Since being forced out as President Donald J. Trump’s chief White House strategist in August 2017, Steve Bannon has set his sights on the European Union – in many ways the embodiment of the internationalist, multicultural, open borders ideology that he and his followers disdain.
For the past year, Bannon has been jotting across Europe, meeting with populist and nationalist politicians who share his dream of waging a “revolt” against the E.U.
He has set up a foundation called “The Movement,” which provides polling, data analytics, research, messaging advice, and other forms of support to anti-establishment parties and politicians ahead of elections this May to the European Parliament. Bannon has called the contest a “face-off” between populism and “the party of Davos.”
But just how big of a threat is Bannon’s movement to the E.U.? And what can the bloc do to counter it?
It has been easy for Bannon to find ideological allies across Europe. Populist, nationalist groups have gained footholds across the continent. Bannon has found like-minded allies in such figures as Brexit champion Nigel Farage, Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, and Hungary’s President Viktor Orban. All preach the need to reclaim national sovereignty, impose greater limits on integration, and confront radical Islam.
Can Bannon’s Movement Undermine EU?
With enough seats, Europe’s anti-establishment parties could be a major disruptive force in the European Parliament, and make the body even more unwieldy than it already is. His aim is to capture a third of the European Parliament’s 751 seats, which would be enough for a “blocking minority.”
But Bannon has encountered a number of problems in his bid to undermine the E.U.
It is unlikely that Bannon (or anyone else) will be able to create a single grand alliance of populist, nationalist parties in Europe. While these parties share some concerns, such as opposition to immigration, and all have a common enemy in the E.U., their attitudes and outlooks are national. They disagree on many issues, such as relations with Russia. While the National Rally (formerly the National Front) in France and the League in Italy support closer ties with Moscow, Poland’s Law and Justice Party sees that as anathema.
Bannon has also run up against various national election laws that have limited his ability to support populist groups. Many E.U. countries have tight restrictions on foreign funding in national elections, for example, which severely limit the amount and kind of support he can offer.
Bannon has arrived late to the scene. Europe’s populist, nationalist parties have been around for years, and in some cases decades. Some groups, such as Austria’s Freedom Party and the Alternative for Germany, have rebuffed Bannon’s invitations to join an alliance.
Knowledge About European Politics
It is also not clear how deep Bannon’s knowledge is about European politics. He acknowledged that he did not know anything about the European Parliament until he watched videos on YouTube of Farage haranguing the institution.
Bannon’s organization so far has little funding and personnel. Bannon himself and a few European donors are funding The Movement’s activities. And the foundation has plans to hire only ten full-time staff members.
Trump also remains a deeply unpopular figure across Europe, another reason why some anti-establishment groups have decided to keep Bannon at arm’s length.
Partly in response to the rise of the far right, there has been a wave of pro-E.U. mobilization across Europe in recent years. Public opinion surveys show that the E.U.’s favorability ratings have steadily climbed from the lows they hit earlier this decade. And polls consistently show that solid majorities in all E.U. member states other than the U.K. are in favor of staying in the Union.
— EuroBarometer (@EurobarometerEU) December 11, 2018
Moreover, some of the reasons that contributed to the rise of right-wing extremism are disappearing. Irregular migration, a major cause of the rise of the far right, is down 92 percent from its 2015 high.
The E.U. has also recently shown that there are consequences for actions that violate its core values. In September 2018, for example, the European Parliament voted to censure the government in Hungary for breaching the E.U.’s values on democracy and the rule of law.
Bannon likes to claim that there is today in Europe a titanic clash of values. On the one side, there are those who extol populism and nationalism and rail against the European project. On the other side are those, exemplified by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who embody the liberal establishment.
Bannon has shown that he can be an above-average propagandist but is a below-average political strategist. The results of this May’s European Parliament elections will bear this out.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.