Demonstrators took to the streets of Vienna last weekend to express their outrage over the latest political scandal, known as the ‘Ibiza affair.’ A video that was filmed secretly two years ago and just revealed showed the leader of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party, Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, offering public contracts to a woman posing as a niece of Russian oligarch Igor Makarov. In exchange, she promised financial support for Strache’s party and media coverage for his political campaign. Der Spiegel, the influential German weekly known for its investigative journalism, broke the story. Strache resigned his post, and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz dissolved his government shortly after the footage became public.
Almost at the same time, just a few hundred miles away in Milan, Matteo Salvini, the Italian anti-immigrant Interior Minister and leader of the right-wing League party, delivered a speech to thousands of exuberant supporters at a rally of European populist movements. He was accompanied by other European far-right leaders, including Marine Le Pen from France’s National Rally party and Joerg Meuthen from the Alternative for Germany party.
For Salvini, it was yet another opportunity to position himself as the leader of European populists and deliver his trademark criticism of the European Union. He denounced EU policy towards immigrants, described Islam as the biggest security threat to Europe, and pledged to return control of the EU to its citizens. And yet, Strache’s absence hinted of potential weaknesses in Salvini’s push for far-right strength in unity.
The May 18 protests in Vienna and Milan are emblematic of the deep divisions among European voters, as EU member states approach elections May 23-26 for the European Parliament. Usually an obscure event that draws little voter turnout, this year’s contest is different. The results may constitute a tipping point in modern European history.
The European Parliament has never been popular – voter turnout in its elections, held every five years, has dropped from 62 percent to 42 percent over the last four decades. European citizens are perpetually puzzled with the way the EU works and often see Brussels as overly bureaucratic, run by unaccountable politicians detached from their voters back in their home countries. The parliament cannot initiate legislation – that is the purview of the executive branch, the European Commission – but it can request legislation be introduced, and it votes on the EU budget.
To confuse voters even more, there are different voting systems across the EU: in some cases, voters cast ballots for parties and their lists of candidates, whereas in other countries, voters choose individual candidates.
This year, voting begins May 23, although the majority of voters will go to the polls on May 26. More than 5,000 candidates representing 400 national political parties will run for 751 seats, including from Britain, where the country’s planned Brexit has been delayed. The number of seats will decline from 751 once the U.K. exits the EU and its 73 British members vacate their seats. Some of those seats will be reapportioned, while others will be eliminated, leaving the parliament with 705 seats, with room for possible future enlargement.
Pivotal Issues and Odd Alliances
But the differences this year are far greater than the number of seats, for at least two reasons. First, as Salvini’s rally speech demonstrated, three key issues of EU policy animate the entire election: (anti-)migration, security (specifically terrorism by Islamic extremists), and `reform’ of the bureaucracy. The enthusiasm of Salvini’s crowd illustrates the import of these elections to the future of Europe. Whether candidates and their supporters adhere to the left or the right politically or economically, a campaign for the European Parliament this year is inconceivable if it doesn’t address — and provide answers to — these questions.
The second difference from 2014 is that, unlike any time before – and perhaps counter-intuitively — Europeans are less divided between traditional left and right. With the populists on their way to winning one-third of the seats in the parliament and the menace of populist demagogy and nationalism growing, the need for cooperation between otherwise ideologically different parties grows, and it outweighs whatever differences they might have over migration issues and the future of the EU. This is what makes French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel cooperate so closely, despite their distinctive personalities and different political concepts.
Of course, populism is not a new phenomenon in Europe. It is rooted in the history of the continent and the concept of nation-states, and resurfaces at times of crisis. This time, the populist sentiment has been stoked by the migrant crisis and terrorist attacks, but the root cause of the problem is much deeper. It stems from 1) the enduring argument over which authorities should reside with the EU vs. those that should be retained by individual member states, and 2) the persistent jockeying for power among member states themselves.
Similar to the current wave of populism in the United States, European populist ideas mostly revolve around where authority resides. With that debate in common, European nationalist leaders may benefit somewhat from American support like the backing that U.S. President Donald Trump showed last week in welcoming Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to the White House.
But Europe’s populists don’t really need Trump or former White House advisor Steve Bannon’s “Movement” to thrive. Besides the public attention it draws, Bannon is a bit player in European affairs. The continent’s far-right movements have their own dynamics; should the U.S. administration suddenly decide it no longer wants to lend its political support as it does now, while helpful to moderates and the EU in the long run, it wouldn’t significantly reduce the influence of the far right in the short run.
Traditional Conservatives Hold Sway … For Now
Traditional conservatives, embodied in the European People’s Party (EPP) caucus in the European Parliament, have more at stake than any others. They currently hold 217 of 751 seats and hope to remain the largest political grouping. But the surging popularity of far-right movements gives voters an apparently viable alternative. In the face of this challenge, traditional European conservatives have moved further to the right to appeal to their electorate, sharpening their rhetoric and, for example, advocating a stricter EU migration policy.
Ironically, it is the unexpected British participation in the European elections — with the delay of the country’s planned exit from the EU – that could give the EPP group another major headache. Traditionally, British conservatives were part of the EPP block, but they left in 2009 to create an EU-skeptic political group of European conservatives and reformists. Many analysts believe British votes for the European Parliament will end up in the hands of Euroskeptics and populists.
Aware of their golden opportunity, the populists aren’t wasting their time. A month ago, they formed a new alliance to, as they say, radically transform EU policy in several areas. Again, Salvini played a major role — an early campaign poster for the European elections featured a large portrait of Le Pen alongside Salvini.
“All over Europe,” the caption said, “our ideas are coming to power.”
But the alliance is more than Italy and France. Many well-known faces from the European far-right, including the Alternative for Germany, the populist party The Finns, the right-wing Danish People’s Party, the Dutch Party for Freedom (known for its anti-Islam and anti-migrants agenda), and Strache’s Freedom Party all joined the alliance.
Campaigning on `Curing’ the EU, Not Killing It
This is not the first time that Europe’s far-right parties have sought to present a united front. Similar groups like the Europe of Nations and Freedom Group (ENF) or Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) existed before or are still active. Yet this time, with hope of becoming the third-largest group in the European Parliament and seeing public sentiment shift in favor of the EU after the still-inconclusive Brexit disaster, the populists have modified their political discourse and public image: they now proclaim they want to cure the EU, not kill it. The talk about exit is replaced by talk of returning control of the EU to its members and its citizens. Even Le Pen has acknowledged that they have learned a lesson: “The party now talks of changing the EU from within,” she says.
The far-right parties say they want to halt illegal migration, make the Schengen visa-free zone more strict, restore national sovereignty, and devolve EU authorities to the level before the 1992 Maastricht Treaty that created today’s EU. They argue that such measures would `save’ Europe and its `Christian culture’ and traditions. Many of them refer to the EU, as Strache has done, as a decadent place that betrays `European traditions.’ They use almost the same rhetoric as Moscow does to describe the EU.
For his part, Salvini has successfully transformed himself and has come a long way from a second-league regional nationalist to one of the most prominent leaders of the European far-right. He believes the movement’s strength is increasing, and he thinks that it has found a formula for success. The group has been trying to utilize what it depicts as increasing public discontent with Brussels.
Likely Post-Election Test
The first political test will come soon after the elections, with the appointment of a new president of the European Commission. The six leading candidates include Manfred Weber, from the EPP, seen by many as the front runner. This appointment, too, is the subject of much infighting within the EU, as members of the parliament argue that they should select the commission president as an expression of the will of the people, while European heads of state and prime ministers who make up the European Council (not to be confused with the Council of the European Union, which is made up of a Cabinet-level representative of each country) want final say.
The Euroskeptics take this as an example of why the EU should be overhauled. Salvini believes his group, with its growing confidence despite the fact that they have no candidate yet, will have enough votes to determine who will run the Commission for the next four years.
Strache’s Exit Serves a Setback
Still, for the far right, the prospect of success is not a foregone conclusion. Strache’s absence from Saturday’s meeting was a huge setback for the movement. With his anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim messages, he has served as a role model for many rightists in Europe. The video with him and a purported niece of a Russian tycoon was filmed in 2017, suggesting it was withheld to be released at a significant moment. The scandal has not only ruined his and his party’s odds of achieving a good election result, but also stains the reputation of rightists by association as corrupted, greedy, and fraudulent, the very allegations the Euroskeptics often toss at bureaucrats in Brussels.
The absence of populist leaders from Eastern European is another hurdle for the new nationalist block. It appears that Salvini’s group is not politically attractive to Hungary’s Orban or to Polish nationalists, who have declined to join the alliance. Orban likely would be even more reluctant to do so after this scandal. His Fidesz party still belongs to the EPP even though the caucus suspended its membership because of its right-wing policies.
Though Fidesz is on the same page with the far right on many tough issues, Orban seems to be willing to remain in the EPP. The coming elections may answer the question of how relations between the EPP and Fidesz will look going forward. If the EPP needs his party’s votes in the parliament, that would strengthen his negotiating position after the elections.
The biggest enigma in all this, however, is the voters. A survey released a few days ago shows most European citizens are concerned about the EU’s future. Two-thirds of Europeans have a positive opinion of the EU, the strongest support since the early 1980s. At the same time, a majority believe the Union could collapse in the next 20 years.
Interestingly, the majority of those who say they plan to vote for anti-system parties believe a war between EU member states is possible. The fear is likely based less on any prediction of actual conflict than reflecting concern that the “logic of conflict” dominates political discourse in Europe. For instance, 46 percent of supporters of France’s National Rally Party and 41 percent of the supporters of Alternative for Germany hold this view. Across the EU, three-quarters of voters feel that politics is broken at the national or EU levels, or both. Only 15 percent of French citizens think the political system works well.
The ambivalent feelings of citizens mirror the challenges facing the EU: in the current climate, every political group believes it will be victorious. The Euroskeptics play on the fear of migration in countries such as Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Greece, and Poland. And pro-EU parties focus on the fear of nationalism as well as economic uncertainty and climate change. The messages that most inspire voters to turn out between May 23 and May 26 will be the ones that win the day.