A PROFESSIONAL comedian, Volodymyr Zelensky, has just been elected President of Ukraine. In the forthcoming European elections, meanwhile, the absurdist Two-Tailed Dog Party in Hungary promises voters free beer and eternal life, and Germany’s satirical Die Partei has a standing pledge to redress the country’s energy deficit by harvesting stomach gas from Reichstag deputies.
Amusing as joke parties can be, the possible outcome of forthcoming European Parliament elections is no laughing matter.
A realignment of pan-European party alliances — partly stimulated by the expected departure of British MEPs from Brussels on account of Brexit — has long been forecast. So, likewise, has electoral success for populist interests’ fielding candidates in the 23-26 May European Union elections.
The Deputy Prime Minister of Italy, Matteo Salvini, has taken material steps towards reorganising the Right. On 8 April, together with international colleagues, he officially launched a new alliance in Milan, the European Alliance of Peoples and Nations (EAPN). To date, the embryo grouping draws together Salvini’s own Lega (till now, part of the Europe-wide ENF alt-Right grouping) with the more mainstream Danish People’s Party, and Finns the Party (True Finns): formal allies of Britain’s Tories.
Germany’s radical-nationalist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) are also partners in the group. Since 2016, AfD’s deputies have accepted Nigel Farage’s leadership within Europe for Direct Democracy/EFDD. Other parties seem set to wait out the election results before deciding on affiliation.
EXPECTATION of Brexit helped to precipitate a shake-up of Europe’s Right. Neither the Brexit deadline extension, however, nor recent UK polling information, has calmed the waters. With the Brexit Party polling top on 25 per cent, and UKIP six per cent, populist British Eurosceptic parties could deliver 23 seats — making a strengthened position for populist parties in the legislature likely rather than simply plausible.
The chances of an upset to the established order are heightened by the recent parliamentary breakthrough of Spain’s far-Right Vox party in national elections on 29 April (Paul Vallely, 3 May). Vox leapt from zero to 24 deputies at the expense of mainstream Conservatives.
The potential impact of a Rightist surge in the European Parliament is contested by sceptical academics such as Friedrich Heinemann. They are inclined to dismiss it, holding a “Nationalist-International” to be inherently contradictory. Nationalist parties exist to put national interests first: effective European blocs subject particular interests to the pursuit of common goals.
For example, Mr Salvini wants a compulsory migrant redistribution for the EU, to take the pressure off Italy. This is unacceptable to the governing Hungarian (Fidesz) and Polish (PiS) parties, whose political identity rests on defending their states’ high degree of ethno-religious homogeneity.
Such divergence may partly explain why Mr Salvini has so far been unable to get the leaders in Budapest or Warsaw to sign on the dotted line, despite a strong personal rapport with the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, and much fanfare in January about the inauguration of a new Warsaw-Rome axis. As Mr Salvini’s new formal group partner, the Danish MEP Anders Vistisen, has said, so far “Viktor Orbán is the high-school girlfriend you always wanted but could not get.”
ALL this conceded, however, I dispute the argument that significant tensions within a nationalist bloc would render it innocuous.
To make an impact, populist Eurosceptics need neither a majority nor a “consensus fidelium” about positive policy intentions. Their threat to Europe’s established political leadership lies less in the ability to deliver a programme of their own than in a capacity to act as a blocking mechanism against others’ intentions.
Depending on exact membership, a new alt-Right grouping could command second place in the parliament between the centre-Right European People’s Party (EPP) and centre-Left Socialists and Democrats.
Such a position would be sufficient to derail normal business in a legislature that functions perpetually as a “hung parliament”, in which no group enjoys an overall majority. In Brussels, cross-party co-operation, good will, and deal-making are essential to daily functionality.
One need only think of the disruption that Conservative Brexiteer and DUP MPs (groups conspicuously lacking in shared goals) have effected in the House of Commons under a minority Conservative government to appreciate the damage to EU governance that a Salvini-inspired populist grouping might cause.
To wreak havoc, populists in Europe need not agree on what they want, only on what they don’t. There is plenty to unite them negatively: opposing further EU reform, integration, and regulation.
Furthermore, there is a risk that the (Christian Democrat-dominated) EPP, already much criticised for accommodating Hungarian and Bulgarian populist affiliates, may make concessions to an openly populist grouping to its right rather than deal with Social Democrat and Liberal group centrists to its left.
It may be easier to spot a two-tailed dog than a cheerful mainstream politician in Brussels after 26 May. Conversely, the Chapel for Europe (the parliamentary chaplaincy for Brussels) could see much greater use by MEPs seeking a haven of quiet and calm.
The Revd Alexander Faludy is an Anglican priest presently pursuing studies in law. He lives in Budapest and Cambridge.