It is a truism that the European Parliament is one of the dullest places in the world. In this it has not been helped by being located in Brussels, one of the dullest cities on the Continent. Yet with European elections currently underway—during which a possible 350 million citizens are eligible to vote—it’s time to realize that this is an antiquated prejudice. Far from being a faceless bureaucracy, the European Parliament has become decadent, depraved, and increasingly dangerous.

Earlier this year, a report by the Dutch investigative platform Follow the Money found that one in four members of the European Parliament (M.E.P.’s) had been involved in scandals or law-breaking. Sometimes the offenses have been minor, such as when József Szájer, a far-right Hungarian M.E.P., was caught shimmying down a drainpipe in a vain attempt to distance himself from a 25-man orgy held in defiance of pandemic lockdown restrictions.

In other cases, the crimes are serious, such as the corruption scandal known as “Qatargate,” in which the tiny petro-state was alleged to have stifled parliamentary resolutions critical of the country through bribes. The ongoing investigation has already resulted in 20 police raids, eight arrests, and the father of a Greek M.E.P. being detained as he tried to flee with a suitcase filled with several hundred thousand euros.

What’s more, the European Parliament seems to have become a playground for spies. Dutch and German M.E.P.’s have been accused of close contact with Russian agents, and one parliamentary aide was recently arrested on suspicion of spying for China.

Yet just as worrying is what’s been taking place in plain sight. Over the past dozen years, the European Parliament has become a testing ground for the Continent’s far right, a place for them to practice wielding the levers of power before returning home with an increased profile and improved table manners. It’s become a finishing school for Fascists in which the true colors of Italian, Swedish, Dutch, and German populists can be obfuscated by the gray wash of Euro-bureaucracy.

This has been partly due to the fact that not many people vote in these elections. Of the few that do turn up—usually less than 50 percent of the electorate—many cast their ballot for an extreme candidate as a protest against the ruling party in their country. The European Parliament’s proportional-representation voting system is thus a boon to minority groups, who would struggle to gain a single seat in their own national elections.

The European Parliament has become a testing ground for the Continent’s far right, a place for them to practice wielding the levers of power before returning home with an increased profile and improved table manners.

Nigel Farage, the architect of Brexit, failed to become a British Member of Parliament no fewer than seven times, but was an M.E.P. from 1999 to 2020. Similarly, Die Partei, a satirical German party whose manifesto includes a pledge to rebuild the Berlin Wall, and that received less than 1 percent of the vote in the German federal election, nonetheless managed to win two seats—out of around 700—in the European elections.

Yet none has worked this byzantine system so assiduously as France’s far-right National Rally party (formerly the National Front), run by Marine Le Pen. In 2019, National Rally won 22 M.E.P. seats out of a possible 74—one more than Emmanuel Macron’s party. This year they are expected to win many more.

In 2019, France’s National Rally party, led by Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella, won 22 seats in the European Parliament out of a possible 74. This weekend, they are expected to win many more.

Traditionally the one defense the European Parliament has had against the far right is the parties’ own dysfunction. But that no longer seems to be the case. When Maximilian Krah, an M.E.P. from Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, told La Repubblica that he would “never say that anyone who wore an SS uniform was automatically a criminal,” Marine Le Pen, immediately announced that Krah and the AfD would be expelled from her coalition for being too “toxic.”

Le Pen recently reached out to the far-right Italian prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, inviting her to form a far-right “super-group.” If they did so, it would probably be the second-largest party in the parliament. Both women are fiercely anti-immigration, fond of authoritarian leaders, and, somewhat ironically, despise the European Union.

Jordan Bardella, the National Rally’s 28-year-old wunderkind and recently appointed president, has called the E.U. a “zombie and a life-impeder.” For her part, Meloni has likened the E.U. to the Soviet Union. But after the chaos of Brexit, pulling out altogether is no longer considered a realistic option. Now both parties talk of changing the E.U. “from within.”

Le Pen is not alone in trying to woo Meloni. Ursula von der Leyen, the E.U. commissioner, has been trying to convince Meloni to join the E.P.P. (the European People’s Party), von der Leyen’s moderate-right party, which currently governs in a coalition. Since taking power in 2022, Meloni has been more pragmatic than many thought she would be, and with Italy due to receive $200 billion in post-pandemic funds from the E.U., she may continue to keep Le Pen at arm’s length.

If the far-right M.E.P.’s are not to be kings, then they are set to be kingmakers. “The E.P.P. has chosen to campaign primarily on issues of immigration and the European Green Deal, largely adopting the negative framing of the far right,” writes Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist, in Intereconomics.

Hans Kundnani, a visiting fellow at New York University and the author of Eurowhiteness, argues that the very word “European” has undergone a change, thanks in part to the right’s rise. From having a postwar meaning of unity and cosmopolitanism, the word has increasingly come to connote a racial and ethnic identity as all political parties are forced to tackle illegal immigration from Africa and the Middle East. And this in turn plays into the far right’s favorite conspiracy theory, that of the “great replacement,” in which dark-skinned immigrants invade and destroy European civilization.

After this weekend’s elections, it is likely that the far right will have an even bigger presence in the European Parliament, able to change its democratic processes and influence its dealings with Russia and China. Suitcases of cash may no longer be necessary. “This is a slow-motion train crash,” says Kundnani. Yawn at your peril.

George Pendle is an Editor at Large at AIR MAIL. His book Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons became a television series for CBS All Access. He is also the author of Death: A Life and Happy Failure, among other books