Will Europe’s nationalists welcome Bannon’s attempt to unite the right?

Philippe Huguen, AFP | Steve Bannon and France’s National Rally leader Marine Le Pen speak to the press during the party’s annual convention at the Grand Palais in Lille on March 10.

Former White House adviser Steve Bannon hopes a new far-right umbrella group dubbed "The Movement" can unite Europe’s nationalists ahead of EU Parliament elections in May. But Europe's populists may find they are better off going it alone.


Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, a leading advocate of the alt-right in the United States, is hoping The Movement can lead Europe’s nationalist and populist parties to a strong showing next May.

Bolstered by the surprising successes of far-right parties in recent elections, Bannon is looking to create a center of operations of sorts, aimed at uniting Europe’s disparate right wing to upend – and ultimately eclipse – Europe's post-war political order.

In recent months Bannon has met with European right-wing groups and leaders including Brexit campaigner and former UKIP leader Nigel Farage; France’s Marine Le Pen of the National Rally party (formerly the National Front); Alternative for Germany (AfD) leader Alice Weidel; and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has become known for his anti-immigrant, anti-media rhetoric.

“We believe – strongly – that there is a global Tea Party movement,” Bannon said in a 2014 speech. “I think you’re seeing a global reaction to centralized government, whether that government is in Beijing or that government is in Washington, DC, or that government is in Brussels.”

“The central thing that binds that all together is a center-right populist movement of really the middle class, the working men and women in the world who are just tired of being dictated to by what we call ‘the party of Davos’” – a reference to the business and political leaders who gather annually for the World Economic Forum summit in Davos, Switzerland.

Bannon believes that Europe’s right wing has so far suffered from both a lack of expertise and funding. The Movement, he told the Daily Beast, can offer advice on strategy, polling, messaging and data targeting for far-right parties across the European continent.

“Next May is hugely important,” Bannon said. “This is the real first continent-wide face-off between populism and the party of Davos. This will be an enormously important moment for Europe.”

Bannon envisions a right-wing bloc within the European Parliament that could unite as many as a third of EU lawmakers if all goes well in next May’s elections. Farage and Le Pen could spearhead the creation of this parliamentary group, which would bring together parties from Western Europe as well as from Eastern Bloc nations like Poland and Hungary. Such a bloc could have a significant impact on parliamentary proceedings, influence the running of EU institutions and help shape its future leadership.

Bannon’s stated ambition is for his organisation eventually to rival the impact of George Soros, who has donated $18 billion in recent years to the Open Society Foundations pro-democracy charity he founded.

‘History is on our side’

Bannon has been cultivating a relationship with the Le Pen family: In February Marine Le Pen’s niece, former lawmaker Marion Marechal-Le Pen, was a key speaker at the annual summit of the American right, the Conservative Political Action Conference or CPAC.

Bannon himself spoke at the National Front’s convention in Lille in March.

“What I’ve learned [visiting Europe] is that you’re part of a worldwide movement that is bigger than France, bigger than Italy, bigger than Hungary, bigger than all of it,” Bannon told the crowd. “And history is on our side. The tide of history is with us and will compel us to victory, after victory, after victory!”

>> Wear 'racist' like a badge of honour, Bannon tells French far right

He exhorted the crowd to embrace the condemnations of the media and the global elite. “Let them call you racist, let them call you xenophobes, let them call you nativists. Wear it like a badge of honor. Because every day we get stronger and they get weaker,” he said.

The convention in Lille proved decisive for his plans to expand into Europe.

“I didn't get the idea until Marine Le Pen invited me to speak at Lille at the Front National,” Bannon told the Daily Beast. “I said, ‘What do you want me say?’”

“All you have to say is, ‘We're not alone’,” was the response.

It was then that Bannon began to realize that Europe’s nationalist movements were not sharing ideas and resources with like-minded groups across the Continent.

He is now convinced that the post-war decades of closer European integration are coming to an end and are ceding ground to grassroots nationalist movements.

“Right-wing populist nationalism is what will happen. That’s what will govern,” he told The Daily Beast. “You're going to have individual nation states with their own identities, their own borders.”

Bannon surmises that with his expertise and a newly united approach, these disparate national groups could quickly become a Europe-wide force to be reckoned with.

“It will be instantaneous – as soon as we flip the switch,” he said.

International nationalists

The Movement is starting out with around 10 staffers in Brussels, with Bannon reportedly planning to divide his time roughly equally between his projects in Europe and the United States. But for all his jubilation about the ascent of the right across the EU, he has no real experience in handling a European political campaign. Bannon’s experience of what resonates with right-wing American voters may not translate neatly into a message that works in disparate European nations with distinct political cultures, languages and historical experiences.

Dr. Paul Jackson, a senior lecturer in contemporary history at Northampton University and a specialist in the dynamics of the extreme right in Britain and Europe, said it’s doubtful that Bannon can be a unifying force on the Continent.

“[His] US-centric approach to issues does not mean he is going to be easily adopted by European groups that are keen to highlight their independence and deep respect for their national identity.”

In fact, Bannon’s vision of an international alliance of nationalists might be something of a contradiction in terms. Will European groups critical of the EU for infringing national interests line up to join another multilateral organisation, even one that encourages nationalist views?

In comments to Politico last month, National Rally spokesman Jérôme Rivière suggested the answer would likely be “No”.

“We reject any supra-national entity and are not participating in the creation of anything with Bannon,” Rivière said.

“Bannon is American and has no place in a European political party,” he added, although he acknowledged that he had spoken to Bannon about how he might “provide us with new ideas or share his experience”.

Bannon does not seem to realize that many of Europe’s populist parties are also anti-American, European studies lecturer Alexander Clarkson of King's College London told the BBC.

"If they embrace Trump, then all that anti-Americanism below the surface will turn itself against them, particularly in France," he said.

"That's why a lot of these parties are aware that getting into bed with Bannon is inherently risky."

Bannon did not respond to a request for comment.

A right that won’t unite

Previous efforts to rally the right around common interests have fallen short, Dr. Jackson noted. “The history of far-right activism is replete with examples of efforts to develop international links, and their failure," he said. 

"These groupings often work in general terms, but can fall down when it comes to specifics, such as tensions over borders, or issues of memory such as national roles during WWII,” which remain a source of discord in some parts of Europe.

“There is always a tension between working together to make a bigger collective unit and playing to national agendas and concerns.”

Angelos Chrysogelos, an associate fellow in the Europe Programme at the Chatham House think tank, suggested that Bannon is likely also underestimating the divergence of economic views across European Union members.

Many of the themes of Bannonism/Trumpism do not translate well in Europe, or translate in different ways in different parts of the continent,” he said in an email.

“For example, Bannon’s obsession with trade and economic dumping from places like China may resonate in Western Europe, in places like France, but not in Eastern Europe, which is welcoming of investments from China.”

Even an issue like immigration, which could theoretically see some common cause among the right, might end up sowing the seeds of division. For far-right groups, the migrant issue is something of a zero-sum game: One country’s “gain” (by refusing refugees) is necessarily another’s nation’s “loss”.

Ultimately, as national right-wing groups chart their paths forward, few will find their domestic legitimacy bolstered by linking up with other groups on the far right, said Chryssogelos.

For example, "the LePen brand is still way too toxic in many parts of Europe due to its association with racism and anti-Semitism", he observed. "For northern European radicals, their own agenda of normalization in their respective national politics calls for them to stay clear of Le Pen, not to join with her.”

Going it alone also allows right-wing groups to tailor messages to their distinct national audiences.

“Far-right parties do better when running individually in national arenas stressing nationalism, Euroskepticism and opposition to immigration,” Chryssogelos said. “Allusions to transnational links complicate matters for most of them.”

“They just need to continue doing what they are already doing well.”

Hanno Burmester, a policy fellow at Berlin think tank Das Progressive Zentrum, which published a 2018 policy brief on populism, agreed that Europe’s nationalists are likely to find any attempts at closer cooperation to be of dubious benefit.

“The reason why far-right populists in Europe do not coordinate more systematically is that most of them are profoundly different, both in policy and style,” he said.

And so far, Europe’s right wing appears to be doing just fine without any outside help.

“The sad truth is that it does not take Steve Bannon to build a strong far right in Europe,” said Burmester. “The voters are doing his job perfectly well – by not voting, and by supporting nationalist, anti-EU forces in their home countries.”

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