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How European Parliament elections could impact the Middle East

With elections for the European Parliament due to take place from 6-9 June, most polls are predicting the same thing: the far-right is set to make huge gains.

This could see far-right political parties occupying a considerably larger share of parliament seats than ever before, building on gains in the 2019 elections.

On the night of 9 June, a general picture of this new political balance will start to emerge. Although it has limited influence when compared to member states’ national parliaments, the European Parliament’s composition will have an impact on the EU’s foreign policy and its relations with the Middle East and North Africa. 

“The EU’s relations with the Middle East and North Africa are implicitly discussed when the public debate focuses on migration and the arrival of refugees in Europe”

The next European Commission president

After the vote, it will likely be several weeks before we know who the President of the European Commission and their 26 commissioners will be. The President of the Commission will be proposed by the European Council, where the 27 heads of government are represented. After lengthy horse-trading behind closed doors, the European Parliament will have to ratify the Commission President, and later, the commissioners.

The incumbent Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is the frontrunner to preside over the Commission until 2029. Aware that neither the left-wing bloc nor most far-right parties will support her candidacy, she has opened the door to negotiating her re-election with some far-right parties, such as the Brothers of Italy, the party of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. Such a move would be a repudiation of what the EU claims to stand for.

In her youth, the Italian premier openly declared herself an admirer of Italian fascist dictator and Nazi ally Benito Mussolini. Brothers of Italy itself has neo-fascist roots. Once in power, Meloni has become a threat to press freedom in Italy and compromised the rights of LGBTQ people.

Von der Leyen has turned a blind eye to these unsavoury details about Meloni, also approving Italy’s agreement with non-EU Albania to transfer migrants rescued by the Italian authorities to the Balkan country, where their asylum requests are supposed to be resolved by Italian officials in two detention centres. 

There is one main reason why von der Leyen is ready to work with Meloni at the European Parliament but not with most other far-right political parties: the Italian premier, contrary to, for instance, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, has emerged as a strong supporter of NATO and its policy of military assistance to Ukraine in its war against Russia.

The Social Democratic and Liberal groups in the European Parliament, who supported von der Leyen in her election in 2019, have promised she will not receive their votes again if she reaches out to the far-right. This is also the position of the European Greens, who did not back von der Leyen in 2019 but may have the votes that can tip the balance this time. 

The Gaza war

Von der Leyen has overseen intense diplomatic activity during her five years as Commission President. Much of her attention has been devoted to the Ukraine war, but she also visited Mauritania, Tunisia, and Egypt – in her trips to Tunis and Cairo, accompanied by Meloni – to sign migration agreements with these countries.

But no trip was probably more controversial than her visit to Israel on 13 October last year, which was not preceded by consultations with EU member states or the EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell.

During her visit, von der Leyen offered condolences for the 1,200 people killed in the Hamas attack against Israel on 7 October but did not issue any call for restraint on the Israeli government’s war. At that point, 1,400 Gazans had already been killed.

This was only the beginning of a not-so-disguised clash between von der Leyen and Borrell. The latter has represented the most critical voice within the EU institutions regarding Israel’s war conduct in Gaza. Borrell is not going to remain in his position in the new Commission, and he is likely to be replaced by someone closer to von der Leyen’s stance on the war in Gaza. 

Josep Borrell, Europe’s outgoing foreign-policy chief, has been one of the most critical voices of Israel’s war on Gaza. He will likely be replaced by someone with views closer to Ursula von der Leyen. [Getty]

The war has become a topic in election campaigns across Europe ahead of this weekend’s vote, although it is unlikely to play a decisive role. In Spain, for instance, the right-wing Popular Party and the far-right Vox party have attacked Spanish President Pedro Sánchez for his government’s decision to recognise Palestine as a state in late May. 

This is hardly a winning strategy for the Popular Party, however, because the majority of the Spanish population support the recognition of Palestine, and around a third of the right-wing electoral base does as well, according to a recent poll. Santiago Abascal, the leader of Vox – whose voters are the least likely to support Palestine’s recognition – met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week.

Meanwhile, the ongoing war in Gaza has generated divisions within the left-wing bloc in the French parliament. Some of the parties in this diverse group have criticised Netanyahu while overall expressing support for Israel’s response to the 7 October attacks.

Other left-wing parties have launched more comprehensive criticism against the denial of humanitarian aid to Gaza and the seemingly never-ending attacks that have killed at least 36,439 Gazans, with over 80,000 injured people. Since the different parties of the French left-wing bloc are running for the European Parliament separately, their political stances on the war in Gaza have become a differentiating factor. 


The EU’s relations with the Middle East and North Africa are also implicitly discussed when the public debate focuses on migration and the arrival of refugees in Europe. Afraid of losing votes to the radical right, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) – the largest group in the European Parliament and political home of von der Leyen – approved a manifesto for the elections that seeks to take the wind out of the far-right’s sails. 

The EPP calls for tripling the staff of Frontex, the European border agency accused of multiple human rights violations. It also pays lip service to the right of asylum before presenting proposals that would finish off such a right if implemented. The EPP wants to transfer asylum seekers who reach the EU to what the parliamentary group calls “third safe countries” for processing of their asylum claims. 

The EPP’s project presents strong similarities with the Rwanda Plan promoted by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Remarkably, the EPP has not even committed to accepting those who would be granted asylum outside EU borders. Instead, “a quota of people in need of protection” would be admitted into the EU. 

“With elections for the European Parliament due to take place from 6-9 June, most polls are predicting the same thing: the far-right is set to make huge gains”

The identity of the “third safe countries” remains undetermined in the manifesto. The same happened when 15 EU countries – some of them, such as Denmark, headed by Social Democratic leaders – called for similar plans in May 2024. There is an obvious lack of third countries willing to collaborate.

Still, it appears that the countries some European politicians have in mind as possible external centres for the processing of asylum claims would be those that have reached migration control agreements with the European Commission during the last year – Tunisia, Mauritania, and Egypt. Under these agreements, the three countries have received economic support in exchange for preventing migrants and asylum seekers from reaching Europe. 

A recent investigation by a consortium of international journalists provides some clues on how this new tranche of EU funds for migration control might be spent. The reporting shows how, over the years, EU funds have been used to fund governmental agencies in Morocco, Tunisia, and Mauritania that detain migrants and asylum seekers in both land and sea routes before dumping them in the desert, where they suffer hunger, thirst, sexual violence, and sometimes die. 

Migration policy will feature heavily in the new parliament’s agenda, with several pacts recently signed with Middle Eastern countries to stop refugees and migrants. [Getty]

The Social Democratic and Liberal manifestos for the European elections do not include the processing of asylum requests in third countries. The two groups, however, recently supported a series of measures collectively known as the New Pact on Migration and Asylum. The agreement, alongside other proposals, allows the suspension of some basic rights if EU countries receive a “mass influx” of migrants and asylum-seekers. European officials will also have permission to collect biometric data from children as young as six. 

The migration pact represents the latest iteration of Fortress Europe, the illusion that the continent can keep out those fleeing conflict, the effects of climate change, and economic poverty, often made worse by Europe’s unequal commercial relations with neighbouring regions. The proponents of the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, however, presented it as a key step to stopping the far-right by showing that the EU can reach agreements on migration.

Meanwhile, political parties who put human rights and, more specifically, the right to asylum, at the centre of their policy proposals regarding migration, find themselves on the defensive. The European Greens, who voted against most parts of the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, and the left-wing bloc, that voted against all of them, are expected to lose seats in the next European Parliament. 

Von der Leyen might finally have the numbers to remain Commission President with a support base similar to the one it enjoyed in 2019, or successfully reach out to the European Greens. On the face of it, this would be a positive development.

At the same time, however, it would also make it easier for far-right parties in the European Parliament to continue to present themselves as political outsiders while pushing the debate even further to the right. 

The New Pact on Migration and Asylum has already shown how other parties have been willing to meet the far-right halfway in their maximalist demands. And all the while, the far-right will have direct influence over policy due to their presence in the European Council.

The new government coalition in the Netherlands, with the far-right Party for Freedom as the strongest political group, might join forces with the Italian government in the European Council.

If the polls prove accurate, a new wall in Fortress Europe will be built after this weekend’s elections.

Marc Martorell Junyent is a graduate of International Relations and holds an MA in Comparative and Middle East Politics and Society from the University of Tübingen (Germany). He has been published in the London School of Economics Middle East Blog, Middle East Monitor, Inside Arabia, Responsible Statecraft and Global Policy. 

Follow him on Twitter: @MarcMartorell3

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