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The Nationalists Who Could Take Over the European Union

EU leaders are waking up to their worst nightmare: right-wing parties that want to change it from within.
Mateo Salvini

A bit more than a month before the European Parliament elections, EU supporters and federalists are confronting one of their worst fears: a united conservative front, one that could ruin their dreams of a more centralized union.

If you’re in charge of the ins and outs of the EU, you have a number of headaches at this stage. The first is the Italian government coalition between Movimento 5 Stelle (the Five Star Movement) and the Lega Nord (Northern League), both of which are populist parties opposed to immigration, corruption, nepotism, and the political establishment. They also aren’t particular fans of the European Union. At the forefront is deputy prime minister, interior minister, and Northern League leader Matteo Salvini. He’s been criticized for his strong language against African migrants and legislation that specifically targets so-called “ethnic shops.” Salvini also got into diplomatic trouble when he met with Yellow Vest protestors from France, leading Paris to recall its ambassador.

The second headache is called Jarosław Kaczyński, current leader of the Polish Law and Justice Party. He is neither president, as his late identical twin brother Lech Kaczyński was, or prime minister, but is nonetheless said to pull all the strings in Polish politics. His endeavor: bringing his country back to its conservative and Roman Catholic roots and opposing the EU narrative of multiculturalism. However, the Law and Justice party is also increasing the size of the welfare state and endangering the independence of the judiciary.

The third headache—and at this point it feels like a migraine—is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. His Fidesz party is consistently anti-immigration and does not shy away from displaying anti-EU billboards in its cities. This is all the more astonishing, as Fidesz is a member of the European People’s Party (EPP), and therefore closely associated with the strongest political group in the union, which counts among its members EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. The EPP has no interest in kicking out their Hungarian counterparts, however, because they need their votes in order to remain the strongest force in Brussels.

The fourth headache is Romania, ruled by the Social Democrat party Partidul Social Democrat (PSD), which last year passed a bill that weakened rules on corruption. For instance, taking bribes in amounts of less than $475 will simply not be prosecuted anymore, and prison time for corruption has been cut considerably. Protests against these reforms were beaten down brutally by police.

Then there’s the rise of the far-left in Spain, Emmanuel Macron’s low poll numbers in France, the recent announcement that the United Kingdom will indeed participate in the European elections, and the fact that Scandinavian countries increasingly oppose a growing EU budget.

But political differences aren’t new to the European Union. What is new is that none of these forces are actively seeking to leave the EU. Even Marine Le Pen, who for years has argued that France should depart the bloc, now prefers to focus solely on migration.

Salvini and Kaczyński recently met in Warsaw to discuss their possible cooperation in (and after) the European elections. Subsequently, Salvini emerged and announced an “Italo-Polish axis,” saying, “The European dream has been killed in Brussels.” If they were to create a political group in the European Parliament, their impact could be considerable. Poland and Italy are both among the top six most populous countries in the union, with 52 and 76 seats in the parliament respectively. And if the “axis” can gather the support of the likeminded German Alternative für Deutschland, Austrian Freedom Party, and French National Rally, they will take the Brussels legislature by storm, according to current polling.

If that is the case, then any efforts to either further integrate the EU or overhaul migration will be greatly complicated. And EU federalists’ worries don’t stop there.

A decade ago, Euroskeptics were said to be dangerous because they wanted to leave the EU. Now, they are said to be dangerous because they want to stay in. “We want to change things from within,” Salvini told The Time in an interview in September. “We are working with friends from France, Germany, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Netherland, Belgium, Austria to create an alternative alliance to the Christian Democrat and Socialist duopoly that has always governed Europe.”

Suddenly it’s dawning on many in the European Union that those who have made the case for limited government were right all along. With the EU having increased its purview over time, and national governments having given up sovereignty to Brussels, it’s now clear that such great supranational power can be seized by those who were once thought locked out of the political mainstream.

The EU has long tried to keep nationalists at bay by demonizing and slandering them. That strategy has now failed, and with the populist right standing at the gates of power, we can see the helplessness in the faces of those whose European dream is about to come crashing down. I would feel sorry for them had they not brought it on themselves, and I would feel schadenfreude if I didn’t believe that there is more exclusionary nationalism in the world than genuine conservatism.

Or, as Lord Acton said in his letter to Bishop Creighton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Bill Wirtz comments on European politics and policy in English, French, and German. His work has appeared in NewsweekThe Washington Examiner, CityAM, Le MondeLe Figaro, and Die Welt.