After U.S. Midterms, the Next Clash Between Democracy and Populism Will Be in Europe

Pushed by strong results in national votes and backed by the likes of Steve Bannon, far-right forces are set for big gains in EU parliamentary elections – an outcome likely welcomed by Washington and Israel

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Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon with French nationalist Marine Le Pen in Lille, France, March 10, 2018.
Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon with French nationalist Marine Le Pen in Lille, France, March 10, 2018.Credit: \ Pascal Rossignol/ REUTERS
Ariel David
Ariel David

If the U.S. midterms were billed as a referendum on Donald Trump’s presidency, next year’s European elections could be described as a referendum on the future of the European Union.

The continent-wide vote for the EU Parliament on May 23-26 is set to be the next major clash between mainstream parties and surging nationalist movements, with the latter expected to make major gains.

Unless moderate forces mount a major comeback ahead of the vote, experts interviewed by Haaretz predict that Europe may quickly veer toward harsh anti-immigration rules, protectionist trade policies, and increased political and economic instability.

“It’s the same divide we have seen in the midterm elections – a clear clash between liberal and illiberal forces,” says Nicoletta Pirozzi, head of a research program on the EU at Rome-based think tank the Institute for International Affairs.

Euroskeptic and far-right politicians have long had a presence in the European Parliament, often using their seats as a platform to attack the EU’s rules and its bureaucracy.

But now they stand a real chance of gaining major influence over the bloc’s policies, thanks to surging support in their homelands and perhaps with a little help from Steve Bannon, the former Trump adviser who is forming a movement to unify Europe’s populist forces ahead of the May vote.

“Europe faces a risk – that of being broken up by nationalist leprosy and of being pushed around by foreign powers,” French President Emmanuel Macron warned in an interview last week. Macron has reason to be fearful, since his popularity at home is plummeting and his party was just overtaken in the polls by the National Rally – the recently rebranded National Front of Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate whom he had easily defeated in last year’s presidential election. 

Italy’s League – the anti-immigrant and Euroskeptic party of Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini – is polling at nearly 35 percent, followed by Five Star Movement, its anti-establishment coalition partner, at just under 29 percent.

Populists can look forward to similarly strong showings in other countries where they are already in power, such as Hungary and Austria. Add to that the uncertainty over the United Kingdom’s planned exit from the EU next March, since a particularly “hard Brexit” could damage the economy of both Britain and the remaining 27-country bloc, adding more fuel to the populist wave.

Bannon, whose populist organization The Movement plans to offer support on polling and messaging to like-minded politicians, has said he doubts nationalists can gain a majority but hopes they can win a third of the assembly’s 705 seats.

Demonstrators protesting against populism during a rally in Munich, October 3, 2018. “The opposition to this wave of nationalism has been much weaker than you would expect,” says Pirozzi.Credit: \ MICHAEL DALDER/ REUTERS

Such an outcome is “feasible,” says José Ignacio Torreblanca, head of the Madrid office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank with branches across the EU.

Controlling such a large group of delegates would allow populists to “change the conversation” and influence EU policy – either by forging alliances with moderate conservatives or tempting other parties to adopt their views simply to try to steal their voters, Torreblanca says.

At a minimum, it would also secure national right-wing governments from the threat of sanctions by Brussels, which require a two-thirds majority, he adds.

Most of the experts interviewed by Haaretz doubted that Bannon could play a key role, since several far-right leaders – including Le Pen – have been extremely lukewarm toward his efforts

“I doubt that Bannon has the ability to unite these forces, because nationalist movements have a natural tendency to avoid EU-wide alliances,” says Pirozzi. “Still, it is very significant that such an experiment is being conducted. And while it may not bear immediate fruits, it can certainly do so in the long term.”

With or without Bannon, Europe’s populists will have a strong showing, she says, and moderate political forces seem unable to rise to the challenge. “The opposition to this wave of nationalism has been much weaker than you would expect,” says Pirozzi.

Perhaps because mainstream parties have managed to stay in power in the heart of Europe – with Macron in France and Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany – “people don’t realize the danger,” says Frank Paul Weber, a journalist who worked as a spokesman for former German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble.

This complacency can be deadly in EU elections, which have traditionally a low turnout, giving an automatic advantage to the highly motivated voters of extremist parties, warns Weber.

Even though the EU’s legislative body has a hand in deciding everything from food safety issues to car emissions, “Most people don’t know what the EU Parliament does,” Weber says. “While in the United States it’s quite clear what is the difference between a Republican- or a Democrat-controlled Congress, here nobody understands what’s at stake.”

For this election, the EU has launched a website that aims to gather activists who will work to get out the vote. But most experts agree that the bloc’s traditional political forces have been too slow to adopt the grassroots action and social media savviness that has helped propel the world’s populists.

“Progressives in Europe should learn from the [U.S.] Democratic Party, which just regained control of the House largely thanks to grassroots mobilization and a host of young, diverse candidates,” says Jean-Pierre Darnis, a professor of international relations at the University of Nice. They should also be open to alliances with new movements and nontraditional parties that have already mastered the tools and messaging of today’s politics, he says. One example would be the resurgent Greens party, which has enjoyed strong results in local elections in Germany. A solid alliance between these forces should be able to maintain stability and block any moves by even a large contingent of far-right parties, Darnis says.

But what policies would be favored by a European Parliament with a strong Euroskeptic bloc?

Far-right parties would quickly try to tighten border controls – both within and without the EU – and move to deport immigrants, who are their unifying cause célèbre, says Torreblanca.

They would also move to remove sanctions on Russia and improve ties with Moscow, out of admiration for President Vladimir Putin’s strongman policies and his support for nationalist forces across Europe, Torreblanca says.

Finally, there would be a strong push to halt the progress of – or even undo – the monetary union, while allowing each state more discretion on their economic policies, he says.

“These right-wing groups are all different in background, but as nationalist groups they are united in wanting power to be restored to the state,” says Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to the EU and now a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

On an international level, such an outcome is likely to be welcomed by Washington and Jerusalem, Eran notes. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long been cozying up to Europe’s populist parties, such as Hungary’s Fidesz, Poland’s Law and Justice, and the Freedom Party of Austria, despite the anti-Semitic statements or neo-Nazi roots of some of their members.

“If Brussels is weakened, this will certainly play into the hands of both Israel and Washington, who prefer to deal with individual states in conducting foreign relations, security arrangements and economic ties,” Eran explains.

The reasons for Israeli and American indifference to Europe’s fate are different.

For the United States, it’s the feeling that Europeans have long enjoyed unbalanced trade relations, and have not been contributing enough to their own defense and to NATO while benefiting from the U.S. military presence and the deterrence it creates, Eran says.

“For Israel, Brussels is identified with pro-Palestinian policies; with imposing restrictions on cooperation with [Israeli] entities in the West Bank; and for not sufficiently standing up against various groups that Israel rightly identifies as terror organizations,” he says.

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