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SUBSCRIBER+ EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW — The results of the 2024 European Parliament elections saw both significant gains for far-right parties – in France, Italy, Austria, and the Netherlands – and a strengthening of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), which saw its share of seats rise from 176 to 190. This reinforced the EPP’s role as a central player in the European Parliament and a key voice in EU policy and leadership appointments.

The big winners among far-right parties were Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France and Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, meaning the far right’s voices will be more influential in the European Parliament on issues ranging from immigration to Ukraine to spending in general.

To analyze the winners and losers in the EU elections and their impact on European affairs, The Cipher Brief spoke with Mikuláš Dzurinda, a former Prime Minister of Slovakia and currently President of the EPP’s think tank, the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies. Dzurinda discussed the potential impact of the elections in a conversation with Ia Meurmishvili, The Cipher Brief’s Chief International Correspondent. Dzurinda also spoke about the “huge challenge” of disinformation campaigns in Europe, and voiced support for tougher controls over social media content.


THE CONTEXT


 

    • The center-right European People’s Party (EPP) secured 190 seats in the European Parliament in the June 6-9 election. The EPP now has a quarter of the body’s 720 seats, making it best poised to set European Union.
    • Far-right groups also made major gains across the bloc, including in France and Italy. Overall, some 150 seats in the European Parliament were won by far-right parties.
    • Ursula von der Leyen is seeking a second term as president of the European Commission. She is a clear frontrunner, as the lead candidate of the European People’s Party.

 

  • French President Emmanuel Macron called for a snap election from June 30-July 7, after gains by France’s far-right in the European Parliament elections.
  • U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also has called for a snap election, in Britain’s case for July 4, months earlier than general elections were expected.

 


THE INTERVIEW

 


 

Mikuláš Dzurinda

Mikuláš Dzurinda is the former prime minister of Slovakia (1998-2006) and has held various positions in government since first entering politics in 1990. Once he became prime minister and formed a coalition government in 1998, Dzurinda introduced far-reaching reforms which have enabled Slovakia to begin the process of joining the EU and NATO. After being re-elected in 2002, Dzurinda led Slovakia to become a member of the EU and NATO in 2004, a process which he actively took part in from the beginning. Slovakia gained independence in 1993.

This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

The Cipher Brief: Most of the international media reported about the far-right gains at the EU elections. How do you take the results of the elections?

Dzurinda: I don’t think that the situation is so dramatic. Look, it is true that Madame (Marine) Le Pen scored some gains, but we, the European People’s Party, won even more. I am rather more optimistic than pessimistic. I am happy because my family, the European People’s Party, won heavily and that is huge. I would say there is a huge coalition potential on our side.

The Cipher Brief: What do you think about the results in individual countries – about Germany, for example, and Hungary? There were some unexpected results, maybe in both, and in Slovakia as well.

Dzurinda: You are right. But look, let’s start with the first. In my eyes, the worst is France. Because Madame Le Pen is not only very strong these days, she is also very dangerous in my mind and France matters a lot. We both know that very well.

A better situation is in Germany. On one side, the AFD (Alternative for Germany) is also dangerous and they finished in second place, winning over the socialists. There is also huge good news – the Christian Democratic Union’s (victory). Friedrich Merz, the future German chancellor, will help Europe and transatlantic relations a lot.

Even in Hungary, at first sight, you can be pessimistic because Viktor Orban is still there. But there is also huge good news in Hungary. The new leader of the opposition, Peter Magyar, scored almost 30%. He’s young, he’s charismatic. He wants to join the European People’s Party, our family, so I take Hungary (as) a positive rather than negative.

The Cipher Brief: He created the party three months ago – and that’s what was surprising to everybody in Hungary, that overnight he gained this incredible number of votes and seats.

Dzurinda: Exactly, and it demonstrates that people maybe are fed up with Viktor Orban, and that Hungarians realize very well that the EU is a great project, that it is extremely important also for them, for the Hungarians. The same situation in Slovakia – I am very unhappy because we, the EPP family, suffered – we lost three of four MEPs. But again, the good news is that our liberal political party won the elections over (Prime Minister Robert) Fico. So there is also a good hope in Slovakia, and sooner or later we will beat these anti-European forces.

The Cipher Brief: Let’s talk a bit more about France. President Macron called early elections in France based on the results of the European Parliament elections. What do you make of that? Is that a good decision? Bad decision?

Dzurinda: It is maybe a rather chaotic decision. I can imagine how depressed Mr. Macron became after watching the final result. And on the other side, as a politician, I can understand that something had to be done by him. So to some extent, his decision to call for a snap election can be understood. I expect a new cohabitation in France, when Mr. Macron will stay as the president of the country and the government will be dominated by the National Rally, (the party of ) Madame Le Pen, with maybe a new star, a new prime minister. There is a saying that everything bad comes with something good, and maybe the good news is that the party of Madame Le Pen will be truly incompetent after running the country for half a year, one year or two years, we will see. But anyway, it is a surprising development there.

The Cipher Brief: So maybe that’s what President Macron is counting on – to let them fail?

Dzurinda: Maybe. Maybe it is to some extent an emotional decision, a chaotic decision. But on the other side, there is also something rational beyond that.

The Cipher Brief: Let’s talk about (European Commission President) Ursula von der Leyen. It seems like her positions are very strong and she made it known that she wants a second term as the president. How do you think her chances look? There were conversations about (her) aligning with Italian [Prime Minister] Meloni as well. Do you think that’s possible?

Dzurinda: Von der Leyen’s position today is much stronger than before the elections. Some people are tired or fed up with her, because don’t forget, we went through major crises. First, it was immigration, second, it was the pandemic, and last but not least, we faced the war of Russia against Ukraine. So one can imagine that some people were a bit tired with this commission. But after the elections, it is clear that she has done a great job. She was very patient. She was able to reach compromises. And you know very well that Europe is based on compromise.

So today I am pretty optimistic. And I believe that many people, and many MEPs (members of the European Parliament), prime ministers, may have been hesitating about her, but now they realize very well that there is only one option left – to reelect Ursula von der Leyen. And this is my expectation.

When it comes to strategy, she’s played well in my eyes. She says, Let’s talk about three major issues: The first is the rule of law, democracy. The second is our devotion to our European House. And number three is Ukraine, and I am ready to talk to every political faction who is following and respecting these three basic principles.

She is opening the door not only for the Greens from the left, but also from the ECR from the right. Madame Meloni made us surprised in the past. The lady is not only very rational, but also dedicated to democracy, rule of law, and last but not least, to Ukraine as well.

The Cipher Brief: Do you think there will be a new (European) high commissioner for defense?

Dzurinda: I would vote for that. Maybe you will be surprised. But at the Marten Centre, the think tank of the People’s Party, we came up with the idea of European defense as an integral part of NATO in 2016. At the time, I was confronted by many people in Europe (asking), What do I want? But we thought, especially after 2014, after (Russia’s) annexation of Crimea, that the situation is serious. And I still believe that this situation is very serious. America is busy, and will be very, very busy with China,  with the Indo-Pacific, and we have Ukraine. This is our neighbor, our immediate neighborhood. Now we have the Middle East crisis and many other challenges. We need to be stronger, and we need to become a reliable, full-fledged partner of the United States in this transatlantic family.

The Cipher Brief: We have snap elections coming up in the UK, in France. We have elections in the United States. What are your expectations of these elections and what do you think their impact would be on transatlantic relations?

Dzurinda: This is a crucial issue. The axis between the United States and the UK was so important and crucial in the time of the Cold War, for security, for the future of transatlantic relations and democratic countries.

In these times, maybe there is not so much reason to be optimistic, but I want to be optimistic. I think due to the tradition and also due to the understanding that we need each other. Even in the United States, I am not so tragically pessimistic. When it comes to the potential victory of Donald Trump, I believe that this axis between the UK and the United States will continue, and that the EU should help. The EU should contribute in this direction to boost this tradition of the axis.

The biggest question mark in my eyes is France. On one side, the French president is very strong. You know very well that he has very strong competence. On the other side, I am thinking more and more about the next presidential elections in France. If the trend continues, it means that Madame Le Pen at the end of the day will become the French president. In this case, I believe that she will modify a bit her approach. Everyone was surprised by Madame Meloni’s policies (in Italy). I believe that also in the case of Marine Le Pen we may be surprised. Believe me, I have some experience, and the word looks different if you look (at the situation) if you are on the horse, compared to when you are standing next to the horse – the situation is completely different. You have responsibility. People are not only not only watching but expecting.

The Cipher Brief: I’d like to talk to you about disinformation. Lately, in democracies, this has been a very large issue. In some cases, there are claims that disinformation actually played some role in the outcome of the elections. Did you see it as an issue during these elections in the EU? Do you see it as a larger issue and do you have any suggestions on how to counter it?

Dzurinda: There is a huge challenge facing us – this  disinformation and propaganda. We are very happy that we are free, and you can write what you want or you can publish on social media, but what we miss is the connection between freedom and responsibility. So now we should think more seriously about this second dimension of responsibility. I’m going to say something unpopular: (we should think about) how to control social media, how to make people responsible for everything which they are publishing.

It is not easy. Russian propaganda especially – it is very, very influential. It happens not only to Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, the countries of the former communist bloc. It happens in France, it happens in Greece, in Italy, this is really a huge, huge challenge laying ahead of us. And it’s not just social media media outlets. There are also many operations of diplomats, official diplomats in the embassies in our countries.

The Cipher Brief: And do you see that people are waking up to it, or people are objecting to it in any way?

Dzurinda:  Not sufficiently. It is very patchy. For some people, it is easier to believe in such catchy scenarios.
The Cipher Brief:And most of the time those scenarios are very emotional.

Dzurinda:  Not only emotional, but also connected or related to your difficulties. In a free world, you have not only the winners, you have also people that are dissatisfied or even people who lost a lot – and propaganda, disinformation, especially from the Kremlin, is very, very effective to address, to reach out to these people.

Read more expert-driven national security insights, perspective and analysis in The Cipher Brief.

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