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Far-right extremists could exploit the EU's economic downturn to score a major victory in June's vote

Rising food prices, economic stagnation and deteriorating living standards threaten to push voters into the arms of the far right in European elections later this year, which could upend the political agenda in Brussels.

EU citizens are suffering from multiple crises.

Just as the European Union's economy was recovering from the coronavirus pandemic, Moscow invaded Ukraine in 2022, forcing Europe to look for new energy sources.

This mess led to higher gas and electricity prices, hurting homes and businesses.

Amid the cost of living crisis, Europe's far right has flourished, with the victory of Italy's Giorgia Meloni in 2022 and then Geert Wilders in the Netherlands last year.

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“There is a connection between the rise of populist forces and the economic and financial crises,” said Thierry Chopin, a political scientist at the think tank Jacques Delors Institute.

“The radical right today makes significant use of the feeling of impoverishment” and “very strong pessimism” among voters, Chopin said.

However, inflation is falling, giving European politicians hope that the EU economy will recover after more than a year of zero growth.

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But the improvements will only become apparent after the summer, not in time for the EU-wide elections from June 6th to 9th.

According to the European Parliament's Eurobarometer survey published in December, almost three in four Europeans believe their standard of living will fall this year, while almost one in two say it has already worsened.

About 37 percent of participants reported having difficulty paying their bills.

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In the automotive industry, plant closures are becoming more and more common, especially in Germany.

Between November and January, auto parts maker Bosch announced 2,700 job cuts, while ZF closed a site with 700 employees and Continental announced it would cut thousands of administrative positions.

“German industry is severely affected by high energy prices and is suffering from the electric transition in the automotive industry. At the moment we are not seeing a turnaround in the order books,” said Charlotte de Montpellier, economist at ING Bank.

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Germany has been in recession since last year and the pain in the EU's largest economy is affecting all of Europe.

Spending remains weak due to increased prices.

Record high interest rates set by the European Central Bank to curb inflation are hurting investment and causing real estate markets to stumble. Meanwhile, international trade, weighed down by China's economic slowdown, is unable to offset weak domestic demand.

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“The euro zone economy was stagnant in the (fourth quarter) and we expect it to remain stagnant in the first half of this year as the impact of previous monetary tightening continues to play out and fiscal policy tightens,” Jack Allen-Reynolds told the Capital economics.

The 27 EU member states are also restricted by the bloc's rules on public spending.

For example, France reintroduced an electricity tax in February, driving up prices by almost 10 percent.

“Austerity risks driving a large proportion of our citizens into the arms of the far right because they feel abandoned,” warned EU lawmaker Philippe Lamberts.

Several polls show a sharp rise in far-right parties belonging to the Identity and Democracy (ID) group, including the Marine Le Pen-led Rassemblement National in France, the AfD in Germany, Vlaams Belang in Belgium and the FPÖ in Austria.

The ID group could become the third-largest in the European Parliament, overtaking the liberal Renew group, which is aligned with another emerging radical right group, the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR).

The ECR includes Meloni's party and groups from Poland and Spain.

The “grand coalition” that unites the EPP Conservatives, Social Democrats and Renew “should remain in the majority in the European Parliament, but will undoubtedly be weakened,” said expert Chopin.

According to a study by the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank, the coalition could win 54 percent of seats this year, compared to the 60 percent it currently holds.

The far right is already putting pressure on EU institutions, for example by supporting the farmers' revolt in recent weeks.

If it emerges stronger from the June vote, the far right is likely to push for tougher migration policies and make it even more difficult to pass laws in certain areas, particularly the environment.

The extreme right would also try to block greater integration into the EU.

Hoop/raz/del/rl

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