Op-Ed | No, Steve Bannon won’t decide the European Elections
- EU Affairs Specialist
- UK Affairs & Brexit Specialist
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Over the last week, much has been made of Steve Bannon’s grand master plan to unify the radical right populist parties of Europe and build on his experience and success from the Trump campaign to seriously disrupt the 2019 European Elections. Reports have come out stating that he is planning to set up a foundation called The Movement to act as an anti-immigrant, nationalist counterpart to George Soros’ Open Society Foundation. By unifying the messaging of different nationalist parties across Europe and coordinating their activities, these groups could achieve unprecedented levels of success and emerge as the third- or maybe second-strongest party grouping in the European Parliament.
The only problem with this plan is that it’s almost certain to fail.
The whole worldview underlying this plan rests on a conspiracy theory version of European politics. It has become widely believed among radical right and nationalist groups that George Soros (a target certainly chosen because he is Jewish) uses his wealth to direct and control politicians, ushering in a New World Order of mass immigration and so-called “white genocide”. The reality, however, is that Soros’ influence, though real, is extremely limited. At best there is perhaps a majority of politicians in Europe who have heard of the Open Society Foundation. We can be fairly certain that a majority rarely or even never look at the work of the Open Society Foundation. We can be even more certain that only a small minority pay it any more attention than they do to the dozens of think tanks, media outlets, corporations and other influential organisations in the political sphere.
Bannon’s aspiration to become an evil version of George Soros is doomed to fail because his conception of George Soros is itself a fiction. Thus Bannon’s imagined counterpart can also only be a fiction.
Beyond this strategic error, there are a number of other problems that would inevitably cripple an attempt at creating a new radical right, nationalist force in Europe.
The first is that there’s a reason that three right to far-right groups exist within the European Parliament. Quite simply, they don’t much like each other. The ECR, EFDD and ENF all contain radical right and nationalist parties but they are often at pains to point out their differences. The ENF has probably the worst reputation, containing many unreconstructed neo-Nazis and parties that are direct descendants of fascist groups. For this reason, the EFDD established itself in order to present a new face for the nationalist right: more reasonable, less focussed on race and with fewer uniforms. This has had varying degrees of success and the difference is often superficial, yet the intention is still there. Finally, the ECR was created as yet a third group. The child of the UK Conservatives, the group tries to take a more firmly eurosceptic position while rejecting the existing far-right groups. In practice, it too contains radical right parties but the UK Conservatives, with a moderate reputation, helped to launder these parties into the political mainstream.
Having worked so hard to create their separate identities, each with its own spin on right-wing anti-EU politics in their quest for legitimacy with European voters, why would they suddenly abandon them at the behest of an American nationalist? The evidence so far is that they have no intention of doing so as Poland’s ruling party PiS (an essential pillar of the radical right movement in Europe right now) has ruled out working with Bannon.
Secondly, the very idea of trying to create a single campaign with coherent messaging and a source for funds is fraught with difficulties. For all the integration that has occurred in Europe, Bannon seems to forget that Europe is not a single state. Therefore campaigning across Europe is not the same as campaigning across the US. Different EU members have different laws on campaign financing, different procedures that would have to be adhered to and to have any direct influence would almost certainly require registering in every country individually – a bureaucratic, costly and wasteful process.
Even a more hands-off approach, seeking to only coordinate messaging, would be likely to fail. While the nationalist voter coalition is broadly similar in the United States, it very much is not in Europe. Radical right parties have rooted themselves in their local political cultures, adopting different strategies in order to seek success. For example, while UKIP did fairly well in the UK through explicitly campaigning against the EU (a cause now taken up by the Conservatives), in Italy Lega dropped all suggestion of leaving the EU or euro as part of its general election campaign. While some parties attack all immigration, others focus only on non-EU (often Muslim) immigration. While some far-right parties are highly protectionist and want a more state-driven economy, others would push for significant deregulation. There are often few bonds that link these parties. Take away the EU and many of these nationalists would quickly shift their spite to one another. Trying to form a unified messaging for these nationalist parties would therefore be a challenge to say the least.
This is connected to the final point, who would lead this group? There are many pretenders to the nationalist crown in Europe and the egos involved are too big for a single party group. In the US this problem did not exist, they were all American Nationalists backing a single nationalist candidate. In Europe, the battleground is not one single nationalism but a multitude of nationalist movements. Nationalism is the ideology of selfishness, of hoarding power and wealth for the Self while shutting out the Other. Nationalism is not naturally given over to cooperation, trust and humility. Yet all these qualities would be necessary for the European nationalist groups to come together behind a single leader.
To put it another way, if those who absolutely committed to European identity, European unity and European solidarity have struggled to create truly European political movements in the European Parliament elections campaigns, why should we believe that the nationalists would do any better?
All signs point to Bannon’s idea of revolutionising the European Parliament elections and the EU’s electoral landscape being doomed from the start. Such scepticism should equally extend to pro-European movements who have yet to prove themselves. This does not mean that radical right parties won’t enjoy any success at all in 2019, they likely will, but Bannon’s influence will be minimal. Therefore rather than focussing on such stories, that serve as little more than dramatic narratives, media outlets and commentators should give more focus to the thing that really could change the outcome: turnout.
Turnout in European Elections is not high and there is a large pool of non-voters who normally vote in their national elections. In a time when politics is volatile, the EU is a major political issue across Europe and people really believe they can drive change through the ballot box, will we see increased mobilsiation from populist voters? Equally well, will we see counter-mobilisation as more liberal voters feel the motivation to get active and push back against populist victories? Away from grand strategies, the simple act of convincing people to turn out and vote is where the biggest potential for change will lie in the 2019 European Elections.
All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.
Steve Bannon , by Gage Skidmore, Flickr