European parliamentary candidate Fabrice Leggeri and MP Edwige Diaz during a meeting to launch the RN’s campaign for the upcoming European elections in Marseille on March 3, 2024.
European parliamentary candidate Fabrice Leggeri and MP Edwige Diaz during a meeting to launch the RN’s campaign for the upcoming European elections in

The Far Right Has Found Its Place in Europe’s Institutions

David Broder

With ex-Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri running for the Rassemblement National in the EU elections, boundaries between mainstream institutional politics and the far right seem ever more blurred.

Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) has long claimed an anti-establishment identity, irreducible to Left or Right. But its march to power also relies on winning institutional figures to its camp. One was Thierry Mariani, a minister under Nicolas Sarkozy who is today an RN member of the European Parliament (MEP). Yet on 17 February, a greater institutional heavyweight announced plans to join Le Pen’s group: Fabrice Leggeri, executive director of EU border agency Frontex from 2015 to 2022.

Leggeri is a product of France’s typical son-of-civil-servant-to-civil-servant pipeline, studying at the École Normale Supérieure and École Nationale de l’Administration, before taking up various Interior Ministry roles. He has also never been elected to public office. Nevertheless, he is all but guaranteed to enter the EU parliament, as third-placed candidate for an RN list polling 30 percent.

His embrace of the RN illustrates a grim reality. Throughout recent decades, mainstream politicians have rallied voters by warning that far-right leaders like Le Pen would destroy the European project. Now, it seems that the supposed looming threat was already in the corridors of power — and that it is not organizing the much-feared “Frexit” but changing the EU from within.

From Frontex to the Right-Wing Fringe?

Announcing his candidacy, Leggeri did not exactly boast of his establishment credentials. He told Le Journal du Dimanche — long a pro-government paper, but recently bought out by hard-right media baron Vincent Bolloré — that the RN is “determined to fight being flooded by migrants, which the Commission and the Eurocrats don’t see as a problem, but a project”. This condemnation of the “Eurocrats” was odd coming from Leggeri’s mouth: after all, he headed a major EU agency for seven years, in which time its budget ballooned from 143 million to 754 million euro.

Leggeri’s attack on “Eurocrats” referred to those who blocked his way within the corridors of power. His spell at Frontex — what JDD labelled “turning it from a small humanitarian body into an EU border police” — surely was marked by conflict, thanks to both his own apparent political radicalization as well as the critical scrutiny coming from the Left, liberal media, and various human rights watchdogs. A 2020–2021 investigation headed by Le Monde and Der Spiegel, among others, found extensive evidence that in this period Greek border guards carried out thousands of illegal “pushbacks”, abandoning migrants at sea and forcing them back across the EU’s borders to prevent them from applying for asylum. This same research reported the complicity of Frontex and German police in these pushbacks, and accused the EU border agency of attempting to suppress evidence of illegal behaviour.

In Der Spiegel’s account, it was the PR fallout of Leggeri’s conduct, if not Frontex’s policies as such, that ultimately led to his downfall in May 2022. He had overly aligned Frontex with the Greek government’s approach of turning pushbacks — illegal under international law — into standard practice. Still, the nature of this conflict questions the idea of rule-bound EU institutions that self-police when things go wrong. Frontex’s approach seemingly did not change after Leggeri’s removal, and those who do seek to hold the agency accountable are fighting against unfavourable political headwinds. This was well illustrated on Wednesday as EU ombudsman Emily O’Reilly took to the Guardian to denounce Frontex’s ongoing refusal to save lives at sea, after an investigation into the June 2023 Adriana disaster, which killed 600 people trying to cross the Mediterranean.

Why “unfavourable political headwinds”? At the EU level, the period since 2016 has seen an increased commitment to stemming migrant numbers by stopping people ever reaching European soil, also by outsourcing border policing to non-EU third countries. This is not, or no longer, just a far-right policy, but a line coming from the heights of power.

Last summer, Commission president Ursula von der Leyen joined Italian premier Giorgia Meloni in a taskforce to meet Tunisian leader Kais Saied over a development-aid and border–policing deal — a mission across the Mediterranean which Von der Leyen termed “Team Europe”. The aim was to enlist Tunisia in stopping migrants ever making the sea crossing, as a kind of preventative border-gendarme. Far from a pariah in Europe, far-right leader Meloni spearheaded the plan — though the deal with Tunis later ran aground.

The much-vaunted opposition between “Europeanists” and irresponsible ‘populists’ seems ever less obvious. So, which is it? Are voters rebelling against the “Eurocrats”? Or is Europe laying out the red carpet for the far right? Perhaps we can better understand by looking at the conditions that are being set for integrating far-right forces into the institutional mainstream.

Outsourcing Migration

Instructive in this sense is the contrast between Le Pen’s party and the more “advanced” example of the Italian far right. The first Italian government including post-fascist ministers back in 1994 prompted scandal in Brussels — today, on the other hand, their presence is normalized.

Indeed, many in the mainstream European centre-right give the impression that Le Pen is a pariah whereas Meloni is not. Yet the cited reasons for the distinction suggest that the dividing lines are malleable. Take businessman Alain Minc, formerly a Sarkozy advisor and erstwhile mentor to Emmanuel Macron. In December, he told France Culture that Meloni is “fascinating”: she has “fallen in line” and entered “the circle of reason”, even if she made some distasteful “symbolic measures on social issues”. The question was whether Le Pen, too, can “say like Mrs. Meloni: the Atlantic alliance is fundamental, the European project is fundamental, and budget policy must remain reasonable”. For Le Monde diplomatique’s Benoît Bréville, responding to another Minc intervention: “what it takes to earn the European badge of respectability … [are] the two cardinal values of austerity and Atlanticism”.

Still, defending EU borders is itself a condition for joining the “circle of reason”. Five days after Leggeri announced his EU election bid, Albania’s parliament voted to take what was presented as a step towards the country’s “European future”. On 22 February, legislators ratified an agreement between Prime Minister Edi Rama and Meloni, whereby Albania agrees to Italy building two detention centres on its soil, in order to “process” 36,000 migrants a year. The deal was backed by the Commission president as well as the two governments, but criticized by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, citing concerns at another case of EU “outsourcing” the detention of migrants. They fear that, while the centres are under Italian jurisdiction, asylum seekers will be denied rights they would nominally have had upon EU soil.

Hailed by Rama as an example of European cooperation, the Italy–Albania deal is not quite the same as past (real or attempted) agreements between the EU and third countries like Turkey, Libya, and Tunisia on policing the Mediterranean, or even projected deals with further countries in sub-Saharan Africa. For one thing, Albania is called on to detain people not so much because it is a source of migration to the EU or a transit country for migrants, but rather because its government is willing to detain migrants on any number of routes who happen to be picked up in Italian territorial waters. As Richard Braude and I recently wrote for Jacobin, Meloni’s scheme also bears comparison with the right-wing British government’s agreement with Rwanda to detain rejected asylum seekers arriving from all over the world.

While Britain has left the EU, Albania’s nominally centre-left government hailed the migration agreement with Meloni as a step toward joining the bloc. Last Thursday, its prime minister Rama commented that “Albania is standing together with Italy by choosing to act like an EU member state”, adding, “No country can solve such a challenge alone. Only a stronger, braver and more sovereign Europe loyal to itself can.”

In the 1980s, post-dictatorship Spain, Greece and Portugal saw the European Economic Community (EEC) as a path to democratic modernity — an optimistic narrative later echoed in ex-Eastern Bloc states. Today, Albania hopes to join the EU fold by becoming its outsourced border gendarme. While Europe was never a universalist project, it seems that filtering out African and Arab newcomers is becoming an increasingly prominent European value.

Right-Wing Pact

This turn on migration does not necessarily mean that Le Pen’s party is about to join the concert of institutional power in the European Union, or that it can easily follow Meloni’s path. There are considerable hurdles to this taking place, and it remains unlikely to be realized in the wake of the 2024 European elections. Still, there clearly is a game of convergences on the centre-to-far right of European politics, taking steps toward what some French commentators call the union des droites — the alliance of the various forces of the political right.

Hailed by CNN as a “new Merkel” taking the lead in Europe, Meloni today bridges divides between “traditional” Christian Democrats, as embodied in the European People’s Party (EPP), and more radical elements of the Right. Just as Italy has a longstanding coalition between the late Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, the Northern-regionalist Lega and Meloni’s party (called the “centre-right” pact in Italian media), there has been much speculation on a “union of the Rights” forming at the European level.

Today reflected in the governments of Italy, Finland, and Sweden, and in some Spanish regions, this slogan is taken up by French anti-immigrant leaders Éric Zemmour and Marion Maréchal, whose Reconquête party has a smaller and more bourgeois electorate than the Rassemblement National. As well as being inspired by Meloni’s strategy, last month Reconquête joined Meloni’s European Conservatives and Reformists group (ECR) in Brussels.

Not all these forces are easily allied. As I wrote for WOZ, EPP leader Manfred Weber has pursued a strategy of nurturing ties with parts of the far right, building close relations with Meloni while rejecting alliance with the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and Rassemblement National. He told France 24 last May that EPP allies “must be pro-European. They must be pro-Ukraine. And they must be pro-rule of law.”

While polls for June’s EU elections suggest a strong right-wing shift, this will not likely produce a right-wing majority able to fulfil Weber’s conditions, or at least the meaning he attributes to these words. The EPP (or indeed the liberal-centrist Renew) are not on the brink of an EU-level embrace with Le Pen’s party, or still less the AfD. Yet, the RN may be malleable, and today, its lead European candidate Jordan Bardella seems intent on pulling this party toward a more straightforwardly pro-NATO, pro-Ukraine stance.

The red lines set by Weber are also open to creative reinterpretation. As we saw already with the Commission’s on-off conflict with Poland’s Law and Justice government following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, pariahs need not remain so forever. Recently, 10 billion euro in EU funds to Hungary were held up by the Commission due to concerns over the “rule of law and corruption” under Viktor Orbán. The Commission’s announcement, in December, that Orbán had “guaranteed” the independence of the judiciary, and thus that the cash could flow, appeared entirely motivated by trying to win him over to another round of EU aid to Kyiv. Orbán’s eventual assent to this was widely cast as a victory for Meloni’s statecraft, after a late-night summit between the two. Media close to the Budapest government now suggest Orbán’s Fidesz party could join ECR, although this faces opposition within Meloni’s group.

For Italian journalist Francesca De Benedetti, Meloni is playing a “two-faced” game, forging alliances with the EPP but also using her political capital to bring Orbán into the fold — while at the same time fending off potential rivalry from the Identity and Democracy group. Still, as the Frontex case shows, we ought not look for attacks on the rule of law only from apparent “outsiders”. While Greece’s New Democracy government enjoys the backing of the financial press as well as the European Central Bank, its wiretapping of opposition leaders, the unresolved murder of journalist Giorgos Karaivaz, and its role in migrant pushbacks, have also raised alarm. At the Left’s urging, on 7 February, the European Parliament voted to censure the Greek government, whose ruling party is part of EPP.

New Right-Wing Alliances

When the RN’s lead European candidate Bardella visited Florence in December for a rally alongside the Lega’s Matteo Salvini (Meloni’s deputy prime minister, but a leader of the rival Identity and Democracy group), there was much discussion of new alliances at the EU level. Salvini again raised the idea of “a centre-right united in Brussels”, “in the lead” in Europe. By this, he meant an alliance of right-wing forces akin to the present Italian government. The call for such a pact is transparently designed to mobilize right-wing dissatisfaction with Meloni, and to criticize conservative forces’ “dealings” with the centre-left in Brussels. We remain unlikely to see a formal political alliance uniting everyone from Macron to Zemmour and former Frontex chief Leggeri as a result of the 2024 elections.

Still, a party like Le Pen’s can exert considerable influence even outside the dominant coalition in Brussels. In France itself, only last month Macron’s government passed border-tightening legislation that could not have succeeded without the decisive support of Le Pen, and which her party in fact only backed after it had been significantly rewritten. We should probably dispense with the idea of anathemas and cordons sanitaires against the far right, which do not exist in reality. There is a strong chance that Von der Leyen will be re-elected Commission president with at least some votes from parties in Meloni’s ECR group — parties considered beyond the pale just a few years ago. Votes on everything from green policy to migration have allowed ad hoc alliances to develop, gradually “mainstreaming” such forces.

This might be read as a story of institutional forces defanging right-wing radicals by setting the kind of red lines proposed by Weber. This is not only about the mantra of “Atlanticism and austerity” — after all, even Le Pen no longer speaks of the “great replacement” conspiracy theory. Le Pen and RN colleague Bardella have also used the war in Gaza to cast themselves as opponents of antisemitism, and thus burnish their credentials part of the republican mainstream.

Yet it would be one-sided to see “mainstreaming” and “moderation” as the same thing, as if there were a static European centre of gravity to which all else must converge. To again focus on migration, the mainstream has itself radicalized: a once-disputed agenda centred on militarizing Fortress Europe, outsourcing border policing, and letting individual member states decide which countries are “safe” to deport people to, is today hegemonic.

What about the opposition? The picture is not good, either in pushing back against right-wing hegemony or in mobilising an alternative base of support in society. The pious wish that Europeanist values could provide an antidote to “sovereigntists” — a common ideological illusion over the 2010s — looks out of step with the real balance of forces. Right-wing parties with institutional power in the EU can ally deadly border policing with the influx of a low-cost, undocumented — and for that all the more easily blackmailed and disciplined — migrant labour force.

Moreover, it is not as if the record of the centre-left is so great either. Even the most promising government experience in Europe, in Spain — with a creditable record on some cost-of-living measures, and its strong rhetoric (if not action) against Israel’s war on Gaza — has turned a blind eye to the killings of migrants on its Mediterranean border.

On the further Left, there is a deeper question. The Left’s Manon Aubry argued in a recent Euractiv interview that we are today seeing a convergence between the political centre, the Right, and even far-right forces — but that the left-wing camp remains divided. Aubry draws on the understanding that Macron risks preparing a Le Pen victory in 2027 through the unpopularity of this government’s reforms and its laundering of RN talking points.

Around Europe, the call to form a third force apart from the centre and far right has sporadically allowed new left-wing forces to make electoral headway — in some cases recomposing alliances between the young and precarious, service workers, and fragments of social democracy’s historic base. However, this has rarely been able to shift the overall centre of political gravity or arrest the process by which politics becomes a contest between various media-driven campaigns, committed to the values of individualism and enterprise and allied to greater or lesser degrees of nationalist identity politics.

In this sense, our problem is not just that the Left is failing to expose the false “social” promises of Meloni or Le Pen or the AfD. In fact, we often do so. But these latter’s specific solutions (cutting employee tax contributions, curtailing green legislation on businesses, the demonization of migrants) conform with the expectations of large parts of the working-class population, who themselves cast a sceptical eye on solidaristic social policy and collective action.

Telling was the line that Le Pen’s party took on the rise in the French pension age: opposing Macron’s reform, but not supporting the movement that tried to stop it. The massive opposition to the reform showed that the far right is hardly the only dynamic force in French politics. Yet the ultimate defeat of that movement played into Le Pen’s hands: Macron imposed the reform regardless of the popular will, the Left and trade union movement did not claim the hoped-for victory, and the RN maintained its dissenting posture.

The career civil servant Leggeri now rallies against “Eurocrats” under the banner of this same far-right party. Even from a left-wing perspective, the grotesque complicity between mainstream forces and the far right could easily give rise to cynicism. It looks ever less plausible to call for a last-minute mobilization to defend Europe from “dangerous right-wing populists” when the existing status quo was already well able to integrate figures like the Frontex chief.

Rather, the difficult task for the Left is to build a counter-force of its own, able to resist both the current EU mainstream and those who would pull it even harder to the right. This means breaking through defeatism, building its own bases of support in society — and showing tens of millions of people that collective action can produce concrete change.


David Broder is a historian of the Italian far-right. He is a regular contributor to the New Statesman and Internazionale, writing about Italian politics, as well as Europe editor for Jacobin. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, the Independent, New Left Review and Tribune. He is the author of The Rebirth of Italian Communism: Dissident Communists in Rome, 1943-44, First They Took Rome: How the Populist Right Conquered Italy and Mussolini’s Grandchildren: Fascism in Contemporary Italy