The ultimate goal of the AfD and other parties, of course, remains the same: to return more decision-making power from the EU to the national level, particularly on policies related to refugees and migration. Were these parties to get their way, the EU would be gutted of all but its most basic duties—and after decades of greater integration and moves toward an “ever closer union,” the trajectory of Europe would turn back to having countries fend far more for themselves.
“None of them want to come across as crazy right-wing populists anymore—they all want to come across as serious politicians that represent the main right-wing party of their country,” Catherine Fieschi, the executive director of Counterpoint, a London-based think tank, told me. “They’ve all gone from deciding the best thing they could do is agitate and say outrageous stuff, to realizing … their best bet is actually to use [the EU] to make sure that they graduate to the next step, of legitimate politician.”
Read: A new European political bloc wants to dismantle Europe
Europe has had a difficult decade: Two major crises, one financial and one migration-related, have helped fuel euroskeptic rhetoric and given rise to parties that espouse it. After the 2008 financial crisis, the EU’s decision to bail out debt-ridden countries such as Greece helped bring about anti-euro movements. And when an influx of refugees arrived in Europe in 2015 and 2016, the resulting debate over who—if anyone—should take them in became the primary mobilizing issue for far-right parties.
Running as a euroskeptic in European Parliament elections seems, at first glance, a bit counterintuitive. If a party favors getting rid of EU structures entirely, why is it fielding candidates to serve in one of the bloc’s main institutions? When leaders of these groups have an answer to that question, they’ve suggested that as long as the EU exists, a seat at the table is better than being left standing on the outside. But contradictions aside, euroskeptic, far-right parties have typically performed well in European elections, benefiting from low turnout and a core base of energized supporters ready to air their grievances.
Still, the tide has changed since the last time these parties ran a European-level campaign—public support for the EU remains fairly high in many of their respective countries, and the ongoing Brexit saga makes replicating Britain’s path less palatable. In a Eurobarometer survey last fall, a record 68 percent of EU residents said that being part of the bloc has benefited their respective countries.
When Le Pen ran for president of France in 2017, opponents painted her as the potential destroyer of the EU. Anti-EU rhetoric, and especially her proposal to leave the euro zone, played a pivotal role in her campaign pitch. But after flopping in a televised debate when asked how her plan to ditch the euro would actually work, Le Pen paid the price at the polls, losing to now-President Emmanuel Macron by 32 points. After the election, she vowed to lead a “deep transformation” of her party and acknowledged that her strategy on Europe hadn’t helped. “We have heard the French people,” she said later that year. “In numerous areas it is possible to improve the daily life of the French without quitting Europe or the euro currency.”