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Steve Bannon Tilts at Windmills in Europe

With the European Parliament elections of 2019 looming, the battle for the future of Europe, as many like to phrase it, is drawing ever closer. Two visions dominate this clash. On one side is Emmanuel Macron, the French president, who is trying to take the next step towards his dream of an “ever closer union.” On the other side is Matteo Salvini, the Italian secretary of the interior, leader of the Lega Nord, and ascendant right-wing populist. Thus did the recent headline blare off of Politico Europe‘s front page [1]: “Macron and Salvini face off over Continent’s future.”

This is hardly the only dichotomy that matters. After all, older-school liberals like Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte [2] aren’t too happy with Macron’s ideas either [3]. But the war between EU federalism and nationalist populism is how the media has characterized Europe’s “Judgment Year 2019”—and both Macron and Salvini are at the center of it.

At least one American has also involved himself in this contest, seeing an opportunity to challenge the liberal world order—and perhaps renew a career that has hit a few roadblocks. A few weeks ago, the Daily Beast reported [4] that Steve Bannon was planning to get his hands dirty in Europe’s elections, establishing his own think tank in Brussels to help right-wing populists build an alliance in their fight against the EU elite.

Europe’s populists have so far reacted to Bannon with skepticism. They seem unsure [5] as to why they need someone who was deemed too far to the right even for Donald Trump. After all, the likes of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński were already in power before Trump even decided to run for president and certainly before Bannon was brought onboard.


But the project of a populist alliance, even without Bannon, is gaining steam. Salvini had suggested [6] just such an “international alliance of populists” before Bannon did—and many other right-wingers in Europe seem quite fond of the idea.

Whatever one might think of such an alliance, there is little doubt that it could have immense consequences. At the moment, there are three groups in the European Parliament that could be considered right-wing. Thus, the “populists” of Europe are extremely dispersed, while amounting to a little less than a quarter of the body’s representatives.

That could change dramatically [7] in 2019 if an alliance is established. The populists are almost guaranteed to increase their tally in the European Parliament, with the Social Democrats set to lose big and the electorate moving increasingly rightward. The Alternative for Germany, or AfD, currently has only one member in European Parliament; in all likelihood, it will have more than 20 next year. Major advances are also expected from Italy’s Lega and Five Star Movement, Austria’s Freedom Party, and the Sweden Democrats. And Orbán, Kaczynski, and France’s Marine Le Pen will stay strong, perhaps even further improving their numbers.

Thus, a populist alliance could end up constituting as much as 40 percent of the European Parliament—and even that could be lowballing their chances. One can imagine what would happen if the refugee or euro crises were exacerbated ahead of the election. Suddenly a populist majority wouldn’t be unrealistic anymore. Such an outcome would allow a populist alliance to play the role of disruptor on major decisions within the EU and even implement their agenda to a certain extent.


How likely is it that such an alliance would work in the long run? Not very. There are several reasons for this: first, one of the supposed leaders, Viktor Orbán, will have a hard time leaving his group, the European People’s Party. As mentioned, he is in the same group as Angela Merkel and all the other major “center-right” parties, from the French Républicains to the Spanish Partido Popular to the Austrian Volkspartei. It is the largest group in the Parliament, and is set in the next election to retain its lead.

For Orbán’s party Fidesz, this membership has been a great boon. Most mainstream politicians in Europe—at least on the center-right—have been very careful to ignore Orbán’s alleged breaches against the rule of law. The fact that he is a member of Merkel’s group—and that of Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission—makes it very difficult for either to speak against him and the reforms he is enacting in Hungary. This is in stark contrast to the Polish Law and Justice Party, which, not being a member of an establishment group, has been attacked from all sides.

More importantly, though, even if all populists were ready to join up, it would still be unrealistic to expect them to find common ground on a great many issues.

As has often been noted, the term “populist” is rather misleading and nonsensical [8] (I have only been using it here because the Europeans themselves use the term “populist alliance”). Even ignoring centrist “populists,” such as Macron, and left-wing “populists,” such as Spain’s Podemos and the UK’s Jeremy Corbyn, it is essential to realize that even populists who can be described as “right-wing” are extremely heterogeneous.

One just needs to look at the economic programs that the different movements support. They range from more or less liberal ideas—see, for instance, the German AfD [9] (one of its leading members recently argued [10] that pensions should be privatized)—to the anti-austerity [11] school, backed by the Five Star Movement.

Indeed, there only seems to be one topic that all right-wing populists agree on: immigration. All of them want to reduce it and secure external borders. Regardless of whether this is reasonable, there is one problem with such a “consensus”: you can’t derive a common policy out of it.

Take, for example, the parties’ irreconcilable proposals on how to reduce migrant inflows. The Italian populist government wants a relocation system for refugees: since Italy is where many of the refugees arrive, it wants those accepted to be distributed with fair quotas across the EU. Poland and Hungary, meanwhile, want anything but a relocation system, since they aren’t welcoming any further migration at the moment.

Thus, a European populist alliance as imagined by Steve Bannon is a rather unrealistic idea. The individual movements have too many disagreements and in some cases interests that aren’t compatible with a grand merger. The EU will possibly see a great disruption come next year, which could fundamentally alter the future of Europe. But the right-wing populists will never amount to a cohesive force.

Kai Weiss is a research fellow at the Austrian Economics Center [12] and a board member of the Hayek Institute [13].

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Steve Bannon Tilts at Windmills in Europe"

#1 Comment By Church Falls On August 19, 2018 @ 10:47 pm

It’s a stupid idea. It misses the whole point of this thing, which is you don’t want the damn Americans or anybody else telling you what to do with your country. If I’m a Swede, Hungarian, or Englishman, you think I want STEVE BANNON telling me what to do?

Bannon ought to save his breath, come back to America and start helping us get rid of Trump and his New Yawk City BS and replace him with someone who will pursue a real “America First” agenda.

#2 Comment By Miguel Madeira On August 20, 2018 @ 6:57 am

Almost by definition, it is difficult to create an international alliance of nationalists.

#3 Comment By JohnE_o On August 20, 2018 @ 7:43 am

Bannon is trying to glom onto that sweet, sweet, donor money.

#4 Comment By Liam On August 20, 2018 @ 9:49 am

Another American blind to historical memory: Hungary’s neighbors will be very wary of letting Hungarians take the lead in any populist trans-national alliance.

#5 Comment By Ken T On August 20, 2018 @ 10:04 am

it is difficult to create an international alliance of nationalists.

It’s kind of like establishing a Presidential Commission for the Elimination of Presidential Commissions.

Church Falls:
If I’m a Swede, Hungarian, or Englishman, you think I want STEVE BANNON telling me what to do?

If I’m a [human being with two functioning brain cells], you think I want STEVE BANNON telling me what to do?

Fixed it for ya.

#6 Comment By Michael Kenny On August 20, 2018 @ 10:39 am

First of all, one shouldn’t overestimate the powers of the European Parliament. It can make a nuisance of itself but not much more. For that very reason, people use the EP election to make a protest, voting for people they wouldn’t dream of allowing to run their national governments. Secondly, Bannon’s idea of a sort of “nationalist international” is an absurd contradiction. Many years ago, someone asked Jean-Marie Le Pen why the far-right parties in the EU didn’t get together. He gave them his big Celtic grin and said simply “they hate each other”. European nationalism is ethnic. It is based on hatred of the “other”. That’s why the US anti-EU faction has been financing and whipping up European nationalism as a lever to break up the EU. By definition, therefore, once you try to organize nationalism at EU level, it ceases to be nationalism. Equally, once that organization is being masterminded by an American, that is to say, someone who is a foreigner in literally all the Member States, then the nationalists are selling out the basic tenet of their beliefs and are turning themselves into American quislings. Finally, there’s Bannon’s enormous ego. To my mind, he was kicked out of the White House because he kept claiming that he was the kingmaker who had put Trump there in the first place. Trump certainly wasn’t going to allow himself to be presented as Bannon’s puppet. The same will happen here in Europe. Bannon is already presenting himself as the kingmaker of the European far right. Sooner or later, the party leaders will feel forced to break with Bannon so as not to lose all credibility with their own voters. Thus, I would come to the same conclusion as the author, albeit by a slightly different route. I think that the populist wave has crested and that the future of European politics lies with the “left of the left” parties, some of which the author mentions.

#7 Comment By Kurt Gayle On August 20, 2018 @ 10:50 am

I kept waiting for Kai Weiss to use any of the terms “anti-EU,” “Euro-sceptic,” or “Euro-critical,” but those essential, defining terms appear nowhere in this article.

At stake in next May’s European parliament election is not whether the various populist nationalist formations in Europe agree on each and every issue, but that they are anti-EU, Euro-sceptic, or Euro-critical.

Nigel Farage, former Ukip leader predicted “sweeping advances for anti-EU parties during next May’s European elections…Farage told the Observer that, Eurosceptics could become the largest political grouping on the continent and predicted that anti-EU MEPs could secure between 176 and 235 seats in the European parliament elections next May. ‘My view is that somewhere between a quarter and a third of seats in the European parliament are going to be Eurosceptic and Euro-critical,’ he said.” And Nigel Farage thinks that Steve Bannon’s intervention could help the effort to elect anti-EU MEPs. (The Guardian, July 29, 2018)


#8 Comment By Lady Dr. On August 20, 2018 @ 11:51 am

I think the author misses a major point of coalescence on the part of the right leaning populists. I’m not sure about AfD but of the others she mentions are running as a challenge to the liberal project that has defined Europe since the war.
Seeing as the Poles, Hungarians and Italians in power see the continuation of this liberalism as a literal existential threat to their nations and to Europe I could very well see them acting in concert on a great many issues- perhaps starting with family policy.
Orban has already shown his willingness to break with his group ranks by entering into a mutual support agreement with Poland- thus protecting each nation’s voting rights in the face of a coercive Brussels.

#9 Comment By Brendan Sexton On August 20, 2018 @ 4:04 pm

Steve who?

#10 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On August 20, 2018 @ 4:37 pm

Another American blind to historical memory: Hungary’s neighbors will be very wary of letting Hungarians take the lead in any populist trans-national alliance.

I don’t think the events of 1867-1918 matter as much to Eastern Europeans as you think they should. Not because historical memory doesn’t matter, but because there’s more to historical memory than a 50-year period when Hungarians were ruling over their neighbors. The most important thing that “historical memory” teaches Eastern Europeans- see Branko Milanovic’s recent piece on the subject- is that it’s important for them to have their own ethnic homelands, and if Hungary agrees with them on that question then they’re going to agree with Hungary. After all, Germans (broadly defined) were a coercive power in the region for a lot longer than Hungarians were.

Poland, the Czechs and Slovaks, and Austria already have quite good relationships with the Hungarian government, and if you want to see what this kind of alliance looks like going forward, look at Slovakia. Their Slovak nationalist party, who within the last few decades was censured by the EU for anti-Hungarian rhetoric (Jan Slota had a great routine about “how could such a beautiful land be given to such an ugly people”) is currently in alliance with the Social Democrats and with the ethnic Hungarian party. Because their common interests- including in limiting immigration- are for the time bein more important than their differences.

#11 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On August 20, 2018 @ 4:38 pm

It’s a stupid idea. It misses the whole point of this thing, which is you don’t want the damn Americans or anybody else telling you what to do with your country. If I’m a Swede, Hungarian, or Englishman, you think I want STEVE BANNON telling me what to do?

+1000 to this, by the way.

#12 Comment By TJ Martin On August 21, 2018 @ 9:54 am

Steve Bannon . If he changed his focus from politics to creating a new cult ‘ religion ‘ … from his CV right on down to his rhetoric , actions ( and physical appearance ) he is the very personification and embodiment of a 21st century L. Ron Hubbard

FYI; What Steve Bannon is promoting is Neo – Populism verging on New Euro Fascism pretending to be a populist movement . Unfortunately his sycophant minions are too ignorant or stupid to know the difference