Bad Times Just Around the Corner

Some two decades ago, far-right parties were but a marginal presence. At present, however, one in four votes cast was for a far-right party. For them, the forthcoming European elections is a mere rehearsal.

The citizens of the European Union will be called to cast their votes in several months for the future composition of the European Parliament. The degree of importance politicians place on preparing for the forthcoming European elections varies from country to country. In Central and Eastern Europe, parties are working on drawing up lists of potential candidates, and names are being thrown out to the public, to test their ability to garner votes.

Other countries, those willing to place a larger stake in the local awareness of the European elections, have already jumped over intra-partisan petty disputes, and have began building campaign teams. Hungary, for example, invited Steve Bannon, U.S. President Donald Trump’s former political strategist, to work with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in the run-up to the elections. Why him? Apart from his valuable political strategic knowledge and network of connections, he has established a foundation, The Movement, to elect right-wing nationalist and populist members to the European Parliament in May 2019, a project that was heartily welcomed by Orbán.

Orbán is testing the fringes of populist behavior

The chemistry between Bannon and Orbán is no longer a secret in Budapest, where the former would like to place the headquarters of The Movement. This is at least what the international media reports. Why Budapest? Because, in Bannon’s words, the next European elections will amount to a clash between forces led by core EU members (Germany and France), and eurosceptic members like Hungary, who are prepared to deftly rally like-minded EU members around Orbán’s banner.

Here comes the paradox: Orbán’s party, Fidesz, is a member of EPP, although in risk of being cast out from the group. Within the EPP group, however, he seems to enjoy, with a broad and relaxed smile, enough support and recognition to face whatever attempts arise to remove his party from the political family.

In fact, Fidesz, as seen through its President’s rhetoric and public statements, is not moving away from the basic ideological principles embodied by the EPP and its members, but is testing the fringes of populist behavior. And this is where the Orbán and Bannon meet and speak the same language.

For Bannon, populism equals right-wing activism (with all its traits, as described before), whereas for Orbán, populism, although never invoked or quoted in the open, means asking the right questions at the right time, no matter how painful or direct, and no matter whether the respective answers might be wrong. The electorate will decide upon them in the end, and is likely that it will decide in favor of the likes of Orbán.

The far-right parties will win the European elections in 2024

Let us return, however, to Bannon’s activity. He does whatever he can to ensure that the ‘clash’ will occur. He was recently quoted saying, in a messianic tone: “All I’m trying to be is the infrastructure, globally, for the global populist movement.”

And he tirelessly strives to do just that, paying visits to the leadership of the French far-right National Front, meeting in Zürich with high-ranking representatives of the German Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), feeling at home in Italy after the electoral victory of the populist parties, lecturing crowds and delivering speeches. How could he not visit and perhaps support Orbán, who, in his views, is a ”hero” and “the most significant guy on the scene right now”?

It is indeed hard work to bring together nationalists and populists – all eurosceptics at their best – around the dream of winning the majority in the European Parliament. Steve Bannon knows their voices are somewhat muffled at home and on the continent; they are not properly heard by the continental electorate.

And yet, Bannon is well aware of what needs to be done, handcrafting a media platform able to make those voices resonate and echo everywhere, like organ sounds in a Medieval cathedral, as a battle cry to reach out to the very emotions of the voters. There is limited time, however, to accomplish this self-imposed task, which means that all need to be ready and established for the next European electoral round, i.e. in 2024.

For the far-right national parties, it is this date, in 2024, when their European representatives could outnumber the representatives of other groups, such as the EPP or the S&D. 2019 is a mere rehearsal, but nevertheless important for steering the political boat properly. In the meantime, until May 2019, the national polls and election outcomes of 2018 suggest that far-right parties will gain ground ahead of the European vote. The far-right has become trendy, and far-right appeal using the populist formula, seems to be successful.

The trendy far-right parties all over Europe

This has been the case in Sweden where the anti-immigration and eurosceptic Sweden Democrats party could double its seats in the European Parliament, if it matches the 17.6 percent it achieved in the national vote this September. And this is happening in historically open, prosperous, tolerant, liberal Scandinavia!

Some say it looks like a wide-spread disease, affecting Denmark, Norway, Finland, and now even Sweden. It has been looming in the dark for years, and constantly growing in voter support. Let us take a look at the recent history of Sweden Democrats. In the late 1980s, a group of neo-fascist extremists formed the party.

In 2010, after decades of shadows and general mistrust, the party jumped, in the space of just three elections, from a 5.7 percent share of the national vote (2010, when its representatives entered the parliament), to 12.9 percent in 2014, and 17.7 percent this year. The party has become attractive, and it may be just a matter of time before it will be asked to join the governing coalition. Academics would bet on it.

The same things are taking place in Denmark, Norway and Austria. Take the case of the last-mentioned. The far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) in Austria was founded in 1956 by a former unrepentant Nazi and first won more than 20 percent of the vote in 1994.

When Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel invited Jörg Haider’s FPÖ to join the government in February 2000, the public outcry forced the EU to adopt sanctions, ceasing cooperation with Vienna, ostracizing the members of the executive, refusing even basic interaction between the other 14 EU member states and Austria.

We tend to forget that, if the normal course of events had come about, Haider would have received the chancellorship. This did not happen. Seventeen years later, however, FPÖ is a direct partner of the center-right ÖVP, and the second member of the actual coalition. Have you heard any sounds of protest from their European counterparts? No, nothing, but a dense silence, amounting to recognition.

Traditional parties shying away from confrontation

Far-right parties have been offered the chance to come out into the limelight, and thus be accepted (not tolerated!) by center-right traditional parties. Far- right parties have been given a symbolic uplift; the center-right believes naively that political predators can be tamed and made acceptable for the European public morale – the more they share the same rhetoric on immigration and the future of the EU – whereas the far-right enjoys inclusion and access to executive power.

If the lines between conservative and the extreme-right become so blurred and fluid, why not allow Fidesz to be an example of the missing link? Mr. Bannon views this as the rationale behind his endeavours.

Poland and other Central Europe countries also rejected a budget specific to the Eurozone, albeit for other reasons. They fear that this will entail a reduction of the European budget.

Why would a commentator, like myself, have the feeling that 2024 will mark the success of an unstoppable march, ein unaufhaltsamer Marsch, towards a complete electoral victory? I do so because, on the one hand, mainstream traditional parties – say a young Romanian political scientist – are likely to give way to allow such things to happen.

They beat into retreat, shying away from confrontation, or striking a compromise (or what they believe a compromise could be!), asking for political support or cooperation in sharing power. Second, let us have a look into what recent polls indicate: populist parties, i.e. far-right parties, have more than tripled their support in Europe in the last two decades. Their leaders are in the governments of eleven countries Europe-wide, and these governments seem solid and consistently backed up by the national electorates.

The snowball-effect

It has been a case of steady growth. Some two decades ago, they were but a marginal presence, accounting for just 7 percent of votes across the continent. Back in 1998, only two European countries – certainly not the largest: Slovakia and Switzerland – had populists in government, with barely any attachment to the far-right, at least in public.

At present, and the most recent national elections have confirmed this, one in four votes cast was for a populist, far-right party. In other words, the number of Europeans ruled by a government with at least one ‘populist’ in the cabinet has increased from 12.5 million to 170 million. Perhaps this is why the Alternative für Deutschland now holds positions in every German Landtag, and has more than 90 seats in the Bundestag.

Perhaps this is why the Italian Lega Nord and the anti-establishment tax-and-spend Movimento Cinque Stelle (remember who built it up and how?) won nearly 50 percent of the popular vote. Silvio Berlusconi and his four-time electoral victory now appear like the good old days.

In the Netherlands, if one needs further evidence, it is Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (all these parties are about ‘freedom’, you see?) which has now become the second-largest parliamentary force. Even the extreme left-wing parties are gaining momentum, although less successful than their far-right counterparts: Podemos, in Spain, looks vital, as does La France Insoumise of Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

The tide began to turn in the early 2000s, when the Dutch establishment was rocked by the rapid rise of Pim Fortuyn, quickly followed by Jean-Marie Le Pen’s presence in the 2002 presidential runoff vote.

Although France will remain a privileged partner, the Franco-German cooperation should not be, according to Berlin, at the expense of internal EU cohesion.

Three years later, referenda in France and the Netherlands rejected the draft EU constitution. This was only the beginning. Since then, anti-establishment populism, gradually turning towards the political extreme, has snowballed, embracing the arguments offered by the 2008 financial crash and the recent refugee crisis.

The Greek Syriza successively took 27 percent, then 36 percent of the national votes. UKIP spurred Britain into Brexit, and Marine Le Pen, in France, won 33 percent in the last presidential run-off vote. When viewing the process from afar, it looks as if the world is rapidly moving in the same direction. Populists, playing the illiberal and anti-establishment key, have been elected to executive offices in India, Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines.

And all this has happened under our very eyes, slowly, but stealthily and steadily.

Will the liberal-conservative EPP survive a presumptive defeat in the forthcoming European elections? There will be no defeat, since the EPP now experiences small increases in the polls, after months of losses. They may be small, but they are enough to keep it afloat. It is likely the group will numerically hold the largest number of seats, and consequently win the competition in the eyes of the voters.

The MPs will come, however, from home, or most of them from their homes, with an obligation to make links with the far-right representatives, as they will parade under the same national colors. As for S&D, they will come to terms with the local losses and swallow defeat, this being an ongoing problem in their case, not a sudden surprise, since declining has been their magic definition everywhere in Europe in recent years.

The space the Social-Democrats have abandoned has been taken up by populists

Some social-democratic parties have even embraced the far-right agenda for populist reasons, as was the case of Romania’s PSD shaking hands with the Coalition for Family group in restrictively defining the meaning of ‘family’ in the Constitution, as a two-gender union. The space the Social-Democrats have abandoned has been taken up by populist voices, mostly from the far- right.

Some say the rising popularity of the Spanish Socialists could save face. I doubt if this is realistic. I would like to know where the Labour party has been throughout Brexit, and what did it actually do to somehow stall it? The German SPD suffers from chronic headaches, whereas the French and Italian Socialist parties only contemplate their glorious past. The present is too harsh for them.

Bannon has found fertile ground to toil. He senses that coordination is mandatory, as an ingredient of complete success. He may take responsibility upon himself for working it out. Himself, or himself and significant others. And it seems as if a full political harvest is awaiting, in 2024. A harvest from Hell.

“There are bad times just around the corner. There are dark clouds travelling through the sky. And it’s no good whining. About a silver lining For we know from experience that they won’t roll by…” wrote Noel Coward once. Hopefully, I add.

Mihai-Räzvan Ungureanu

is a historian, politician and former Prime Minister of Romania. He was also
the Foreign Minister of Romania and Director of the Foreign Intelligence Service

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

Current issue - 03/2019

Saving Europe?

Judging from the recent election to the EP, Europe seems to be increasingly fragmented. However, Czechs and Slovaks, the two most Eurosceptic nations in Europe, elected the two most pro-European delegations to the European Parliament in the region. Perhaps we should not panic.

Download PDF