Steve Bannon, the man who helped President Donald Trump smash the American political establishment, set out early last year to help European far-right parties do the same to theirs.
His goal, after being dumped by Trump, was to organize an alliance of Europe’s far-right parties, headlined by Italy’s Matteo Salvini, France’s Marine Le Pen, and Hungary’s proudly illiberal autocrat, Viktor Orban. Bannon hasn’t done very well. Although those leaders posed with him, they don’t seem eager to be linked with an American, even an uber-populist.
But the media-smart Salvini, now Italy’s deputy prime minister and most powerful politician, is trying to organize that far-right bloc himself, pulling together a host of populist nationalist parties all across Europe that are campaigning in European Parliament elections May 23-26.
Ordinarily, those elections, held by EU member states every five years, would be a yawn. But this year they will provide a barometer of the strength of Europe’s nationalist-populists, several of them praised by Trump. They will pit Salvini against France’s Emmanuel Macron, who, while weakened, is the most prominent European champion of liberal values and critic of nativist nationalism.
This is why I’m on my way to Italy, France, and Britain. As Trump gnaws at the roots of U.S. democracy, I want to see how deeply the anti-democratic rot has penetrated America’s democratic allies.
The European Parliament has grown to 751 seats as Europe expanded, and it decides on the EU’s 140 billion-euro ($158 billion) annual budget, designs European laws, and approves leadership of the EU’s executive, known as the European Commission.
Voters cast ballots in their individual countries, and ordinarily, the bulk of candidates are nominated from existing parties. But nothing is ordinary this year. Across Europe, center-right and center-left parties are being decimated at the polls by voters angry about growing inequality, globalization – and migration.
Sound familiar? It should, because the populist wave that brought Trump to power has decimated your father’s GOP, and created immense strife within the Democratic Party. But in Europe’s parliamentary systems, that angst has decimated centrist parties and produced new parties on the far right and far left, some of which are unabashedly illiberal.
Italy is the most fascinating political Petri dish. Its last election produced a coalition between the populist, internet-driven Five Star Movement and Salvini’s nationalist, anti-migration Lega party. Now deputy prime minister, and interior minister, Salvini uses language about migrants that makes Trump look like a choirboy.
Yet Italy’s location, on Europe’s southern flank, opposite Africa, puts an unfair burden on the country, and other European nations have so far refused to do their fair share, whether taking in more migrants or contributing to forces that will police Europe’s external borders.
Italy’s migrant problem is much worse than America’s, but it will be fascinating to compare their politics with ours: In both, a rational solution is conceivable, but irrational rhetoric stirs up useful fear and anger that can deliver votes.
Salvini’s efforts to form a new far-right alliance – he will hold a huge rally in Milan on May 18 – may also undermine the future of democratic Europe.
These elections essentially pit Salvini’s strongly nationalist vision against the views of Macron, who believes that European democracies are stronger when working together to counter Russia’s dangerous meddling along with China’s aggressive trade and military tactics, and hopes of future dominance.
One big caveat: Different nationalist parties in different countries have particular outlooks. Salvini, for example, is pro-Russian, while Poland’s governing nationalists are anti-Moscow. And Orban, who so far hasn’t joined Salvini’s group, has focused on deconstructing democratic institutions, parties, the media, and the courts, to an extent beyond any other European country. His is the vision of elected autocracy.
Yet the real bulwark against the nationalists is Macron. So, in France, I will be looking at how seriously the Yellow Vest protest movement against growing inequality has weakened Macron. I will also be looking at the French right-wing anti-Semitism that has reemerged with far-right movements.
Ironically, Britain’s awful experience with implementing Brexit has soured European publics on leaving the European Union. So Salvini and France’s Le Pen no longer advocate an Italexit or a Frexit, even though they seek to weaken the EU.
However, the putative far-right bloc may be helped by the results of the British vote in European elections. Because the British Parliament has failed to approve a Brexit package until now, Britons will unexpectedly be voting. I will be in London to watch whether a new Brexit party, headed by pro-Trump Nigel Farage, gets the largest share of the votes. It’s easier to win when your slogan can be summarized in one word: Leave.