Matteo Salvini, starting last week Italy’s deputy prime minister and the most powerful figure in the new right-wing-populist government, had a message for members of his party at a rally Sunday: “Today I had a long and nice call with Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who wished us all the best and with whom we are going to change the rules of this European Union.”
If you want to see the nightmares of the European Union’s commissioners in Brussels and of senior politicians in Paris and Berlin, look no further. To them, this was something a lot more sinister than just ideological kindred spirits congratulating each other.
June 23 marks the second anniversary of Britain’s Brexit referendum. The day after 52 percent of British voters chose to leave the EU, the leaders of the remaining 27 members could at least console themselves that now, without the awkward British, it would be easier to set common policies. But now this is much less certain.
Salvini, who has in the past supported Italy leaving the euro, and Orban, who has repeatedly challenged EU policies, aren’t alone. Orban’s Hungary is at the heart of the Visegrad Group, which also includes Poland, Slovakia and Czech Republic – a united forum of central and east European EU members prepared to face Brussel’s edicts together.
In other EU states such as Slovenia, where this week the right-wing nationalists of the Slovenian Democratic Party won a general election, there are similar sentiments. Other members like Spain, where the government fell last week, and Greece may not yet be in the grip of the populist right, but their weak economies are adding to the EU’s woes.
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The new government of Italy and the like-minded east Europeans have a lot in common besides being instinctively hostile to Brussels. They are anti-immigration, xenophobic and are quite fond of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who would love to see the EU weakening. He has already loaned the far-right and anti-EU National Front party 9 million euros in the hope of seeing it take power in France.
And it’s not just Putin, who technically at least is a European. There are cheerleaders from outside the Continent, like Donald Trump’s former senior adviser and strategist Steve Bannon, who has been crisscrossing Europe in recent months. Just last week he told a rapturous audience in Rome that “Italy matters on a global stage, you are the focus of world politics,” and that “if it works in Italy, it’s going to show that we’ve broken the back of the globalists.”
Three months ago, Bannon told a National Front conference in Lille that “history is on our side and it will take us from victory to victory,” and that “you are part of a worldwide movement that is bigger than Italy, bigger than Poland, bigger than Hungary.”
Echoing Bannon this weekend was Trump’s new ambassador to Germany, who in an interview with Breitbart, the website where Bannon was not long ago executive chairman, angered his hosts by saying that Europe was suffering from the “failed policies of the left,” and that “I absolutely want to empower other conservatives throughout Europe, other leaders.”
And who found time in his very brief visit to Berlin on Monday for a quick meeting with Richard Grenell, that new U.S. ambassador, but Benjamin Netanyahu? The prime minister has been improving ties with the nationalist governments of Hungary and Poland for a while now, was last July the guest of honor at a Visegrad summit in Budapest, and hopes to host another such summit soon in Jerusalem.
Trump and Netanyahu have no special interest in Europe’s future, but they both have their resentments toward the EU. Trump saw in Britain’s surprising referendum vote in favor of leaving the union a harbinger of his own election four and a half months later. On the morning of the vote, he tweeted his followers – “It’s going to be Brexit plus, plus, plus.” From his perspective, the same anti-establishment winds buffeting the mainstream media and the old elites still fill his sails.
The Palestinians and Iran
Netanyahu sees the European Union, when it is indeed unified and influential beyond Europe, as a damaging and invasive influence. The EU supports a Palestinian state and the nuclear deal with Iran, and has invested resources in both. As far as he’s concerned, any party that sows discord and weakens the EU also reduces the nuisance of European involvement in the Middle East. Both Netanyahu and Trump are happy to lend whatever support they can to the erosion of pan-European cohesion and stability. The list of their allies on the Continent is growing.
This may all sound very much like a conspiracy theory, and indeed there’s no clear sign at present of any real thought-out cooperation or guiding hand. But if there were similar symptoms on the radical left, the media would be full of scenarios of the Communist International once again casting its shadow over the West. For now it doesn’t look like something that’s being orchestrated, but even without coordination behind the scenes, the danger for the EU is mounting.
There’s the combination of the Visegrad Four, Britain – which plans to leave the EU next year – and Italy, a founding member of what began in 1951 as the European Coal and Steel Community and which may be soon heading for the exit. And if you add in to the mixture one or two other populist members and perhaps a local economy collapsing, you could brew a perfect storm over Brussels.