Paddy Agnew: 'Rise of populist politicians threatens to tear EU apart'
Ex-Trump adviser backs nationalists to 'reinforce' sovereignty of Europe, writes Paddy Agnew
'Italy is the centre of the political universe... above all, because of the rise of Salvini and what he means for Europe..."
The speaker is Steve Bannon, former adviser to US President Donald Trump.
Just over a month ago, Bannon met members of the resident foreign press corps in Rome, outlining to us his European election battle plans.
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Basically, he hopes to be "a cheerleader" in the promotion of a right-wing populist groundswell in these elections, a groundswell that will essentially reinforce the values of "the Judeo-Christian West" in face of the threat posed both by China and by (Islamic) migration.
He was in Italy, he said, because of the "experiment" of the populist government formed here last summer.
He said that he could sense "a real momentum for the populist, nationalist, sovereignty movement", a movement in which he identified right-wing Rassemblement National leader Marine Le Pen in France, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini as principal protagonists, saying: "Now, you have an alternative narrative, whether it is in Hungary or Italy or France or Poland or Germany or wherever and that is the Europe of Nations, that the sovereignty movement focuses on..."
Bannon went on to call Marine Le Pen "one of the most important politicians in the world and a great leader", expressing his admiration for the manner in which she has "repositioned" her party, formerly known as Front National.
If he was appreciative of her, one imagines he will have much enjoyed the meeting in Hungary last week between Messrs Orban and Salvini.
In what seemed much more an occasion of Euro-election campaigning rather than a bilateral, ministerial visit, Prime Minister Orban helicoptered Salvini off to inspect his anti-migrant wall. The two men marched up and down along a stretch of the 175km long, barbed wire fence that separates Hungary and Serbia.
At one point, they stopped to climb up into one of the border watchtowers, where Salvini borrowed a soldier's binoculars to survey the terrain, presumably not for a spot of birdwatching.
Both men seemed oblivious to the fact that, for many of us, the Hungarian border fence prompts memories of either the Berlin Wall or of a Nazi concentration camp, or indeed of both.
Later, writing on Facebook, Salvini expressed his satisfaction, saying: "I have to compliment Prime Minister Viktor Orban for the rapid and efficient manner in which he has secured total control of 600km of the border, blocking all the entry points. The positions of the Hungarian and Italian governments are identical...
"We hope that the new Europe, from May 24 on, will protect both land borders, as Hungary is doing, and also coastline borders, as Italy is doing. The problem is not about the redistribution of migrants, rather it is to block them from coming at all."
In a joint press conference with Prime Minister Orban, Salvini further explained: "If the left continues to govern in Europe (the EU), we'll have an Islamic caliphate here. I don't want to leave that sort of Europe to my children. I will do everything within my power to ensure that Europe does not come to such a sad end."
Mr Salvini did not say it but there was the fairly clear implication that one of the ways to avoid such a "sad end" would be to vote for those popular, nationalist, far-right forces that will guarantee some form of Fortress Europe. With the two biggest political blocs in the European Parliament expected to lose their combined majority, the idea is to form some kind of eurosceptic opposition, that could hold up or even block legislation.
The point about the forthcoming Euro elections (May 23-26) is that, despite everything the Irish and British public has experienced this winter, this vote is NOT about Brexit.
Migration, economic growth, environmentalist issues, youth unemployment, EU foreign policy, the common agricultural policy and even the euro itself are all issues that arguably generate much more concern among the 512 million-strong EU electorate due to vote for 751 MEPs.
As one senior Brussels eurocrat told the Sunday Independent last week, at this point many senior EU partners are simply "fed up" with the never-ending British indecision (not to say incompetence) re Brexit.
The rest of Europe needs to get on with its life.
And that life is suddenly a very different one with the European voter in the street facing myriad party options that goes way beyond the European People's Party (EPP) on the centre-right and the Alliance of Socialists and Democrats on the centre-left, the two forces that have essentially dominated the European Parliament since its inception in 1979.
Populist forces, on the left, on the right and in the centre, are expected to pick up perhaps as much as one-third of the vote.
These forces will not turn Parliament in Brussels and Strasbourg upside down but they will make the formation of the next EU Commission all the more difficult. Poll predictions suggest that the vote will generate three blocs - the right, the eurosceptic protest movements and the left, in that order of seats.
Experienced insiders like Fine Gael's European Parliament vice-president Mairead McGuinness argue that even if the Parliament "will be very different in its make-up", it will still function effectively thanks to its consolidated tradition "of consensus and compromise".
Incidentally, McGuinness could herself come out of the elections well, given that she is a leading candidate to replace Forza Italia's Antonio Tajani as European Parliament president.
"Hers is one of the names that keeps circulating... She has been around, she is not below the radar, she comes from the right party (EPP) and she is a woman," one Brussels insider commented last week.
It remains to be seen if she is right in her confidence that the Parliament will still function effectively. What happens if the populist movements, many of them eurosceptic, return a much heavier vote than expected?
And there is plenty of choice. On the right, as well as Le Pen, Orban and Salvini, there are relative new boys on the block such as Forum For Democracy in the Netherlands, AFD (Alternative for Germany), some form of Gilets Jaunes party, not to mention the latest arrival, namely far-right Spanish party VOX, which picked up an impressive 10.29pc of votes and 24 deputies in the Spanish general election two weeks ago.
There is the populist left, including such as Podemos in Spain, the Five Star Movement in Italy, Syriza in Greece, Die Linke in Germany, NOW - List Pilz in Austria, La France Insoumise, the Dutch GreenLeft and again many others.
Then, too, there is a populist centre, best represented by the En Marche party of French President Emmanuel Macron, but also including such as Ciudadanos in Spain and the DiEM25 transnational, progressive party inspired by the charismatic Greek anti-austerity economist, Yanis Varoufakis. Many of the above will doubtless win little or nothing. However, others such as the Bannon Boys - Le Pen, Salvini and Orban - can be expected to poll well. After all, Orban and Salvini might be a form of "protest" party but they are actually in government in their own backyards.
Admittedly, as European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker pointed out recently, given that the right-wing populists all spring from national movements, it is not yet clear just how effectively they would work together in Brussels and Strasbourg.
However, they represent a serious challenge as was recently conceded by Dutch socialist and vice-president of the European Commission Frans Timmermans, himself a possible candidate for the role of next European Commission President. Speaking in Florence last March, Timmermans said: "I believe this is the first time since the beginning of European integration, that this European Union could actually break apart... As politicians, we have a task to give a voice to the people who now are silent to stand up for what they believe in... to address the populists, address the right extreme, to say we don't want a society based on confrontation and hate and exclusion."