The Conservative Resurgence Across the Atlantic

What’s causing European voters to embrace a more conservative approach?

The conservative People’s Party won the most seats in Sunday’s Spanish elections, continuing a rightward trend across Europe. Image Credit: Oscar del Pozo/AFP/Getty Images

Europe’s rightward turn has continued in Spain following Sunday’s elections, albeit with more limited success than had been projected. The center-right People’s Party (PP) won the most seats in the election but far from enough to secure a majority on its own or to form a coalition alone with the conservative Vox party (as preelection polling indicated as a possibility). Vox came in third, losing 19 seats in a disappointing showing. PP performed well but in hammering Vox on the campaign trail, it helped suppress the total of its likeliest ally.

Victorious. People’s Party leader Alberto Nunez Feijoo (left) celebrates following Sunday’s Spanish elections. Image Credit: Oscar del Pozo/AFP/Getty Images

Pedro Sánchez, the current prime minister leading a caretaker government, is personally unpopular and thus sought to frame the election as a choice between his Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and the “far right.” PSOE came in second and has framed the results as a “success” in having done better than projected despite losing to PP.

It is unlikely (although not impossible) for either PP or PSOE to form a majority government. PP seems intent on attempting to find support for a minority government, and PSOE will seek to limp across the finish to a majority with support from the far-left Sumar grouping and the support of Basque, Catalan and Galician separatist parties (an arduous and politically fraught undertaking).

The most likely outcome is a continued caretaker government until new elections are held either later this year or in early 2024. Even if a PP-led minority government or a discordant PSOE majority should attain office, it would be weak and likely short-lived.

Despite PP and Vox collectively falling six seats short of a majority, a party from the right came out on top, continuing a major trend across Europe: a consistent preference for conservative parties, upending policy at home and abroad.

A European Trend

Several recent elections across the continent have seen European voters moving to the right. In March, Estonia’s center-right Reform Party led by Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, one of the Kremlin’s most outspoken opponents in Europe, easily won reelection. In April, Finnish voters brought a conservative coalition government to office in an election that moved on domestic issues. In June, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of the center-right New Democracy party won reelection in a landslide.

This year’s electoral trends in Europe are a continuation of conservative victories in 2022. Last September’s Swedish elections saw a conservative coalition led by the center-right Moderate party sweep to power for the first time since 2014. The Moderates formed a minority government with the backing of the populist Sweden Democrats, breaking a national-level taboo of entering a coalition with the populists.

The trend isn’t absolute, but it is telling that the exceptions are not only few but contain unique caveats. In Danish elections last November, for example, the Social Democrats retained power but the makeup of their coalition shifted from a coalition with three parties of the left, to the nation’s first left-right coalition in 40 years. Two center-right parties, Venstre and the Moderate Coalition Party, joined with the Social Democrats to give Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen a “practical majority.” While Venstre showed poorly in the election, losing 20 seats, the emergence of the Moderates and Social Democrats marked an expansion of the conservative electorate. The populist Denmark Democrats formed after splitting from Venstre, and the Moderates were founded just months prior to the election by Lars Løkke Rasmussen, a popular former Venstre leader.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron won reelection in April 2022 over Marine Le Pen’s fringe National Rally. Macron’s only serious opposition came from the flanks, the far-right National Rally and a left-wing bloc that brought together a group of radical leftist parties. Since former President Nicolas Sarkozy left office in 2012, French conservatives, represented by Les Républicains, have been unable to reaffirm their footing. Its supporters have been cannibalized by both Le Pen on the right and Macron on the center-left. Yet Les Républicains remain a force in parliament, with Macron’s minority government relying on their support in the National Assembly.

On the federal level, opinion polls show the center-right European People’s Party grouping well ahead of the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in European Union parliamentary elections to be held in June 2024. The conservative European Conservatives and Reformists group is running even with the centrist Renew Europe group for third. The main question ahead of EU elections is not whether the European People’s Party comes out on top, but whether it tries to establish a conservative coalition with European Conservatives and Reformists, or whether they attempt to establish a grand right-left coalition with the Socialists and Democrats.

Even in Germany, where the center-right Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) and its sister Christian Social Union in Bavaria, lost power to the Social Democratic Party of Germany in 2021, the right is again on the rise. The CDU is currently first in national polls, running nine points ahead of the third-place Social Democratic Party, with the nationalist and now largely eastern party, Alternative for Germany, rising to second. Another indicator of conservative resurgence in Germany was CDU’s victory in February’s Berlin elections. A sea change, it was the first time CDU had won elections in Berlin since 1999 and the first time it held the position of mayor since 2001.

Perhaps the most striking example of the conservative resurgence in Europe is Italy, where Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who took office last October, has proven herself not only a stabilizing force within Italian politics but also an increasingly important politician in Europe. Prime Minister Meloni helped broker the recent EU-Tunisian Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement. The agreement provides Tunisia with millions of euros in aid and access to future loans in exchange for combatting migration. It is “an important new step in dealing with the migration crisis in an integrated way,” Meloni said. The thinking goes that stabilizing the Tunisian economy will make it a more appealing place for migrants to remain and ease the pathway for future deportation of migrants back to Tunisia.

Why Is Europe Turning Rightward?

While it would be too simplistic to entirely distill each unique national election down to a list of ingredients that have fueled the conservative reemergence, certain common factors play a key role. Unsurprisingly, migration is a major policy issue that has propelled many conservatives to office. The failure of ruling parties—often, though not exclusively, on the left—to adequately address the migration issue has left voters in search of politicians who will implement solutions.

In Italy, it is a key priority of the government. This is unsurprising as the central Mediterranean route is the most active migration route to Europe, with more than 76,000 migrants arriving in Italy this year from Algeria, Libya and Tunisia. A further 14,000 migrants have arrived in Spain via the western Mediterranean route principally from Morocco, and nearly 10,000 migrants have landed in Greece, smuggled from Turkey.

In June, EU leaders put forward a migration deal over the objections of Hungary and Poland—a deal that would see the EU relocate around 30,000 migrants a year from southern nations across the continent. Countries would need to either accept a yearly quota of migrants or pay a whopping 20,000 euros for each person not accepted. These funds would be deposited into a collective pot that the EU would use to finance projects abroad seeking to stem migration at the point of embarkation to Europe. Ironically, while it ultimately abstained from the vote, Italy—as the principal nation for migrant arrivals—strongly supports mandatory relocations within the EU. That puts the conservative Meloni government at odds with other conservative governments in Budapest and Warsaw that bristle at the idea of being forced to accept migrants they view as difficult to assimilate and a threat to their distinct national cultures. The migration deal still needs to make its way through the EU Parliament, and it will certainly face obstacles emanating from both the left and the right.

Tackling migration has been a key component of many conservative party platforms in Europe. In Greece, Prime Minister Mitsotakis ran in part on a pledge to extend a border wall with Turkey. The Italian government has cracked down on smugglers and supposed “charity ships” operating in the Mediterranean. The issue is complicated by Europe’s chronic low birth rate and need for workers. Italy, for instance, has increased the number of work visas issued for non-EU citizens. However, unbridled migration hasn’t solved Europe’s manpower issues in the past and is unlikely to solve those of the future. “Despite Germany receiving millions of refugees from Afghanistan, Syria and Ukraine in recent years, businesses there complain that they still need more skilled migrants because refugees are hard to train and integrate. Only around 100,000 of the roughly one million Ukrainians in Germany have a job,” one recent news report noted.

The recent collapse of the Dutch government over plans to stem the flow of asylum seekers to the Netherlands shows how migration is a hot-button issue across Europe, driving voters to the polls in search of solutions. Dutch elections will be held in November. The left is weak, and I expect conservative parties to do well.

It is not just the desire of voters for a more stringent approach to migration that is fueling conservative political victories in Europe. There is also a growing backlash to the left overplaying its hand, not dissimilar to the way things are in the United States. In many European nations, governments of the left—and in some cases, the center-right—have sought to impose a particular leftist agenda on the country without voters’ consent. The Netherlands, for instance, has been continuously rocked by protests over center-right Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s plans to limit ammonia and nitrogen emissions to hit aggressive climate targets. Another nation led by a center-right government, Ireland, is reportedly considering a cull of up to 65,000 dairy cows a year to help the nation meet its climate targets. This madness has been met by protests from farmers. The plan, especially if it’s followed through on, will likely affect future Irish elections. Many governments in Europe, including some of the center-right, have embraced a tunnel vision approach toward meeting climate targets, even at the risk of undermining security.

Leading the charge. Sworn in last October, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni is among the leaders of Europe’s conservative resurgence. Image Credit: Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

Another area of overreach fueling conservative voting patterns is the enactment of left-leaning social agendas. For example, two recent social laws—one allowing anyone over 16 to change their gender without medical evaluation, and one allowing minors to obtain an abortion without parental permission—were front-and-center in the Spanish campaign. Social issues were a key reason why Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia party came out on top in Italy. She is not shy about pushing back against “gender-based ideology” and other leftist social beliefs, unabashedly describing herself as a woman, a mother, an Italian and a Christian. Due to their stance on social issues, some rising conservative parties like Italy’s Fratelli d’Italia and Spain’s Vox have been unfairly caricatured as “far-right.” That is simply untrue, as I wrote in these pages regarding Prime Minister Meloni, “despite much ink spilled referring to the government as ‘far-right,’ it is rather a conservative government with a conservative rather than a radical policy agenda.”

Indeed, the conservative resurgence in Europe rests on three issues: 1) the continued conundrum of unbridled migration and difficulty in assimilating new arrivals, 2) pushback against government overreach on climate and social agendas and 3) bread-and-butter economic issues. On that final point, Finland’s new government, after winning the election on these domestic economic issues, is focusing on enacting a series of labor reforms and spending cuts. In Spain, despite one of Europe’s fastest growing economies, unemployment remains the highest in the Eurozone. Jobs and the economy will play a role in propelling conservatives.

Most Americans, saturated by politics at home, are unlikely to have noticed the winning streak of conservatives abroad. I anticipate that, as in Spain, the right will continue to remain ascendent in many European capitals. To what degree new governments pursue and are successful in enacting conservative policies in places like Madrid remains to be seen. But voters are giving conservatives a chance to lead. They will undoubtedly expect results.

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