These are difficult times for the European Union project. The United Kingdom has already voted to leave the collective, while across partner nations there are clear signs the far-right are on the rise, growing stronger and bolder.
At the start of May 2019 – in the run up to European Union elections to be held between May 23 and May 26 – an Ipsos poll in France placed Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National (RN or National Rally) ahead of President Macron’s La République en Marche (REM).
But, it is not just in France that the populists are in the ascendency. In the UK, Nigel Farage‘s new anti-EU Brexit Party is also ahead in the polls. In Germany, theAlternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, formed only six years ago, is now the largest opposition grouping in the Bundestag, while the Freedom Party of Austria is in a power-sharing coalition government with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’ Austrian People’s Party.
Known as the ‘alt-right’ – a contraction of ‘alternative and right’ – there are common threads running through these groupings. A shared populism, driven by their anti-immigration, anti-establishment, Eurosceptics appeal to large numbers of their electorate. Policies, attracting ordinary citizens who have come to feel powerless and profoundly disenchanted with their powerful, wealthy political elites. Many, ground down by years of austerity, outraged by terrorist attacks on their sovereign nations, and feeling forgotten, have started to look for ways of showing this unhappiness, and far-right parties have become a vehicle for those who feel politically alienated.
With European Elections set for the end of May (to include an indecisive UK), Matteo Salvini, Deputy Prime Minister of Italy, leader of Lega, and architect of his nation’s anti-immigration policy, has been actively reaching out to other like-minded right-wing groups across the union. Already, six parties, including AfD, have joined, as Salvini openly attempts to form a Eurosceptic, anti-immigration bloc to contest the election as a cohesive unit.
“The advantage of such groupings in the European Parliament,” Erwan Fouéré, Associate Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for European Studies told InsideOver, “Would be to gain more positions of power, based on their numerical strength; for example, Rapporteurs or Chairpersons of influential committees.”
Mr Salvini has also signed up to American Steve Bannon’s Brussels-based right-wing think-tank: The Movement.
Bannon, former White House strategist in Donald Trump’s administration, and founding member of the far-right Breitbart news, is now turning his sights on Europe.
Registered by Mischaël Modrikamen, leader of Belgium’s People’s Party, on January 17, 2018, The Movement has also attracted support from Italy’s Giorgia Meloni leader of Fratelli d’Italia, and Luigi di Maio who heads the Five Star Movement, coalition partner to Salvini’s League in the Italian government. Positive comments have also come from Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders of the Dutch Party for Freedom and Hungary’s anti-immigration Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
As with Salvini, Bannon is trying to bring Europe’s far-right together under one umbrella organisation. To these ends, he has also secured a monastery in the mountains above Anagni – a town in the province of Frosinone, Central Italy – with the intention of building an academy for future far-right leaders. In February 2019, Bannon appointed Eduardo Bolsonaro (son of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro) as his representative in South America – perhaps suggesting a more global role for his organisation.
But while Bannon might think he has reinvented himself as “Saint Benedict of Nursia”, his efforts have not found unanimous backing from all of Europe’s populists.
Marine Le Pen has sought to soothe the fears of her fellow right-wing by assuring them that Bannon would not lead populist efforts to “Save the real Europe,” noting that he is “American not European.”
Likewise, Alexander Gauland of the anti-immigrant right wing AfD, is not persuaded at all by Mr Bannon’s plans. He also cites his lack of European credentials as a significant difficulty.
Aside from the machinations of a few power-brokers, European or American, how influential could any far-right Eurosceptic alliance become in the European Parliament beyond the May elections?
“The policies espoused by some of these groups are so anathema to the European integration process, and to the fundamental values on which it is based, I would doubt their chances of gaining traction in the forthcoming elections,” Mr Fouéré told me candidly.”But if they do, it would signify a dangerous trend of nationalist, anti-European sentiment.”
In an age of divisions, the far-right have touched a popular seam of discontent – out there – in Europe and beyond, and, as a result, are gathering momentum. As Britain’s decision to leave the European Union has shown, there are no longer any political certainties and all bets are off.