22 September 2022

The European Union and the far right: letting the wolf into the fold

How has the European Parliament, one of the main institutions of the European Union, protected itself institutionally against the far right and against those it considers a threat to its very existence? Christin Tonne shows in her doctoral ethnography how the far right has become an integral part of EU politics with the backing of mainstream political parties. 

How did you come to choose your research topic?

Before starting the PhD, I worked as a parliamentary assistant for a Member of the European Parliament from the Greens in Brussels. During this time, the then French National Front headed by Marine Le Pen had just managed to form the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF), a political group in the European Parliament with other like-minded far-right parties such as the Italian Northern League and the Dutch Party for Freedom. Previously, Le Pen had scored a landslide victory in the European Parliament elections in 2014. At the time, this seemed to confirm what many spectators in public policy, academia and the news media called a “rise of the far right” in Europe.

Observing how the presence of the ENF changed certain political dynamics in the European Parliament and observing how each political group seemed to deal with it differently (from straight-out denial of their very existence to close cooperation), I was intrigued. I wanted to better understand these dynamics and the complexity behind the political business surrounding new players on the institutional political scene, such as Marine Le Pen and her political group. Based on this curiosity, I started my research as anthropologist at the Geneva Graduate Institute. My initial idea was to closely follow Le Pen’s political group in its everyday parliamentary business to better understand how they carried out their parliamentary mandates. What I came to realise rather quickly was that due to various reasons, the far right was not very present in everyday parliamentary politics in the European Parliament. What I found rather striking instead was how Parliament institutionally reacted to and mobilised against the ENF and like-minded political parties within the parliamentary context. This is how I became interested in the responses of Parliament and traditional political groups to the far right rather than in the far right as such, and so decided to focus my research on the “system side” instead of on the far right. In essence, I wanted to contribute to the broader discussion on a known political paradox: how do democracies and democratic institutions “tolerate the intolerant in their midst?” (Downs 2012, 1).

Can you describe your thesis questions and methodology?

At the core, I asked how the European Parliament has protected itself against far-right actors at the EU level. To answer this question, I traced the nature of confrontation between EU institutional actors and the far right in the European Parliament since 1979. Each chapter then tackled a different aspect of the confrontation between institutional actors and the far right in the European Parliament. For instance, I looked at how the introduction of direct elections in 1979 prepared the way for far-right political parties to enter the European stage. I then turned to subversive actions in plenary to analyse how members of far-right political parties have been using and abusing Parliament’s rules of procedure for visibility and provocation. In another chapter, I looked at informal agreements within and between political groups not to cooperate with Marine Le Pen’s ENF, how this played out in practice and which dilemmas actors encountered in the process. Last but not least, I then dealt with the far right at the centre of mainstream Christian Democratic politics. Here, I focussed on the internal political quarrels of the Christian Democrat group in relation to one of its member parties, the Hungarian Fidesz. Fidesz as the ruling party in Hungary has been openly challenging the democratic principles and fundamental values upon which the European Union is based. Yet, it has been supported by the biggest political group in the European Parliament, the Christian Democrats.

In collecting my research material, I spent many hours in the European Parliament microcosmos, attending formal and informal meetings, discussions and debates. I joined receptions, lunch seminars, as well as plenary debates. I also spent time observing the businesses and meeting people in the various cafés and restaurants in the European Parliament. Outside of Brussels, I attended events and conferences organised by different far-right parties in Germany, France and Belgium. 

The bulk of my fieldwork consisted of formal and informal interviews with people in all kinds of positions across Parliament, such as Members of the European Parliament (so-called MEPs), parliamentary assistants, political advisors, staff in political groups and Parliament’s administration, the driver service, media centre staff, and people working in the European Commission and Council. These interviews really helped me to obtain a better understanding of the respective roles, motivations and perceptions of far-right parliamentary politics. In addition, I also dove into Parliament’s archives to learn more about historical discussions since the first direct elections of the European Parliament in 1979 and how rules and regulations as well as discourses between established parties and the far right have evolved and changed over time. 

What are your major findings?

I show how individuals in their everyday institutional practices negotiate and renegotiate the rules of interaction with the far right, as well as the extent to which far-right activism has become a fully supranational phenomenon.

From the perspective of the European Parliament, efforts to counteract far-right influences have existed ever since Jean-Marie Le Pen formed the European Right political group in the 1980s in the European Parliament. I highlight a few of these efforts, such as informal agreements of non-cooperation with the far right, repeated changes to Parliament’s rules of procedure to counteract abusive behaviour in plenary, changes to the rules of political group formation to render pragmatic alliances for pure material benefits more difficult, or the launching of a formal sanctions procedure, called Article 7 TEU, against democratic backsliding in Hungary. Efforts have indeed existed. 

Despite these efforts, the picture that emerges over the course of my thesis prove to be more multifaceted, at times contradictory, even on occasion hypocritical. My ethnographic analysis has laid bare the inner diversity of political actors in the European Parliament. The Parliament is not a monolithic entity speaking with one voice. The chapters show how certain institutional actors have helped nourish the far right and give it a platform. Beyond being merely perceived as an external force, the far right has been an intimate part of the institutional structure of the European Parliament, at many levels and across different political groups.

What started out as a small European right movement in the mid-1980s with occasional stunts in plenary has come to something more troubling, a legal and political battle over the rule of law and liberal democracy in the EU. This is deeply unsettling. Not only has the far right become an integral part of EU politics with the backing of mainstream political parties, but it has also managed to shake the very foundations upon which the EU is built.

Can you cite a case in which the EU has behaved in a contradictory or even hypocritical way?

My research feeds directly into the ongoing rule of law crisis in the European Union. It shows that oftentimes the political will to take tough actions against a certain EU Member State (or better: its ruling party) that is openly defying the rule of law and fundamental democratic principles, is lacking. For example, the European Commission recently released substantial EU funds for Poland that were previously withheld for concerns over the Polish government’s systematic dismantling of its domestic rule of law institutions. Even though Poland has only made vague commitments to better judicial independence domestically, it received the EU funds. Around the same time, Poland has welcomed 3.4 million Ukrainian refugees who were fleeing to Poland following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and has taken a strong stance against the Kremlin (Dunai et al. 2022). The degree of toughness of action by the EU institutions against democratic backsliding EU Member States depends on political context and other political considerations. Today, democratic structures are threatened not only by perceived “outsiders” but also by the very mainstream actors within the system. 

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Christin Tonne defended her PhD thesis, “Defending Democracy in the European Parliament: An Ethnography of Political Parties and Institutional Rules”, in April 2022. The jury members were Associate Professor Graziella Moraes Dias Da Silva (chair and internal examinator), Professor Grégoire Mallard (supervisor), and Distinguished Professor Douglas R. Holmes, Faculty of Anthropology, Binghamton University, State University of New York, USA.

Access to the PhD thesis:
Members of the Geneva Graduate Institute can access the PhD thesis on this page of the Institute’s repository. Others may contact Dr Tonne at

Citation of the PhD thesis:
Tonne, Christin. “Defending Democracy in the European Parliament: An Ethnography of Political Parties and Institutional Rules.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2022.

Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner picture: excerpt from an illustration by funstarts33/