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Europe’s far right won ground in the EU elections. Can they unite to wield power?

BRUSSELS — (AP) — The next European Parliament will have more hard-right members than ever before, occupying close to a quarter of the 720 seats. But they will have to overcome differences if they want to maximize their influence on the EU policies that roil their constituents: migration, climate rules and farming.

The loose centrist coalition that has controlled the European Union's only directly elected body for decades maintained a narrow majority in last week's voting. But stunning results by far-right parties in France, Germany and beyond have jolted the bloc, which was founded after the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.

Parties such as France's National Rally, the Brothers of Italy, and Alternative for Germany (AfD) must work together to have a significant impact on EU policy.

Their members are currently spread across different groups in the European Parliament: the nationalist European Conservatives and Reformists, the Identity and Democracy Group — home to the most hard-right factions — plus a large number of unaligned parties.

Under the latest projections Tuesday, the European Conservatives and Reformists will have 73 lawmakers and Identity and Democracy will have 58. The currently unaligned AfD should have 15 members, and Hungary’s ultranationalist Fidesz will have 11.

AfD, which is under surveillance in Germany for suspected extremism, booted out controversial MEP Maximilian Krah this week in a bid to get back into the Identity and Democracy Group.

Russia vs. Ukraine — the far-right’s major schism

Bundling disparate forces across 27 EU countries won’t be simple, especially because of deep-set divisions over the war in Ukraine. European Conservatives and Reformists politicians closely back Kyiv, in line with mainstream EU policy, while Identity and Democracy Group members tend to be pro-Russian.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whose party has neo-fascist roots, has successfully courted mainstream conservatives with strong support for Ukraine and NATO, while repeatedly rallying the right to unite. She has presided over a broad right-wing coalition in Rome for almost two years and has emerged as the European far-right's biggest power broker.

As well as deepening ties with center-right European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Meloni has reached out to Marine Le Pen of France's National Rally, the biggest face in the generally more radical Identity and Democracy Group.

Another key player is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán — a close ally of former U.S. President Donald Trump and the closest EU ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin — who has put the brakes on numerous EU aid packages for Kyiv.

Orbán was forced out of von der Leyen’s European People’s Party in 2021 because of a clash of values. Identity and Democracy has invited Fidesz to join their ranks, though Orbán has expressed interest in joining European Conservatives and Reformists. His position on Ukraine makes that unlikely.

Le Pen and Meloni — an uneasy rapprochement

Le Pen, who is more staunchly anti-EU and anti-establishment, previously slammed Meloni for her proximity to von der Leyen. But she has softened, as part of a broader National Rally rebranding over the past decade to appeal to a wider public. Traditionally, the party has close ties to Russia.

The two grandes dames of the European far right differ on social issues. Meloni’s government has pursued policies supporting “traditional” family models that LGBTQ activists in Italy have slammed as discriminatory.

By contrast, Le Pen has tried to distance herself from the antisemitism, racism and homophobia of the party her father founded 50 years ago. In recent years, she dropped a pledge to revoke equal marriage rights and hired several top political advisors who are gay. She also backed France enshrining abortion as a constitutional right last year.

Unity tricky but not prerequisite for influence

Despite their differences, the far-right parties do share political goals, such as curbing immigration and further sealing the bloc’s borders. They also want to curb the EU’s more ambitious flagship climate policies, which the radical right has widely slammed for shunting unfair costs onto drivers and farmers.

Sophia Russack, a researcher from the Center for European Policy Studies think tank, believes the three camps will nevertheless probably stay divided rather than team up.

“Seat numbers are not everything. It matters a lot in the European Parliament how united you are,” Russack told the Associated Press.

“In a parliament you need 50% to make and to shape decisions. So they won’t decide. But of course, what they can do is to set a different tone, to change the narrative and to slowly kind of normalize their far-right thinking and far-right stances,” she said.

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Associated Press reporter Lorne Cook contributed.

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