Matteo Salvini is spearheading an ultra-right alliance to cause havoc across the EU
The latest rally in Milan put a spotlight on the fact that the far right is now highly connected across the continent
Last weekend Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini, gathered representatives from 11 other European far-right parties for a rally in Milan. It was watched by as many as 25,000 people.
“We must secure the future of our land and children,” said Geert Wilders, the populist anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim politician from the Netherlands. Worryingly, his language appeared to mimic the infamous white supremacist phrase, the 14 words.
Focusing on their well-honed, toxic message of a Europe “under attack” from Muslims and liberal elites, these representatives now want to form a group within the new European Parliament. According to recent polls, the group will occupy about one tenth of the seats in the parliament, unless more parties join.
The Lega, Matteo Salvini’s party, is likely to get another 20 seats compared to its 2014 tally. Alternative for Germany (AfD), a far-right anti-Muslim party, is likely to receive a few more seats, as are the Polish Law and Justice (PiS) and the new far-right Vox party in Spain. Rassemblement National (the old Front National) in France, on the other hand, looks set to lose seats or stay largely the same as before.
However, they do seem determined to advance their agenda despite being in the minority. For example, the EU has already stopped rescue ships, aimed at preventing the death of migrants, crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa, following pressure primarily from the Italian government.
Last weekend’s rally in Milan put a spotlight on the fact that the far right is now highly connected across the continent. There is increasing international collaboration, from the individual level to youth organisations, as well as at the party level, helped by an increase in online activism on the broader far right.
The far right has long sought to create more formal international partnerships. It has usually not played out as they wanted it to. Differences over their perceptions of national interests, as well as ideology, often makes international collaboration superficial.
This theory also applies in the European Parliament. The parties’ differences in regards to Russia, migrant redistribution and budget issues are often brought up as reasons why Salvini’s new alliance will ultimately fail. This is probably true. The far right in Europe is not likely to come suddenly to an agreement on Russia, or how to distribute migrants between EU states – although Salvini’s alliance is more likely to give them more control over funding.
More worrying is that their deeper goal is not dependent on unity or even agreement on specific issues. The core message of the populist radical right, in relation to the EU, is that the union itself is a threat to national sovereignty and identity, and therefore the EU’s influence must be limited.
When Tomio Okamura from the Czech Freedom and Direct Democracy party addressed the crowd in Milan last weekend, he said that Europeans could either choose “freedom and sovereignty of our peoples” or “leave the power to those who plan [the] extinction of nation states.”
Fragmentation and disagreement on specific issues matter less when the primary goal is to stop the influence of the EU – rather than to extend or steer it in a specific direction. This fragmentation can even be beneficial. Disagreements within and between parliamentary groups play into the overarching goal of limiting the influence of the EU, stalling and debilitating its decision-making process. They could additionally hamper progressive and humanitarian projects within the institution. The common argument that the EU is an ineffective and expensive political theatre to which hardworking people across Europe have to pay their hard-earned money thus becomes a ‘self-fulfilling’ prophecy.
An alliance may be superficial, but we should not over-emphasise policy differences between far-right parties. A shared understanding of EU overreach, ‘Christian’ identity and a belief in a clash with Islam is, for the moment, enough to rally them round.
This growing far-right power in Europe risks further blunting the EU’s edge when it comes to dealing with issues such as human rights abuses and the rule of law. The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights presented a report this week which concluded that Hungary’s immigration policy was causing widespread human rights violations. The European Parliament has already voted for proceedings against Hungary for attempting to silence media and removing independent judges, which could lead to sanctions.
It’s not all bad news, though. Until two years ago Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National called for an EU referendum in France, as did many other radical-right parties. According to a poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations, two-thirds of EU citizens have positive feelings toward the EU and as many as nine out of 10 said they would be worse off without it. Perhaps watching the drama unfold with Brexit in the UK has made people think twice.
The bad news, however, is that far-right and radical-right parties are finding ways to work together and halt democracy within the European Parliament. If their people still want to remain members of the EU, these parties will work from the inside to come to the same end. They are facing an uphill battle, but we shouldn’t underestimate their resolve.
Patrik Hermansson is a researcher for HOPE not hate