HomeEuropeFar-right leaders fail to tie the knot

Far-right leaders fail to tie the knot

Europe’s far-right leaders keep flirting, but are still wary to tie the knot. 

In Warsaw on Friday and Saturday, a collection of the continent’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: Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, French presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen and Poland’s conservative powerbroker Jarosław Kaczyński. 

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. 

Yet the speculation barely lasted a few hours, with the politicians themselves quashing it almost immediately. 

“Cooperation and common communication with a family picture, yes, but there is nothing more beyond that stage,” Nicolas Bay, a French MEP who heads the Parliament delegation for Le Pen’s National Rally party, said before the meeting had reached a conclusion.

In the end, they discussed “closer cooperation” in the European Parliament, “including organizing joint meetings and aligning votes on common issues,” but a declaration made no mention of a common political group.

It was an outcome not dissimilar to when 16 right-wing European parties put their names 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 don’t like each other.

Italy’s populist conservative leader Matteo Salvini, under domestic pressure from a rival rightist outfit, pulled out before the meeting started. “It’s necessary to wait for the time to be right so that selfishness and fear at party and national level can be overcome,” his party, the League, said in a statement.

Here’s a rundown of some contentious issues preventing far-right forces from coming together. 

Brussels power plays

There are clear upsides for Europe’s nationalist and more-conservative parties in coming together in Brussels to push their shared distrust of the EU. 

Currently, two of the European Parliament’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 assembly’s rankings. Together, a collective 133 MEPs would bump them up to third. 

Such a jump could, in theory at least, mean more money, more speaking time and more clout. 

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 don’t want its more extreme views filtering into legislation and reports. 

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. 

National rivalries

Behind the scenes, the far-right parties spent the week playing a blame game over who was keeping the coalition from forming. 

Friction was especially notable between the French and Polish camps.

Poland dominates the ECR — its delegation comprises over 40 percent of the group. Conversely, France and Italy dominate ID — each country’s delegation makes up roughly a third.

One ID official blamed “Polish domination” within the ECR for keeping the groups apart. The official also launched a more general broadside against Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), one of Europe’s most powerful hard-right conservative forces. 

“There are complaints about the PiS’s power in the European Parliament,” the official said. “They are everywhere, they have too much power.”

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.

“They want to stay attractive to groups like the EPP,” the MEP said, referencing the Parliament’s largest group, the center-right European People’s Party. “They won’t be attractive any longer if they are with ID.” 

ECR even issued an official statement this week dismissing chatter of a Parliament supergroup. 

A member of Orbán’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 — which is not a member of either ECR or ID — “definitely wants” to create a new group in the European Parliament and “to enhance their voice in Europe.” 

The ID official summed up the acrimony. “On a human level, these groups are not ready,” the official said. “It’s a mess between the French and the Poles. Why would we merge two headquarters? And who would lead it?” 

Russia, Russia, Russia

The Franco-Polish tensions go beyond legislative jockeying. Russia looms over the relationship. 

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. 

Conversely, in France, Le Pen is accommodating toward Russia. 

She has called for warmer relations with Moscow and pushed to lift sanctions placed on the country after it annexed Crimea. She traveled to Moscow to hobnob with Russian President Vladimir Putin during her last run for the French presidency in 2017. 

Similarly, Orbán in Hungary has maintained warm ties with Russia and Salvini has faced allegations that The League courted Russian financing during European elections.

That core disagreement makes it hard for the 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. 

Le Pen, who is running for president again in April, can claim her Warsaw trip as an example of “international diplomacy.” She can highlight pictures of her holding talks with other government leaders at a time when she is fending off insurgent rival Eric Zemmour — another far-right polemicist vying for the presidency, who lacks her political experience. 

For Orbán, the meeting can bolster his credentials as one of Europe’s primary right-wing conveners. 

Since his Fidesz party left the Parliament’s EPP group in March, Orbán has been looking to cement links to long-time friends in countries such as Poland and Italy, and seek new allies. 

The outreach has included those who Orbán has traditionally avoided, like Le Pen. Only two years ago, Orbán proclaimed he “would not ally” with Le Pen since “she’s not in power.” But with Hungary increasingly ostracized within the EU and Orbán facing a potential challenge in next year’s election, the Hungarian leader appears to have changed his approach.  

Amid the supergroup rumors earlier this week, Fidesz Vice President Katalin Novák was quick to emphasize in a Facebook post that “Fidesz in the future will also only work together with democratic conservative parties.”

She added: “Our 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.”

Conversely, in Italy, Salvini’s domestic squabbles with other far-right political parties seems to have played a role in keeping him home. 

In the League’s statement explaining Salvini’s decision to back out, the party appeared to blame its rival on the right, the Brothers of Italy party, which the League sees as working against a Parliament supergroup in order to preserve its status within the ECR group.

The League, the statement vowed, “continues 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.”

Clea Caulcutt and Louise Guillot contributed reporting.



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