Ukraine is a dividing line in European election that centrists hope to exploit

<span>Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Frances President Emmanuel Macron shake hands after a press conference on June 16, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Elections for MEPs are being held on 6-9 June.</span><span>Photograph: Alexey Furman/Getty Images</span>
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Frances President Emmanuel Macron shake hands after a press conference on June 16, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Elections for MEPs are being held on 6-9 June.Photograph: Alexey Furman/Getty Images

Campaigning in Europe comes easily to populists but less so to centrists. A single word printed in large letters – “diesel” – is enough for the German far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) to tell voters exactly where it stands on the climate debate.

The modern European electorate is so angry about so much – the green deal, migrants, electric cars, cultural diversity, open markets, Europe, politics itself – it is hard for centrists to find a foothold.

In the run-up to the elections for the European parliament, which will be held on 6-9 June, however, Ukraine, and the implications of a Russian threat, has become a go-to issue for centrists as they seek to fend off the populist challenge from left and right.

It might seem an artificial rallying point: 512 members of the outgoing European parliament voted in favour of the last aid package to Ukraine and only 45 against, with 63 abstentions. But the connections between Moscow’s interests and the extreme right, particularly those parties in the European parliament’s Identity and Democracy (ID) group, are seen as a rich seam.

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Take Germany. On the right, the AfD – itself recently expelled from the ID group- has been pushing the line that sanctions on Russia only damage Germany. It wants Nord Stream 2 reopened. On the left, the new nationalist party launched by the charismatic politician Sahra Wagenknecht also opposes arms to Ukraine. “No, weapons don’t bring peace, weapons bring more war and weapons bring more death. That’s the reality,” she has said.

On the one hand, the centre arguably has no option but to fight back against this kind of argument. But it also senses an opportunity: that sympathy for Kyiv remains strong and that the issue has the capacity to divide the far right.

The French president in particular has made Ukraine a rallying point to defeat populism, making it the central theme of the campaign launch in Lille.

Speaking in Berlin, and clearly thinking of Marine Le Pen, Emmanuel Macron said: “In all our countries there are false pacifists in Europe, people who say: ‘we are in favour of stopping immediately’. Moreover, if we follow the voice of the Russian president, he goes around the world saying: ‘I am for peace if they still give away the territories that I invaded by force.’ That’s not peace. This is not our vision of peace. I have said it again and again, peace can only be lasting and therefore in compliance with international law.”

Macron’s credentials as a scourge of Russian imperialism can be challenged. Indeed François Ruffin, an MP for La France Insoumise, has argued: “We have no lessons to learn from a man who welcomed Vladimir Putin at Versailles and at Fort Brégançon, when Crimea was already invaded, Anna Politkovskaya and other opponents assassinated.”

But Macron has doubled down. With the symbolic backdrop of the 80th anniversary of D-day commemorations this week, he will discuss with Volodymyr Zelenskiy plans for French trainers to operate inside Ukraine to help liberate the country.

Macron is by no means the only European leader leaning in on Ukraine to help galvanise their base. Across Europe, in different ways and to varying extents, Ukraine has become a dividing line in these elections, in the hope that it will prove the populists’ achilles heel.

Related: Left-wing parties rule out alliances with far right ahead of European elections

In Latvia, for example, the New Conservatives party named Liāna Langa, a Latvian author and poet who has spearheaded the de-Russification movement for the last two years, as its leading candidate. The liberal For! (Renew Europe) party named Ivanna Voločija, a Ukrainian who also holds Belgian citizenship, as its lead candidate.

In Spain Pedro Sánchez’s PSOE has been content to be attacked by the leftwing Sumar party inside its coalition for its new aid package to Ukraine. The ruling coalition in the Czech Republic has gone on the attack against opposition leader Andrej Babiš for undermining the government’s support for Ukraine through his “pacifist” language. The foreign minister, Jan Lipavský, even labelled Babiš “a security threat”.

In Poland, Donald Tusk’s uneasy coalition in Poland has criticised the opposition Law & Justice, saying there is no room for anti-Ukrainian sentiment and pointing out that, when in government, the populists had been willing to attack Zelenskiy to lure conservatives unhappy about Ukrainian farm imports.

Back in Germany, meanwhile, Olaf Scholz’s social democratic party, terrified of escalation, has chosen a variation on the Ukraine theme, pushing hard on the threat to democracy posed by Russia’s European allies.

The campaign has seen rare light shed on the AfD. For instance it was news to many German patriots that the Bavarian branch of the AfD sees the southern German state as a part of “Eurasia”, a political slogan used by Russia and increasingly also by the AfD.

Maximilian Krah, the head of the AfD list for the European elections and another AfD candidate, Petr Bystron, have denied allegations they accepted money to spread pro-Russian positions on a Moscow-financed news website. Both have agreed to stop campaigning, and Krah resigned from the AfD’s leadership following a separate controversy surrounding comments he made about the SS.

Le Pen has, partly as a result of this, broken with the AfD but she still squirms when pressed on either how her “peace plan” for Ukraine will work, or her past banking connections to Moscow. It is all, she insists, far from ordinary voters’ concerns.

The anti-globalists who insist Europe is not a nation, and therefore cannot have a geo-political role, come under attack from Macronites such as Benjamin Haddad who say European and national security in the modern world are indivisible.

The strategy is high risk and polls suggest it will not work. How the centre could do with the voters in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine who associate Europe not with globalism but freedom, prosperity and success.