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The other Europe story of 2019

25 January 2019

The elections in May could bring about a populist surge, says Alexander Faludy


Steve Bannon, a former adviser to President Trump, and Marine Le Pen, at the Front National annual congress, last March

Steve Bannon, a former adviser to President Trump, and Marine Le Pen, at the Front National annual congress, last March

AS THE Brexit clock ticks and Westminster is stymied, the UK is in constitutional crisis. Amid our national preoccupation, there is a danger of overlooking the other big European political story of 2019: the risk of a populist surge at the looming European Parliament (EP) elections in May. It is a myopia that we can ill afford — especially since Brexit may serve to magnify the risks.

Last July, the alt-Right Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, doyen of Continental populists, declared that “the European elite has failed.” He enjoined his supporters that, in the May elections, “we must demonstrate that there is an alternative to liberal democracy . . . the liberal elite can be replaced” (Comment, 5 October). His was no idle threat.

In recent years, European populists have experienced strengthening parliamentary representation across the continent. EU elections are potentially even more vulnerable to populist hijacking than national or regional ones. Apathy about Brussels institutions makes for a low voter turnout: radical-Right interests can thus mobilise a committed and angry voter base to achieve a strong showing.

Compounding the populist surge is the changed Brussels landscape consequent on the forthcoming withdrawal of British representatives. The loss of Conservative and UKIP MEPs from Brussels after 29 March — the date that the UK is scheduled to leave the EU — means that their respective partner parties must find new allies to ensure viable parliamentary arithmetic. Their search seems set to break the bounds of old distinctions between Centre and radical Right.

Those boundaries have already been subject to erosion. Of late, the governing Conservative parties in Europe, spooked by the electoral success of ascendant populists, have made significant domestic-policy concessions in their direction. Traditional conservatives hope thereby to contain the threat to their own viability.

In Austria, this has even extended, since the 2017 national elections, to a coalition between the historically moderate People’s Party (OPP) and the far-right Freedom Party (OFP). The latter has even been given control of sensitive portfolios relating to immigration and internal security.

THE danger now is that something like this will be repeated on a European level. The Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde is especially worried. Writing in The Guardian this month, he predicted the genesis of a new consolidated bloc in the EP, uniting conventional Eurosceptics with the likes of Marine Le Pen’s Front National. Mudde said that the new bloc “could end up rivalling the centre-left Socialists and Democrats . . . currently the second largest group in parliament”.

Mudde is not the only person talking about such a grouping; so are its potential members. On 9 January, the Deputy Prime Minister of Italy, Matteo Salvini, and the Polish Prime Minister, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, met in Warsaw to discuss co-operation in the EP after the elections in May. Although technically members of different pan- European alliances (ENF and ECR respectively), they are, in fact, kindred figures of the Right.

After the meeting, Mr Salvini promised reporters “a joint action plan that will feed Europe with a new blood, new strength, new energy”. He also announced an “Italo-Polish axis” to counter the historically dominant Franco-German one.

This new alliance will not, though, be limited to Italy and Poland. For the past year, the Brussels-based strategist Steve Bannon, formerly President Trump’s chief adviser, has been acting as a “darting thread”, criss-crossing Europe physically and by telephone to co-ordinate what he proudly calls “The Movement”. He has acted in conjunction with not only Salvini and Kaczynski but also Le Pen, Geert Wil­ders, the Dutch right-wing populist leader, and others besides.

All parties will compete in the election from inside their established groupings. What happens after the results come in, however, is another question. The danger extends even to the mighty European People’s Party (EPP) itself. The moderate conservative grouping (which has strong Christian roots) has set the tone of the Brussels legislature for decades. In the expected realignment, it, too, faces schism.

Despite protests from Dutch and Swedish conservatives, Mr Orbán’s Fidesz party is still within the ranks of the EPP. On 10 January, however, Mr Orbán used his first full press conference in a decade to announce that “the Italo-Polish alliance is one of the greatest developments this year could have started with. . . I am pinning great hopes on it.” Where Fidesz leads, other East European EPP members are likely to follow.

THE emergence of a new populist caucus in Brussels challenges Europe’s churches. Populists love to misuse the language of “Christian democracy”: they erect cribs in town squares at Christmas, sing carols at their winter rallies, and set up crucifixes in public buildings. There is a painful gap between such aesthetic appropriation and their rejection of Christian morality. The deputy director of the think tank Theos, Ben Ryan, has termed far-right religiosity “Christianism”, as opposed to Christianity.

After the elections in May, the EU with which we interact could be a very different one. The C of E chaplains in the diocese in Europe, and partners in other Churches, will need our particular sympathy and solidarity, as they seek to navigate the change.

The Revd Alexander Faludy is an Anglican priest presently pursuing legal studies. He holds dual British and Hungarian nationality.

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