Artur Widak/NurPhoto/Getty Images
Some 373 million Europeans are eligible to vote in the elections for the European Parliament.
CNN  — 

This is a historic and pivotal year for democracy across the globe. Around 70 countries – from the United States to South Africa, via Mexico and Taiwan – will hold elections in 2024.

After India’s huge and ongoing six-week ballot, however, the biggest election in terms of voter numbers takes place this week, when 373 million Europeans can go to the polls and elect 720 members of the next European Parliament.

Once the votes have been tallied from across the 27-nation bloc, it is widely expected that the results will show a significant shift to the right, which could have major implications for the political direction of the European Union at a time when it is battling multiple crises, many of them global.

From the war in Ukraine to coping with mass migration, the rise of China to the threat of climate change, it’s hard to see how a bloc of diverse countries could possibly speak with one voice.

Of course, differences in opinion among the member states is nothing new. EU politics has always relied on awkward alliances between countries and political ideologies that represent vastly different electorates.

The EU’s political center has undeniably moved to the right over the past two decades, however.

Francois Greuez/SIPA/AP
Marine Le Pen, affiliated with the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) grouping, could win power in France with her National Rally party in the next five years.

The European Parliament is the place where this is most visible at an EU level. Most of the lawmakers (known as MEPs) belong to a political party in their own country. Once they enter the European Parliament in the Belgian capital of Brussels, they sit in loose, multinational political groupings that broadly have similar political interests.

These groupings then form even looser coalitions, which usually results with a majority grouping of centrists from the center-left, center-right and liberals somewhere in the middle.

The rightward shift of the political center in this coalition has been gradual. In 1994, the main socialist group S&D had the most MEPs. In 1999, it was overtaken by the center-right European People’s Party (EPP).

The EPP, best explained as conservatives in the mold of former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has been the dominant force in EU politics ever since.

While the EPP has been able to lead a mainstream centrist coalition with the left and liberals at a European level, MEPs are still beholden to domestic politics happening back in their own countries.

For example, it’s not easy for a conservative to work with a liberal on a pan-EU policy that would share the burden of asylum seekers if voters back home are becoming attracted to loud, anti-immigration populists. The louder the domestic noise – and the greater the risk of losing their own seat in parliament – the trickier cross-party politics at a Brussels level becomes.

The anticipated influx of lawmakers into groups to the EPP’s right will certainly complicate matters.

Christoph Reichwein/picture alliance/Getty Images
The ID group has sought to moderate its image, recently expelling Germany's AfD after comments by a senior MEP about the SS.

While the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) groups are expected to finish fourth and fifth respectively in terms of seat numbers, their combined tally, which could be upwards of 140, according to the Politico Poll of Polls, will be hard for the EPP to ignore. The EPP is currently predicted to win 165 seats to 143 for the socialist S&D.

ECR and ID are typical of European Parliament parties in that they are home to a pretty broad group of conservatives.

The ECR, for example, was founded by former British Prime Minister David Cameron who campaigned against Brexit. Its current chair is Italian PM Giorgia Meloni, who garnered lots of attention during the 2022 Italian election for her opposition to LGBTQ+ rights, promises to curb migration and general anti-globalist rhetoric.

However, since Meloni’s election, she has been seen as considerably more moderate and has supported many key EU initiatives, including support for Ukraine. She has also resisted allowing authoritarian Hungarian leader Viktor Orban to join the ECR after he left the EPP.

Hungary has been the most pro-Russia EU voice since the start of the war. Whether or not it was deliberate on Meloni’s part, resistance to Orban has made working with her and the ECR more palatable to the Brussels establishment, including EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

ID, too, has sought to moderate its image. It recently expelled the German far-right AfD party from its ranks after one of its most senior MEPs told an Italian newspaper that he didn’t see all members of the SS, the notorious Nazi paramilitary group, automatically as criminals.

Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu/Getty Images
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has been moderate in office than expected, and has resisted allowing Hungary's Viktor Orban into the ECR.

There is quite a wide range in opinion from the moderate wing of the ERC to the fringes of ID, but political currents and the desire for influence can result in some odd bedfellows, especially in the opaque and fluid world of European politics.

It is unlikely that the EPP would be willing to work directly with ID any time soon, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be important. History has shown us repeatedly that it’s possible to influence policy from outside the tent. Suppose that parties associated with ID start putting center-right politicians under pressure in their own countries. You might find the center adopts their policy ideas – as has previously happened in France, the United Kingdom and Germany.

And there are more than enough hot topics in Europe now for the right to get its teeth stuck into. Migration, climate change, border security, military spending, rule of law – all of these have been flashpoints in pan-Europe politics for a long time and are not going away any time soon. And it is ultimately the newly-elected Parliament that vets and approves the make-up of the European Commission – the EU’s executive body.

It’s worth noting that support for Ukraine is expected to be safe for the time being, with the pro-Kremlin groups appearing very isolated. But almost everything else will be handled on a case-by-case basis if the numbers work out that way. And the more MEPs elected that are to the right of the EPP, the more their influence could grow over time.

Five years is a long time in politics, and that is how long this Parliament will last. In that time, France will hold an election that Marine Le Pen, who is affiliated with ID, might win with her National Rally party. Geert Wilders, also ID, is soon expected to form a government in the Netherlands after emerging as the biggest party in their November elections. In other words, the domestic politics in member states could shift even further to the right, which naturally changes calculations in Brussels.

The European Parliament can often seem like looks like a boring, bureaucratic blob, tediously grinding its way through process. But the EU is an increasingly geopolitical player – able to impose sanctions on Russian and Chinese political figures, provide funds to Ukraine and use its economic heft as the world’s largest trading bloc in diplomacy. If its political center is indeed shifting to the right, its influence will inevitably have meaningful and perhaps far-reaching consequences for people living beyond Europe’s borders.