Milei Basks in Right-Wing Election Gains as He Returns to Europe

(Bloomberg) -- Javier Milei’s last trip to Spain ignited a diplomatic crisis of historic proportions on the eve of European elections he sought to influence. Emboldened by the success of his right-wing allies across the continent, the Argentine president is now going back for more.

Most Read from Bloomberg

Milei’s return to Madrid on Friday is no attempt to mend relations with the government of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who pulled Spain’s ambassador from Buenos Aires last month. Instead, it is likely to further inflame a relationship that has come to embody the sharp political battles dividing Europe, the Americas and the planet as a whole.

The libertarian Milei, who angered his counterpart by attending a rally staged by the anti-immigrant Vox party in May, is this time scheduled to receive a medal from Madrid regional leader Isabel Diaz Ayuso, one of the country’s most popular right-wing politicians, and among the socialist Sanchez’s harshest critics.

Suddenly riding high after his trip to last week’s Group of 7 summit in Italy, Milei is now attempting to position himself as a leader of the global far-right that is threatening to make sweeping gains this year — at the expense of leftists like Sanchez.

He has spent the days leading up to the trip reposting criticism of Sanchez and the Spanish left on social media. In a Tuesday interview, he even attempted to take credit for far-right advances in this month’s European Union parliamentary elections, suggesting that his anti-socialism speech in Davos had set the stage for victories in France, Germany and other nations.

“My Davos trip was very important,” Milei said in a local TV interview. “Look at the impact it had in Europe and how the elections turned around and we sunk the poor, progressive impoverishers.”

Milei has spent the first year of his presidency prioritizing relationships with ideological allies, from tech chief executives like Elon Musk to political leaders including Donald Trump and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

It’s a strategy that carries clear risks. His endorsement of Trump ahead of November’s election came just after a meeting with Biden administration officials whose economic support Milei has sought. His relationship with Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva remains frosty after he labeled the leader of his nation’s largest trading partner a “socialist” last year. The dispute with Sanchez, meanwhile, has plunged Argentina’s relationship with its second-biggest foreign investor into one of its worst moments.

But Milei has clearly gained momentum in recent weeks. On the eve of his trip to Italy, the Argentine Senate passed the bulk of his sweeping economic reform package. The International Monetary Fund then approved an $800 million disbursement to Argentina that featured praise of an economic program that sits at the heart of his broader global political brawls.

“For Milei, passage of his economic reforms put wind in his sail, boosting his global profile — above all among his far-right fellow travelers,” says Benjamin Gedan, director of the Latin America program at the Wilson Center in Washington.

Opponents like Lula and Sanchez — both political animals in their own right — are hardly shying away from the fight: The Brazilian has largely chosen to give Milei a cold shoulder on a bet that the Argentine will eventually need to lean on his much larger neighbor, and made opposition to the far-right a central theme of his own appearance at last week’s Italy summit. Sanchez has similarly argued that Milei is part of a right-wing campaign to undermine him.

Milei, however, appears increasingly confident that he has the upper hand. Polling suggests the right is poised to build on recent success in snap French elections in coming weeks, while Trump is eyeing an election victory that would return him to the White House.

And while the Argentine is currently outnumbered in his own region, limping economies and stalled agendas are taking a toll on leftist leaders like Lula, Colombia’s Gustavo Petro and Chile’s Gabriel Boric. That has fueled the hopes of right-wing movements — many of which have already cited Milei’s victory as a model — that the wave currently hitting Europe will sweep Latin America in the coming years as well.

--With assistance from Rodrigo Orihuela.

Most Read from Bloomberg Businessweek

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.