Europeâ€™s far-right leaders keep flirting, but are still wary to tie the knot.Â
In Warsaw on Friday and Saturday, a collection of the continentâ€™s biggest nationalist, anti-immigrant and Euroskeptic politicians gathered for their latest attempt to unite in some sort of grand coalition. Some guest list highlights: Hungaryâ€™s Prime Minister Viktor OrbÃ¡n, French presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen and Polandâ€™s conservative powerbroker JarosÅ‚aw KaczyÅ„ski.Â
News of the meeting sent rumors flying that they were coalescing around the idea of creating a new supergroup that could rebalance power in the European Parliament.Â
Yet the speculation barely lasted a few hours, with the politicians themselves quashing it almost immediately.Â
â€œCooperation and common communication with a family picture, yes, but there is nothing more beyond that stage,â€ Nicolas Bay, a French MEP who heads the Parliament delegation for Le Penâ€™s National Rally party, said before the meeting had reached a conclusion.
In the end,Â they discussed â€œcloser cooperationâ€ in the European Parliament, â€œincluding organizing joint meetings and aligning votes on common issues,â€ but a declaration made no mention of a common political group.
It was an outcome not dissimilar to when 16 right-wing European partiesÂ put their namesÂ on a joint declaration in July, railing against the EU, but eschewing suggestions of a united party.
There are reasons for the push-pull relations among the far right. While they are happy with such headline-generating gatherings, the parties are often playing different games, navigating separate routes in domestic politics and with different goals in Brussels. Their ideologies clash in key areas. Often, they simply donâ€™t like each other.
Italyâ€™s populist conservative leader Matteo Salvini, under domestic pressure from a rival rightist outfit, pulled out before the meeting started. â€œItâ€™s necessary to wait for the time to be right so that selfishness and fear at party and national level can be overcome,â€ his party, the League, said in a statement.
Hereâ€™s a rundown of some contentious issues preventing far-right forces from coming together.Â
Brussels power plays
There are clear upsides for Europeâ€™s nationalist and more-conservative parties in coming together in Brussels to push their shared distrust of the EU.Â
Currently, two of the European Parliamentâ€™s more conservative groups, Identity and Democracy (ID) and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) each have roughly 70 MEPs. That places them fifth and sixth in the assemblyâ€™s rankings. Together, a collective 133 MEPs would bump them up to third.Â
Such a jump could, in theory at least, mean more money, more speaking time and more clout.Â
However, there might be downsides for some.
The ECR already has some sway in Parliament. One of its members chairs a committee and its MEPs get tapped to draft reports. ID is more isolated, cordoned off by Parliament leaders who donâ€™t want its more extreme views filtering into legislation and reports.Â
If the two merged, ECR lawmakers might suddenly find themselves cast out with their new brethren from ID. In addition, they would have to defend the alliance in the next European elections among voters who might not appreciate some of IDs more radical views.Â
Behind the scenes, the far-right parties spent the week playing a blame game over who was keeping the coalition from forming.Â
Friction was especially notable between the French and Polish camps.
Poland dominates the ECR â€” its delegation comprises over 40 percent of the group. Conversely, France and Italy dominate ID â€”Â each countryâ€™s delegation makes up roughly a third.
One ID official blamed â€œPolish dominationâ€ within the ECR for keeping the groups apart. The official also launched a more general broadside against Polandâ€™s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), one of Europeâ€™s most powerful hard-right conservative forces.Â
â€œThere are complaints about the PiSâ€™s power in the European Parliament,â€ the official said. â€œThey are everywhere, they have too much power.â€
On the ECR side, one lawmaker explained that the PiS is intent on keeping its status in the EP. It wants to be considered for leadership positions and to put forward its MEP Kosma ZÅ‚otowski as ECR candidate for Parliament president.
â€œThey want to stay attractive to groups like the EPP,â€ the MEP said, referencing the Parliamentâ€™s largest group, the center-right European Peopleâ€™s Party. â€œThey wonâ€™t be attractive any longer if they are with ID.â€Â
ECR evenÂ issuedÂ an official statement this week dismissing chatter of a Parliament supergroup.Â
A member of OrbÃ¡nâ€™s Fidesz party, which is closely allied with PiS, agreed that the Polish party is still hesitant about being in the same group as some of the other prospective members. Still, the member added, Fidesz â€” which is not a member of either ECR or ID â€” â€œdefinitely wantsâ€ to create a new group in the European Parliament and â€œto enhance their voice in Europe.â€Â
The ID official summed up the acrimony. â€œOn a human level, these groups are not ready,â€ the official said. â€œItâ€™s a mess between the French and the Poles. Why would we merge two headquarters? And who would lead it?â€Â
Russia, Russia, Russia
The Franco-Polish tensions go beyond legislative jockeying. Russia looms over the relationship.Â
PiS is hawkish toward Russia, regularly imploring the EU to more aggressively confront a revanchist Moscow. More recently, it was swift to accuse the Kremlin of puppet mastering a Belarus scheme to push thousands of migrants to the EU border.Â
Conversely, in France, Le Pen is accommodating toward Russia.Â
She has called for warmer relations with Moscow and pushed to lift sanctions placed on the country after it annexed Crimea. She traveledÂ to Moscow to hobnob with Russian President Vladimir Putin during her last run for the French presidency in 2017.Â
Similarly, OrbÃ¡n in Hungary has maintained warm ties with Russia and Salvini has facedÂ allegationsÂ that The League courted Russian financing during European elections.
That core disagreement makes it hard for theÂ parties to come together, even if they share rhetoric on other issues like immigration.
Divergent domestic politics
While far-right parties outwardly project a unified focus on combating EU overreach, they are also messaging to prospective supporters back home. That can drive them in different directions.Â
Le Pen, who is running for president again in April, can claim her Warsaw trip as an example of â€œinternational diplomacy.â€ She can highlight pictures of her holding talks with other government leaders at a time when she is fending off insurgent rival Eric Zemmour â€” another far-right polemicist vying for the presidency, who lacks her political experience.Â
For OrbÃ¡n, the meeting can bolster his credentials as one of Europeâ€™s primary right-wing conveners.Â
Since his Fidesz party left the Parliamentâ€™s EPP group in March, OrbÃ¡n has been looking to cement links to long-time friends in countries such as Poland and Italy, and seek new allies.Â
The outreach has included those who OrbÃ¡n has traditionally avoided, like Le Pen. Only two years ago, OrbÃ¡n proclaimed he â€œwould not allyâ€ with Le Pen since â€œsheâ€™s not in power.â€ But with Hungary increasingly ostracized within the EU and OrbÃ¡n facing a potential challenge in next yearâ€™s election, the Hungarian leader appears to have changed his approach.Â Â
Amid the supergroup rumors earlier this week, Fidesz Vice President Katalin NovÃ¡k was quick toÂ emphasizeÂ in a Facebook post that â€œFidesz in the future will also only work together with democratic conservative parties.â€
She added: â€œOur goal is that people who are national-feeling, pro-freedom, anti-migration and respect traditional family values have the strongest possible representation in European decisions.â€
Conversely, in Italy, Salviniâ€™s domestic squabbles with other far-right political parties seems to have played a role in keeping him home.Â
In the Leagueâ€™s statement explaining Salviniâ€™s decision to back out, the party appeared to blame its rival on the right, the Brothers of Italy party, which the LeagueÂ seesÂ as working againstÂ a ParliamentÂ supergroupÂ in order toÂ preserve its status within the ECR group.
The League, the statement vowed, â€œcontinues to work towards a successful centre right that provides an alternative to the left in Europe. As soon as the conditions are there Salvini will do a tour of several European capitals.â€
Clea Caulcutt and Louise Guillot contributed reporting.