Tuesday

22nd Jan 2019

Opinion

'The kids aren't alt-right'

  • Nigel Farage's successful push for Brexit has shown the havoc populists can wreak - but was that the high water mark? (Photo: European Parliament)

Strange things are about to happen on the alt-right side of European politics.

The fact that Trump strategist Steve Bannon has set up shop in Brussels, offering 'advice on messaging, data targeting and think-tank research' has set off a minor frenzy among populist hopefuls.

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Belgian patrician politician Mischaeel Mondrikamen was happy to do the groundwork for The Movement.

In the Netherlands, vainglorious Burke-boy Thierry Baudet suddenly discovered George Soros as the perfect imaginary enemy, so he too might attract some very real friendship from across the Atlantic.

In France and Italy, the extreme right was eager to grab some of the limelight - and who knows what they'll get out of it behind the scenes?

Though they downplay its importance now, Bannon's got Europe's sovereignist strongmen singing from the same hymn sheet: Pick me, pick me!

You never know what might come of it. Politics, is a game of energy and conviction – and nothing convinces and energises a politician like a campaign manager telling him he's the chosen one.

In the classic populist tale All the King's Men, Robert Penn Warren describes how a cynical political operative turns a decidedly average politician into the people's tribune overnight: "If he had got into the election on his own hook, he would have taken a realistic view.

But this was different. He had been called. He had been touched. He had been summoned. And he was a bit awe-struck by the fact ...".

Never underestimate the power of a galvanised ego.

Herding cats

But don't overestimate it either.

Europe's religious nationalists already had a shared agenda, a transatlantic network and plenty of money before Bannon showed up.

One well-established initiative, the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, driven by strange bed-fellows fundamentalist protestants and ultra-conservative Cardinals, also enjoys Bannon's patronage.

They already use the language of universal rights and human dignity to work against individual freedoms.

And they already use the organisations, funding and credibility that the EU offers, through links to parties in both the European People's Party (EPP) and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) groups of the European Parliament.

Luca Volonte, the Dignitates Humanae Institute's chairman, has admitted to siphoning €2.3m of Council of Europe funding into anti-abortion and gay marriage foundations.

That hasn't offset their real problem, which goes much deeper.

For one, they don't have a common position on the EU. Europe's populists are a very mixed bag.

Hungary's Orban has plenty of nuisance value, but he is not a Christian soldier like Poland's Kaczynski.

The cloak of an anti-European revolt and Christian values allows them and others to mask their corruption and hunger for power. If Trump's America gives these men another alibi to do so, they will gladly make use of it.

What they won't do, is leave or destroy the European Union.

They couldn't do it if they wanted to. Across the EU, support for Europe has been going up since Brexit, especially among young people and in Eastern Europe.

Small wonder even Viktor Orban always categorically refused the hand offered by Nigel Farage.

Cutting himself off from EU funding would ruin his business model. Distancing himself further from public opinion would undermine him politically.

He won't even leave his political party, the highly respectable European People's Party, for fear it will cost him dearly.

Because what they also don't have, Europe's alt-right, is public opinion's trust. By far the most impressive popular revolts we have seen on Europe's streets in recent years have come out against Bannon's buddies wherever they are in power.

From anti-corruption demonstrations in Romania and Slovakia, to massive pro-choice manifestations across Poland and civic protests against Orban and his cronies on the streets of Budapest, Europeans know that the supposed 'sovereignty' of their leaders means serfdom for their populations.

Forward movement

Don't get me wrong.

No one will minimise the risk of next year's EU elections. In recent years, every referendum and every election has been turned into a democratic demolition derby.

But Europe has moved on - that's what last week's elections in Luxemburg, Belgium and Bavaria show.

Thanks to Trump and Brexit, people are starting to realise the damage populism does.

They know who'll be left with the wreckage. They know that, when the Bannons and the Farages of this world are done playing, all the King's horses and all the King's men cannot put their societies together again.

The real political momentum will take place on the other side of the political spectrum.

A groundswell has emerged to take EU politics back to the middle ground, where regaining trust and restoring stability are top of people's list of priorities.

Europeans are eager to look forward again, and the winners of next year's election will be those who have the energy, the vision, the promise people know they can still count on when the cameras have left, and the champagne populists have recrossed the Atlantic.

Sophie in 't Veld is a Dutch Liberal MEP

Interview

Bannon's The Movement to launch with January summit

Belgian Mischael Modrikamen is working with US strategist Steve Bannon to make the new hard-right grouping 'The Movement' go global. First step: a summit in January in Brussels, and high-level talks are underway, possibly with Brazil's far-right presidential contender.

Hungary offers cautious support to Bannon project

Populist forces in Hungary and Italy are gearing up ahead of the European parliament elections, as Donald Trump's former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, embarks on a Eurosceptic populist movement. Italy's Salvini has joined with Bannon - Hungary appears more cautious.

What is fate of non-euro EU states after Brexit?

The UK's withdrawal from the EU will heighten fears of marginalisation among the eight member states - Bulgaria, Denmark, Croatia, Poland, Romania, Sweden, Czech Republic and Hungary - that have not adopted the euro.

Salvini and Kaczynski - the new 'axis' powers?

Populists and Eurosceptics are slowly realising that the goal of dismantling the EU is not only unrealistic, costly and unpopular - but also deprives them of valuable opportunities to accumulate political capital and exert influence.

How to troll the European Parliament elections

The May 2019 European parliament elections will take place in a context which make a very promising ground for protest votes and extreme views, aided by bots and algorithms.

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