In a change of strategy, nationalist party leaders Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini are now promising voters a far-right bloc to overhaul the EU from within. But experts say it will be difficult for nationalists across Europe to co-operate.
Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Rally (formerly the National Front), and Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister and leader of its nationalist League party, have both been courting fellow hard-right populists across the continent.
In doing so, they are seeking to weaponise the expected gains for nationalist parties in the May 26 European elections. “Anti-European” parties will win 35 percent of the vote, according to data analysed by the European Council on Foreign Relations.
At present, the European far-right is split across three umbrella groups. In addition to its linchpins the National Rally and the League, the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) bloc has expanded to encompass the nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD), as well as an array of smaller Scandinavian and Eastern European far-right parties.
However, other nationalist outfits such as Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party and the Swedish Democrats sit in the European Conservatives and Reformists group, while the UK’s Brexit Party and Lithuania’s Order and Justice are part of the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group.
‘A strong alliance that has never existed before’
In light of this fragmentation, “Salvini is trying to unite the far right populist groups ahead of the European elections”, in a new grouping that would further expand ENF, noted Vasiliki Tsagkroni, a lecturer in political science specialising in European populism at the University of Leiden, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
An integral part of this plan is Salvini’s and Le Pen’s gambit to woo a big beast of the European far-right, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose Fidesz party was suspended from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) – currently largest group in the European Parliament – in March.
Orban hosted a meeting with Salvini on May 2, taking the Italian firebrand on a tour of the signature fence he built along the Serbian border to stop the flow of migrants in 2015. Speaking to reporters in Hungary, Salvini predicted that “a new history will open for Europe”, while lauding ENF as “a strong alliance that has never existed before” and an “alternative to bureaucrats”.
Then it was Le Pen’s turn to try and persuade Orban to join their grouping. While campaigning in Brussels for the Flemish nationalists and ENF members Vlaams Belang on May 5, she said that Fidesz would be welcome to join ENF, and that it was “for Orban to see if he finds more political coherence with the members of the EPP who have voted against him”. She added that the Poland’s Law and Justice party would also get a warm reception in ENF.
On May 6, Orban declared that he could no longer support Manfred Weber, the EPP’s candidate for president of the European Commission, on the grounds that the German had “insulted” Hungarians by saying in March that he did not want to become president if he needed Fidesz’s votes to do so.
The Hungarian president’s broadside against the EPP figurehead shortly after his meetings with the Italian and French nationalists fuelled speculation that he will jump ship. “Orban has widely been seen to be signalling a shift to some form of new grouping in the new parliament through meetings with Le Pen and Salvini,” Paul Jackson, an expert on the European far-right at Northampton University, told FRANCE 24.
An end to ‘Frexit’ and ‘Italexit’
Amid the inextricable difficulties Brexit has created for the UK, Le Pen and Salvini have had to pivot towards proposing to upend the EU from within because they realised they had to ditch their previous vote-losing ‘Frexit’ and ‘Italexit’ agendas.
The National Rally 2019 European election manifesto contains no reference to leaving the euro or the EU – both key planks of Le Pen’s failed 2017 presidential campaign. “We didn’t have much choice: either we had to submit [to the EU] or we had to leave it. But now we have allies,” Le Pen glossed it. Likewise, Salvini’s League dropped its anti-euro stance in late 2018, with its economic spokesperson saying that leaving the single currency is “not possible”.
“Most of these far-right populist parties have understood that telling people they would leave the EU and the euro is scary,” explained Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on the extreme right at the Fondation Jean Jaurès think tank in Paris, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “And the example of Brexit adds to this: the British know what they want to get out of, but they have no idea where they’re going.”
“So maybe the populists haven’t changed their minds, but they have certainly changed their discourse – from wanting to leave the EU to wanting to overhaul it from the inside,” Camus continued.
Populists ‘lack a deep and sustained vision’
Nevertheless, observers doubt that Europe’s nationalists can agree on precisely how they want to transform the EU. “Populists often lack a deep and sustained shared vision, they agree far more on what they oppose than what they want to achieve,” Jackson pointed out.
“National-level populist right-wing parties are notorious for infighting and frequently splitting at some point in their early stages; if Salvini brings groups with too different agendas and ideologies into his alliance, then it risks becoming dysfunctional,” added Sanna Salo, a professor of sociology specialising in European populism at Stockholm University, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
Indeed, there are substantial divisions between European nationalists – especially over fiscal and foreign policies.
In Germany, Scandinavia and the Low Countries, hard-right parties “focused on a small, efficient EU budget”, said Susi Dennison, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. By contrast, “nationalist parties in countries that have benefitted from EU cohesion funds, like Italy and Central and Eastern European states, would be quite concerned by this idea – and that could be a real source of tension among the populists in the next European parliament”, she told FRANCE 24.
That’s while Le Pen’s and Salvini’s desire for closer relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia is anathema to some Eastern European nationalists – such as Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of the Law and Justice party and Poland’s de facto leader – whose countries have historically experienced fraught relations with Moscow.
Mainstream parties ‘still thinking in traditional terms’
But, regardless of whether they can coalesce into a coherent entity in Strasbourg, populist nationalist parties look set to aggrandise their influence, Tsagkroni postulated: “They will win strong support in the upcoming elections, and they will be playing a significant role in the discussion concerning the internal change of Europe. We shouldn’t forget that it is these parties that brought into the agenda issues like immigration and security, which have been at the centre of public debate more than a decade now.”
Indeed, the European Council on Foreign Relations predicts that ENF will enjoy hefty gains in the EU legislature on May 26, from 37 to 86 seats – amid the aforementioned 35 percent of the vote for “anti-European” parties of all stripes.
Mainstream parties could only respond effectively to such an outcome if they make a significant change of their own, Dennison argued: “They are perfectly capable of blocking a populist agenda, but at present they are still thinking in traditional party political terms. They need to be thinking about how they can expose divisions among the populists.”