‘Vigilance key’ as far right rises and France calls elections

While centre-right majority may offer stability in Brussels, snap poll called by Emmanuel Macron offers fresh risk

June 14, 2024
Cameras ready for the Elections to the European Parliament  Brussels, Belgium. 09th June, 2024 to illustrate ‘Vigilance key’ as far right rises and France calls elections
Source: Sipa US / Alamy

“Vigilance remains key”, research leaders said, after a surge in support for the far right in European elections triggered a snap election in France.

The European Union-wide poll saw the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) increase its majority, while the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and the liberal Renew group, despite major losses for the latter, remained the second and third largest groups. Current European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen was widely expected to secure a second term, although she will again require the support of a coalition.

While the far right made significant gains in countries including France, Germany and Austria – with the victory of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally prompting French president Emmanuel Macron to call snap parliamentary elections – their performance was ultimately weaker than some had feared.

Sector leaders did not predict a seismic change in Brussels’ research policy, but remained wary of the rise of the far right.

Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities (Leru), told Times Higher Education that a second EPP, S&D and Renew coalition would be “most opportune” for research, innovation and higher education. Calling for the “continued leadership” of the EPP’s Christian Ehler on research and innovation matters, Professor Deketelaere described the MEP as “our best guarantee for safeguarding the EU R&I [research and innovation] agenda”.

“The strong presence of the extreme right in a number of EU member states can mean that commissioners are put forward from extreme right parties, just like prime ministers from those parties can surface in the European Council. And if that is the case, we must of course be aware that the EU’s R&I agenda can shift,” the Leru head cautioned. “Vigilance remains key.”

Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik, deputy director of policy coordination and foresight at the European University Association, said the European Parliament had historically exhibited “broad consensus” on higher education and research matters, adding: “We don’t anticipate any fundamental change in direction, given the election results.

“However, we need to see a greater emphasis, across parties, on the importance of higher education and research for Europe’s competitiveness and strategic autonomy,” she told THE. “This is why we have called on incoming MEPs, as well as the next commission, to work with universities to shape a strong, open and future-proof Europe.

“It remains crucial to advocate for ambitious EU investment in research, innovation and higher education and uphold the values of institutional autonomy, academic freedom as well as diversity, inclusion and gender equality.”

While major change in R&I policy may be unlikely at the European level, the story could be different at the national level, said Alain Fischer, president of the French Academy of Sciences. A National Rally victory in France’s upcoming snap election “would not be good news for research in our country,” he said.

Pointing to the dramatic cuts to research and higher education funding in the Netherlands, proposed by the most right-wing Dutch government in decades, Professor Fischer said French universities could meet a similar fate if the country lurches to the right.

The far right would also be “likely to restrict the entry of students from outside the European Union, which is not good for research”, he added.

Ole Petter Ottersen, acting secretary-general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, told THE he was “confident” that the new European Parliament would “see the urgent need for increasing investments in R&I.” 

“We have been observing growing demand for strengthening Europe’s competitiveness and at the same time for improving strategic autonomy and security,” he said. “The new European Parliament must acknowledge that these new priorities imply a boost in the EU’s R&I investments.”

Nevertheless, Professor Ottersen said, any “focus on regaining Europe’s competitiveness in advanced technologies” should not “detract from the need to uphold investments in fundamental research, including the social sciences, arts, and humanities, that are essential for societal progress, resilience and long-term security”.

“Since we are also responsible for the health and well-being of future generations we must not permit the quest for technological and economic competitiveness to drain resources from research and innovation on the much-needed green transition,” he said.


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Reader's comments (1)

This article seems to conflate concern about the size of the research budgets (which one would expect professional researchers to be "vigilant" about) with political judgments, e.g. about the interpretation and merits of "diversity, inclusion and gender equality", a "strong, open and future-proof Europe" or "strategic autonomy" (which latter you would expect the right to support).