For far-right populists, EU election a battle to 'save Europe'
Nationalists hoping immigration fears will help them make big gains in EU Parliament vote
It was a bold prediction for an American to make in front of a large crowd of mostly European journalists.
Europe, Steve Bannon insisted, would soon witness a political contest with "the intensity of a U.S. election."
It was November 2018, exactly two years after the intense election in which the former campaign strategist helped propel Donald Trump to victory.
It was hard to imagine a parallel scenario in the usually dull democratic exercise of choosing the European Union's next parliament, scheduled this year for May 26. The last election, five years ago, managed to attract only a 43 per cent turnout.
But things could be different this time. Euroskeptic populists who have made steady gains at home have injected urgency into the campaign, promising what amounts to an insurgency to change the EU from the inside in order to "save Europe."
Far-right nationalist parties — many of which have either formed governments or are part of governing coalitions at home — are now joining forces across borders to take on the traditional power-brokers in Brussels.
The attractive, if deceptively simple choice these ambitious parties are presenting to voters is between Europe's populists and liberals. In their parlance, it's a choice between the new crop of far-right and illiberal politicians who speak for ordinary people, and the more traditional parties who are elite, corrupt and indifferent.
Marine Le Pen, leader of France's recently renamed National Rally party, has depicted it as a choice between "patriots and globalists."
The 751-seat EU Parliament is just one arm of the EU system. It isn't the most powerful, but it does pass laws, elects figures to key posts and ultimately helps shape EU policy.
This year's vote is the first since hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers landed on Europe's shores, prompting disputes and major rifts among EU members over how to cope.
Immigration is one issue among many the EU must grapple with. But for newly assertive far-right parties vying for influence, it is the defining issue, along with a demand to loosen Brussels's hold on national governments.
"Immigration should be stopped and Islamist ideology should be eradicated. Globalization should be regulated," said Le Pen at a far-right rally in Prague last month that was attended by several European populists.
Vote could be 'decisive'
In countries like Hungary, ruled by a man Bannon once called "the original Trump," the campaign to win seats at the EU Parliament is a top priority.
"There are historical periods in time when a vote can be … decisive," Zoltan Kovacs, spokesman for Prime Minister Viktor Orban, said in an interview with CBC. "We believe this is the case with the 26th of May."
Ahead of the vote, campaigners are on the streets daily, drumming up support for Orban's party, Fidesz, while large posters advertise the date with the slogan, "Let's vote for Viktor Orban's program, let's stop immigration!"
Like several other radical right parties, Orban's party is an old hand at European politics, where national parties align themselves into parliamentary blocs with like-minded parties from other countries.
Fidesz is a member of the European People's Party, the dominant group in the EU Parliament — though Fidesz was recently suspended from EPP because of Orban's increasingly illiberal tendencies back home.
Under Orban's leadership, Hungary has seen a concentration of media in the hands of his allies. Critics of the government are cowed into near silence, and opposition parties have little space to be effective. Hungarian critics describe the country as hovering somewhere between democracy and dictatorship.
In EU election campaign ads, Orban's government directly attacked EPP leader and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker by suggesting he supports mass migration.
Like most Euroskeptic parties, Orban avoids talk of leaving the EU, which insiders in Brussels see as a silver lining. But in launching his European parliament campaign, Orban called for the defence of a "Christian" Europe against immigration and "mixed-race nations."
On a visit to Washington this week, Orban received full-throated approval from Donald Trump himself for his policies on immigration. Trump called him a "respected man all over Europe."
The consistent message from Orban's government, said Hungarian political analyst Blucsu Hunyadi, is that it's "fighting a huge war, a war of civilizations, a war of cultures and … defending the traditional values of the real Europe."
'Burying the European dream'
This year, many more populist and Euroskeptic parties than ever are running for seats in the EU Parliament to do the same. It's the first such vote since the referendum on Brexit in the U.K., and some far-right parties aim to form a kind of "populist international" to more potently influence EU decisions and policy.
These parties include Italy's League, Finland's Finns Party and the Alternative for Germany.
The EU Parliament has long been dominated by a centrist "grand coalition" composed of the EPP and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats. They're expected to lose seats, and their dominance, in the coming vote.
"The bureaucrats, the do-gooders and the bankers who have been governing Europe for too long are burying the European dream," Matteo Salvini, Italy's far-right interior minister, said when he announced the alliance of populist parties joining forces back in April, to be named the European Alliance for People and Nations.
He thanked fellow radical-right politicians from Germany, Denmark and Finland for starting a journey "that will save Europe."
Steve Bannon has championed this strategy, although despite initial indications, his role in Europe has been limited.
Could make life 'very difficult'
Insiders and polls predict a breakthrough for the insurgents in the EU vote, though nothing close to a takeover.
In its March poll, the European Council on Foreign Relations predicted Euroskeptic parties — both on the left and the right — look likely to make up the second-largest group in the EU Parliament, taking more than a third of available seats. This is independent of whether or not the U.K. is still in the EU.
Their increased presence will lead to a more splintered parliament and therefore a slower pace of business — and a shift in direction.
"If [the Euroskeptics] get a significant amount of seats, they will have the potential to make life very, very difficult, and undermine the smooth functioning of the institutions from within," said Richard Youngs, a senior fellow of Carnegie Europe.
That could mean everything from making it harder to pass laws to slowing down the selection of EU commissioners, or even the next president of the EU Commission.
The sharper debate might be good for the EU, Youngs said. But if it centres on pro-Europeans versus Euroskeptics, other important issues could be crowded off the agenda.
"This shouldn't be just a question of defending the EU from Orban or Salvini, but looking in more detail at the kind of nuanced reform issues that the EU faces," Young said, including deeper economic integration and the euro, as well as how to reform the migration and asylum system.
Europe is also facing challenges from China and the chaos Brexit might bring, as well concerns over the region's defence and security.
Fight against illiberalism
A growing number of far-right nationalists inside parliament might affect the EU's future ability to censure countries like Hungary for wavering on the union's basic liberal democratic values, which champion human rights, the independence of the judiciary, freedom of the press and the rule of law.
All of it is cause for concern for liberal activists and civil society groups, as well as in world capitals such as Ottawa, which are counting on Europe as a defender of liberal democratic values, especially as the U.S. seems to be abandoning that role.
"Today, there is a clear majority of the pro-European forces, and these forces try to stop politicians like Viktor Orban or the Polish ruling party, Law and Justice," said Istevan Hegedus from the Hungarian Europe Society.
"But in case this populist group of parties becomes stronger, it will be even harder to fight against illiberalism and anti-democratic tendencies within the EU."
Despite their goal of cooperation, coordination between many of these far-right parties presents its own challenges. Paradoxically, they are banding together while demanding a looser union that prioritizes their own national interests, which would give more power to their governments instead of Brussels.
The various far-right parties are also divided on a number of fundamental issues — such as relations with Russia and how to share in the effort to process asylum seekers arriving in Europe. The latter issue, for example, is a key difference between Salvini and Orban. The former wants other countries to take in some of the migrants who have arrived on Italy's shores. Orban has always rejected the idea.
Such differences may explain why Salvini's alliance initially included a smaller number of parties than anticipated — although France's Le Pen joined belatedly, and Orban hasn't ruled it out. He met with Salvini in early May, and said he was seeking cooperation with him in one way or another. He said, "I am convinced that Europe needs an alliance of anti-immigration parties."
Centrist parties mobilizing
Like the nationalists, French President Emmanuel Macron and others have latched onto the idea that this vote is about a choice between liberals and populists — and that making that explicit might help motivate voters.
Macron has launched a European bid of his centrist La Republique En Marche movement. He is selling it as the home for liberal, pro-democratic and pro-European thinking, said Youngs of Carnegie Europe.
Among other things, Macron is proposing that any EU funds distributed to member nations become contingent on compliance with EU values — a demand Orban's critics have made for years.
Indeed, the more centrist, traditional parties aren't leaving anything to chance. The Economist magazine is reporting that for the first time, the new leader of the EPP will be campaigning in almost every EU state. There is also a televised debate planned.
In an effort to improve turnout, there are advertisements across the continent urging people to make their vote count.
So in its final weeks, the campaign will offer a hefty dose of drama.
Not least with the help of the U.K. — the election will offer British citizens a chance to weigh in for the first time since the referendum of 2016, and is widely seen as a second referendum on the matter of leaving the EU.
Nigel Farage, one of the earliest Euroskeptics to spend years as a member of the European Parliament, has started a new Brexit party, which is leading in the polls.
However, despite all the unusual drama, this is no U.S.-style election.