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Steve Bannon Tilts at Windmills in Europe

He wants a grand alliance of continental populists. Here's why it will never happen.
Steve Bannon

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: “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 aren’t too happy with Macron’s ideas either. 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 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 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 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 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 (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 (one of its leading members recently argued that pensions should be privatized)—to the anti-austerity 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 and a board member of the Hayek Institute.