish far-right parties, will also probably pick up a few seats. Throw in unaffiliated representatives from Orbán’s Fidesz party and that bloc could become the largest in the European parliament, even bigger than the center-right coalition currently at the top of the polls.
Such developments only further fuel Orbán’s transnational ambitions. Instead of being the odd man out on votes over Ukrainian aid, he wants to transform the European Union with himself at the center of a new status quo. “Brussels is not Moscow,” he tweeted in October. “The Soviet Union was a tragedy. The EU is only a weak contemporary comedy. The Soviet Union was hopeless, but we can change Brussels and the EU.”
With such a strategy, wittingly or not, Orbán is following the Kremlin playbook. Russian President Vladimir Putin has long wanted to undercut European unity as part of an effort to divide the West. With that in mind, he forged alliances with far-right political parties like Italy’s Lega and Austria’s Freedom Party to sow havoc in European politics. His careful cultivation of Orbán has made Hungary functionally his country’s European proxy.
Not all of Europe has jumped on the far-right bandwagon. Voters in Poland last year even kicked out the right-wing Law and Justice party, while the far right lost big in the latest Spanish elections. Also, far-right parties are notoriously hard to herd and forging a consensus among them will undoubtedly prove difficult on issues like NATO, LGBTQ rights, and economic policy.
Still, on one key issue they’re now converging. They used to disagree on whether to support leaving the EU, Brexit-style, or staying to fight. Now, they largely favor a take-over-from-within strategy. And to make that happen, they’ve coalesced around two key issues: the strengthening of “Fortress Europe” to keep out those fleeing the Global South and frontally assaulting that cornerstone of recent EU policy, the Green energy transition.
The fate of the Green New Deal
In Germany, the far right has gone after, of all things, the heat pump. The Alternative fur Deutschland’s campaign against a bill last year to replace fossil-fuel heating systems with electrical heat pumps propelled the party into second place in the polls (thanks to an exaggeration of the cost of such pumps). The French far right is also on the political rise, fueled in part by its opposition to what its leader Marine Le Pen, in a manifesto issued in 2022, called “an ecology that has been hijacked by climate terrorism, which endangers the planet, national independence and, more importantly, the living standards of the French people.” In the Netherlands, Wilders and the far right have similarly benefited from a farmer backlash against proposals to reduce nitrogen pollution.
A report from the Center for American Progress concludes that European far-right groups “frame environmental policies as elitist while stoking economic anxiety and nationalism, which erodes trust in democratic institutions and further distracts from genuine environmental concerns.” Researchers from the University of Bergen in Norway are even more pointed: “Populist far-right parties portray fossil fuel phase-out as a threat to traditional family values, regional identity, and national sovereignty.”
The European far right, in other words, is mobilizing behind a second Great Replacement theory. According to the initial version of that conspiracy theory, which helped a first wave of right-wing populists take power a few years ago, immigrants were plotting to replace indigenous, mostly white populations in Europe. Now, extremists argue that clean green energy is fast replacing the fossil fuels that anchor traditional (read: white Christian) European communities. This “fossil fascism,” as Andreas Malm and the Zetkin Collective have labeled it, marries extractivism to ethnonationalism, with right-wing whites clinging to oil and coal as tightly as Barack Obama once accused their American counterparts of clinging to guns and religion.
Believers in this second Great Replacement theory have demonized the European Green Deal, which is dedicated to reducing carbon emissions 55% by 2030. The overall deal is a sophisticated industrial policy designed to create jobs in the clean energy sector that will replace those lost by miners, oil riggers, and pipeline workers. However urgently needed, the Deal doesn’t come cheap and so is vulnerable to charges of “elitism.”
Worse yet, the backlash against Europe’s Green turn has expanded to efforts in the European Parliament to block pesticide reduction and weaken legislation on the reduction of packaging. As a result of this backlash, Politico notes, “The Green Deal now limps on, with several key policies on the scrapheap.” A rightward shift in the European Parliament would knock the Green Deal to the ground (and even kick it while down), ensuring a further disastrous heating of this planet.
The war of ideas
The war in Ukraine seems to be about the territory Russia has occupied, the fight over the European Green Deal about politics and the far right’s search for an issue as effective as immigrant-bashing to rally voters. At the center of both struggles, however, is something far more significant. From Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin to Marine Le Pen at the reactionary barricades in Paris, the far right is fighting over the very future of European ideals.
Narrowly, that debate is just the latest iteration of a longstanding question about whether Europe should emphasize expanding its membership or the deeper integration of the present EU. Until now, the compromise has been to set a distinctly high bar for EU membership but provide generous subsidies to the lucky few countries that make it into the club. By turning a cold shoulder to a neighbor in need, after having benefited enormously from EU largess since the 1990s, Hungary is challenging that core principle of solidarity.
But Orbán and his allies have a far more radical mission in mind: to transform European identity. Right now, Europe stands for extensive social programs that even right-wing parties are reluctant to consider dismantling. The European Union has also advanced the world’s most consequential collective program on a green energy transition. And despite some backlash, it remains a welcoming space for the LGBTQ community.
In other words, the EU is still a beacon for progressives around the world (notwithstanding the neoliberal reforms that are regressively remaking its economic space). It remains an aspirational space for the countries on Europe’s borders that yearn to escape autocracy and relative poverty. It’s similarly so for people in distant lands who imagine Europe as an ark of salvation in an increasingly illiberal world, and even for U.S. progressives who are envious of European health care and industrial policies, as well as its environmental regulations. That the EU’s policies are also the product of vigorous transnational politicking has also been inspirational for internationalists who want stronger cross-border cooperation to help solve global problems.
In the late 1980s, as the Warsaw Pact disintegrated and the Soviet Union began to fall apart, political scientist Francis Fukuyama imagined an “end of history.” The hybrid of market democracy, he argued, would be the answer to all ideological debates and the European Union would serve as the boring, bureaucratic endpoint of global political evolution. Since the invasion of Ukraine, however, history is not only back, but seems to be going backward.
The far right is at the forefront of that retreat. Even as the EU contemplates expansion eastward, a revolt from within threatens to bring about the end of Europe itself — the end, that is, of the liberal and tolerant social welfare state, of a collective commitment to economic solidarity, and of its leading role in addressing climate change. The battle between a democratic Ukraine and the autocratic Russian petrostate is, in other words, intimately connected to the conflicts being waged in Brussels.
Without a vibrant, democratic Ukraine, the eastern frontier of Europe abutting Russia is likely to become a zone of fragile, divided, incoherent “nation states,” hard-pressed to qualify for EU membership. Without a powerful left defending Europe’s gold-standard social safety nets, libertarians are likely to advance their attempts to eat away at or eliminate the regulatory state. Without Europe’s lead, global efforts to address climate change will grow dangerously more diffuse.
Sound familiar? That’s also the agenda of the far-right in the United States, led by Donald Trump. His MAGA boosters, like media personalities Tucker Carlson and Steve Bannon, have been pulling for Viktor Orbán, Geert Wilders, and Vladimir Putin to send Europe spiraling backward into fascism.
Short on resources and political power, progressives have always possessed one commodity in bulk: Hope. The arc of the moral universe is long, Martin Luther King, Jr., prophesied so many years ago, but it bends toward justice. Or maybe it doesn’t. Take away the European ideal and no matter what happens in the American presidential election this year, 2024 will be the year that hope dies last.
Read Tom Engelhardt’s response here.