BERLIN ― A big day is looming for the loosely united populist movement of far-right politicians that has shaken liberal democracies worldwide and inspired fear of a dramatic swing toward violent nativism and shocks to global order.
On Sunday, May 26, after four days of voting that begin Thursday, the world will know whether more than 400 million voters across Europe have met expectations and given the self-proclaimed nationalists a historic mandate in the European Parliament, the body that regulates and helps shape the policies of the European Union.
Radical right parties and their folk heroes, like Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, will likely be rejoicing, spinning the results as evidence they are continuing to gain power and support after landmark wins for their ideology in the U.S., the U.K., Italy and other nations. Their success will probably thrill their spiritual allies abroad, from President Donald Trump to Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
But the far right will also be preparing for difficult new responsibilities and scrutiny ― and the reality that the movement’s ideas, for now, remain on the fringe. Their goal of severely limiting efforts at international cooperation through the EU and other bodies will be difficult given that a large majority of the parliament is set to remain pro-EU and dominated by traditional, more centrist parties.
It’s no longer particularly surprising or impressive that populists can win votes. What counts, and could affect billions of people beyond Europe’s borders, is how far their clout will let them reset the continent’s agenda to serve goals like cracking down even harder on migrants and minorities like Muslims, encouraging illiberalism and threats to the rule of law, and downplaying issues like human rights and climate change as less important than national sovereignty.
Analysts are closely watching whether the far right will maintain one of its biggest advantages: its influence over the much bigger international center-right. In trying to mimic the insurgent populists and avoid losing voters, established right-wing political structures have helped legitimize nativists’ arguments and even translate them into policy ― amplifying anti-establishment figures’ global success.
Just as U.S. Republicans have pushed the agendas of Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, Britain’s Conservatives have cowed to their most extreme wing, and the EU-level European People’s Party has tolerated anti-democratic and often hateful moves by Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán. The question for center-right politicians is whether their alliance with the far right works electorally and whether they can continue to pursue their largely pro-business, often socially conservative policies and still avoid inciting racial tensions or associating with violent groups and unpopular figures.
Meanwhile, the populists’ opponents are hoping for fresh popularity of their own. Green parties, which also hold left-wing views on diversity and other issues, are set to do better than ever across Europe. French President Emmanuel Macron is working to unite centrist leaders and voters continent-wide against the far right, both on behalf of his vision of European unity and to push back against his chief domestic opponent.
Later this summer, the EU’s council of national governments is expected to give most top jobs in its vast and powerful civil service, the European Commission, to traditionalists, another obstacle to the dramatic change the far right is seeking.
Populists have scored unprecedented political wins for years by saying they want an alternative to an establishment they present as both ineffective and dangerous. By not being inside the system, they’ve been able to keep pushing the perception that they are truly in touch with citizens’ desires without addressing questions like how they would handle popular pushback to their policies.
Now they’re on the inside ― and it’s time for the ultra-nationalists to demonstrate what they would do about the world beyond their national borders, other than criticize it. Here’s how our international editions say the far right and its many critics are preparing for the European elections and the day after them.
― Akbar Shahid Ahmed
By Gianni Del Vecchio, Editor-in-Chief, HuffPost Italy
ROME — A year ago, Italy became the first leading European country in recent history in which both populist and overtly anti-EU forces managed to take power. And, despite a bruising 12 months in power and deepening divisions between the coalition partners, the far-right, anti-immigration Lega and anti-establishment Five Star (M5S) parties are still together and still in government ― no mean feat in a country where prime ministers change on an almost annual basis.
According to the most recent polls, published by pollsters SWG, support for the Lega Party of Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini is strong at around 30%, while support for the M5S party of fellow Deputy PM Luigi Di Maio is at 22%.
However, the balance of power between them has shifted: Due largely to Salvini’s ability to capitalize on fears over immigration and crime, Lega has gained support in the last 12 months, while M5S has experienced a significant decline. In fact, during the 2018 Italian general election, Lega was at 17%, while M5s became the majority party with 32% of the vote. This likely helped to prevent the violent street clashes associated with the yellow vests movement in France from occurring in Italy. Anti-establishment forces are in Parliament ― they don’t need to be on the street.
However, in a sign of Italy’s new ‘political normal,’ the two sovereignist parties show a far greater agenda-setting ability than their so-called ‘mainstream’ rivals. Salvini and Di Maio have managed to take ownership of the topics normally associated with the traditional left and right, namely the center-right Forza Italia party of four-time Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and the social-democratic Partito Democratico.
Salvini, undoubtedly now one of Europe’s most powerful figures, controls border security and immigration, while his M5s counterpart Di Maio, a university dropout who was living at home until five years ago, leads on civil rights and the government’s efforts to defeat economic and social inequality. Such is their power that despite leading the government together, they play the role of majority and opposition at the same time. While Partito Democratico and Forza Italia are cast to the sidelines of political debate, Di Maio and Salvini clash daily, with increased tensions between the two parties leading to questions over whether their coalition can actually survive in the long term. Indeed, if Italy’s coalition was to fail, it would be due to its own infighting rather than the strength of the traditional parties.
Have the two populist forces managed to keep the promises they made during the campaign? Yes and no. So far, both have managed to have key measures approved: M5S introduced a “citizens’ income” designed to reduce poverty for Italy’s lowest-paid, along with salary cuts for members of Parliament. Lega has won reforms lowering Italy’s retirement age from 67 to 62 for millions, expanded self-defense protections for victims of crime and clamped down on asylum rights.
In fact, new refugee arrivals to Italy have plummeted since Salvini took charge of the country’s borders in June. According to official figures, just 348 migrants have arrived so far this year, down 94% from the same period in 2018 and down 98% from 2017 ― though it’s worth asking at what cost. International human rights organizations note that Salvini’s approach of slashing Italian rescue operations for desperate seaborne asylum-seekers and relying on repressive Libyan forces to keep them back has likely hurt tens of thousands of people.
By Geoffroy Clavel, Politics Editor, HuffPost France
PARIS — Although weakened by legal setbacks, a series of defections and increased competition to win the anti-establishment vote, France’s longtime far-right leader Marine Le Pen has still managed to position herself as the only “useful vote” capable of punishing unpopular President Emmanuel Macron in the EU election campaign. In the climate of uncertainty created by the “yellow vest” crisis, Le Pen has preserved her electoral base while her main opponents have seen their numbers plummet.
Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (National Rally) party is now neck-and-neck in the polls with Macron’s centrist La République En Marche (Republic On the Move) and within touching distance of her goal of making the party formerly known as the National Front No. 1 in France again. Even Macron’s personal involvement in the campaign has given Le Pen the opportunity to turn the European election into a “third round” of presidential election voting. “If Macron loses this election, then he will have to leave,” she has said.
But her strong position is not yet a triumph. Since 2014, when the National Front won the European elections in France with 24.8% of the vote, the “frontists” have failed to deliver on their promises. Le Pen’s party already held the mantle of being the biggest in France during European elections in 2014; to truly distinguish itself, it has to follow through — a goal that remains out of reach. Le Pen has now given up her promise of France leaving the EU because of the tragicomic example of Brexit and is hoping to prove to voters that she can keep her promises by uniting with other ultra-nationalists like Italy’s Matteo Salvini.
Along with Donald Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon, whose support for Le Pen has brought embarrassment to her campaign amid accusations that she is colluding with white supremacists and the far right in Italy, she supports Salvini’s idea of uniting radical fight forces within the European Parliament. Yet she remains on the outs with potential allies like Hungarian leader Victor Orbán, who’s explicitly said he would not form an alliance with Le Pen. It remains to be seen whether Salvini will sacrifice his relationship with Le Pen to form a rapprochement with other anti-establishment figures ― leaving her success limited even if she does as well as expected at home.
By Ned Simons, Politics News Editor, HuffPost UK
LONDON — The Brexit deadlock in the U.K. is now causing yet another unexpected and potentially worrying consequence: the meteoric rise of Nigel Farage’s new populist Brexit Party.
Farage, whom Donald Trump once said “many people” wanted to see as the U.K.’s ambassador in Washington, launched his party a little over a month ago, but it has quickly secured a commanding poll lead — gobbling up the support of frustrated Leave voters. It now has over 100,000 members — an impressive number for a British political party. Farage, a veteran anti-European, has been crisscrossing the country to address rallies packed with supporters.
In Britain, these elections were not supposed to happen. Prime Minister Theresa May had promised to take the U.K. out of the EU by March 29, 2019. But MPs’ refusal to back her Brexit deal has led to a long delay. The election on May 23 will be largely seen as a second referendum, with all eyes on how many votes pro-Brexit parties and pro-Remain parties get.
May’s governing Conservative Party has tanked in the polls. One survey showed it had crashed as low as fifth place. Three out of five Conservative members have suggested they will vote for a Brexit Party candidate, as will 40% of local Conservative Party officials known as councillors. One of the Conservatives’ own MPs, Huw Merriman, said he is expecting the party to get “an absolute mauling.”
Many Conservatives are likely to argue the party must shift to the right and embrace a no-deal Brexit to see off the threat from Farage. Some Tory MPs are even arguing for an electoral pact at the next election with the Brexit Party. But in a sign of the deep splits within the party, Sir Nicholas Soames, the veteran MP and grandson of Winston Churchill, has warned leadership candidates to reject the “comfort blanket of populism.”
May has already agreed with her party to set out a timetable for her departure as prime minister. A Conservative leadership election in the summer is almost certain. Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary and one of the leaders of the Leave campaign, is the early favorite. Over 20 others are expected to stand.
By Guillermo Rodriguez, Editor-in-Chief, HuffPost Spain
MADRID — There’s a motto the Spanish people use to feel unique that has been passed on from one generation to the next: “Spain is different” ― both said and written in English. In the case of the EU elections, this saying isn’t far from the truth.
Unlike the emergence of anti-European parties in Italy, France and Germany, there is only one group tied to the far right that could currently represent a threat for the Spain-EU marriage: Vox. Despite party leader Santiago Abascal publicly acknowledging his sympathy for the likes of Salvini and Le Pen, Vox’s anti-Europe position is moderate compared to those of parties in France and Italy. It’s not about leaving the EU, or even about trying to get into the European Parliament to destroy it from within. It’s about questioning the role of the EU, acknowledging that, despite some positive qualities, it’s in need of some major improvements.
From a European perspective, it sounds like mild anti-Europeanism (which it is), but within Spain, Vox is still seen as extreme. Spain is flawlessly a pro-European country, meaning its membership in the EU is not in question when votes are cast on Sunday. This is also why the far right — which experienced such a growth in the general elections, becoming the fifth force in Spain with 24 representatives and 10.26% of the vote — could actually fall during the European elections to 8% of the votes and five seats, according to the latest polls.
Vox’s main criticism of the EU has centered on immigration control, backing calls for fining those who rescue immigrants without the support of the authorities. Vox’s leader has also demanded the return of sovereignty to EU member states.
By Antonis Fourlis, Editor-in-Chief, HuffPost Greece
ATHENS — In the last European elections in 2014, Greece found itself in the eye of the storm. The “troika” of the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund were effectively in control of the government, and the bailout of Greece’s broken economy became a harsh lesson in austerity for the Greek people.
The austerity imposed by the troika proved fertile ground for the far right, populists and euro-skeptics. Golden Dawn, Greece’s fascist far-right party, which has long fought to become the country’s third political force, had three members elected to the European Parliament in 2014. According to polls, they could get two seats this time — partly due to the ongoing trial of a Golden Dawn supporter accused of killing anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas in 2013.
In 2019, the situation in Greece is largely different. Athens is done with the troika and the bailout, and far from the economic basketcase of 2014. Ahead of national elections in early autumn, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is campaigning on the basis of his economic achievements, including lowering taxes. While Tsipras appears optimistic about the result for his governing radical left Syriza Party in Europe, he’s mirrored the concerns over the rise of the far-right in Europe, urging progressive parties to form their own strategic alliance to fight any post-election far-right bloc in the EU Parliament.
The Friedrich Ebert Foundation [Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung] arranged to support travel and accommodations in the EU for reporting used in this article.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article said Europe has more than 500 million voters. It has more than 400 million.