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In Europe, the Far Right Is Uniting Its Forces

A conference this month aims to unite European far-right leaders like Marine Le Pen and Viktor Orbán in a continentwide alliance. What would once have been a fringe grouping can now rely on the support of several EU governments.

Viktor Orbán, Hungary's prime minister, during a news conference in Budapest, Hungary, on December 21, 2021. (Akos Stiller / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

At the beginning of September, Santiago Abascal, the president of Spain’s far-right Vox party, announced that his country had been chosen to host the next summit of “patriotic leaders and European conservatives” to be held this month. The meeting, likely staged in Madrid, represents the next step in these forces’ bid to mainstream themselves as a “conservative” bloc in European politics, palatable to a broader right-wing audience.

This is not just an alliance of fringe opposition forces, but one that already holds power in several European capitals. Indeed, the last such meeting was held in Warsaw, Poland, on December 4, under the auspices of Jarosław Kaczyński, president of the ruling Law and Justice party. The meeting at the Hotel Regent brought together such hard-right luminaries as Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki (also from Kaczyński’s party), his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orbán, Rassemblement National leader Marine Le Pen, as well as Abascal and far-right leaders from Flanders and Estonia.

The summit resulted in a brief one-page statement denouncing the status quo in the European Union. It attacked the “disturbing idea” of a Europe “governed by a self-appointed elite.” The document highlighted how this elite carries out “arbitrary application of European law” and a continentwide program of “social engineering” aimed at “separating people from their culture and heritage.”

But if the language was stark, what was especially notable about this summit is that it was the first official meeting bringing together representatives from both groups to the right of the European People’s Party (EPP), the main Christian Democratic force in the European Parliament. While some leading far-right forces (such as Matteo Salvini’s League and the Alternative for Germany, AfD) were absent, the summit pointed to strengthening relations between the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR, a group previously including the British Tories) and the more nakedly far-right Identity and Democracy (ID), as well as Orbán’s Fidesz party, unaffiliated at the European level since its departure from the EPP in March.

The parties involved in these groupings come from different political traditions and in some cases even compete electorally at the national level. But if the tensions among these forces have long justified the existence of two rival currents in the European Parliament, that could be history after this month’s summit, as they plan the creation of a “supergroup” uniting the hard and far right of European politics.

Supergroup

Already in December’s Warsaw declaration, the signatory parties committed themselves to “closer cooperation in the European Parliament, including the organization of joint meetings and the coordination of voting.”

Le Pen expressed her conviction that this unprecedented goal was within reach: “We can be optimistic about the creation of this political force in the coming months,” the Rassemblement National president commented. This aim was shared by Orbán, speaking to press before the meeting: “We have been working for months to create a strong family of parties. I hope that we can take a step in this direction.”

As Miguel Urbán, a member of the European Parliament for the left-wing Anticapitalistas, explained in a Twitter thread, Orbán is indeed key to the formation of this “supergroup.” He provides a bridge between hard-right governments in Central-Eastern Europe and the far right in the Mediterranean, not least given his close personal relations with both Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party and former Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini. Yet this also owes to the international projection and prestige of the Hungarian prime minister, hailed by such figures as Tucker Carlson, among the base of both ECR and ID parties. If Salvini had already bid to create a similar hard-right alliance in the buildup to the 2019 European elections, the changed political context is driving these forces finally to make the leap.

Now or Never?

There are ideological obstacles to such a pact, even if they may seem trivial to many observers who see all such forces as one homogeneous “populist right.” These parties lay different emphases on political and religious traditionalism and have divergences on foreign policy, being particularly divided over their relations with Russia and, to a lesser degree, China.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also opened up divisions: some court the anti-vax movement and its conspiracy theories more openly than others, such as Le Pen and Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, who have instead taken a more ambiguous stance, focused on criticizing lockdown measures. Illustrating the contradictions, Orbán — figurehead of the most staunchly anti-communist hard right — nonetheless received the Sinovac jab, as part of Budapest’s relatively good relations with China.

While such differences may be papered over for the sake of unity, there are also practical issues: the ECR grouping was in part consolidated as an alternative to ID, which has in recent years been characterized by internal instability and multiple fallings-out among its constituent parties. So, if these forces are now getting together, what’s changed?

On the one hand, after years in which they experienced significant electoral growth, many of these parties seem to have plateaued, and could do with a political and media boost. It seems that one of the figures with most to gain from such a “supergroup” uniting the hard right is Marine Le Pen. While she aspires to again reach the second round of the French presidential elections this April, she faces unwelcome competition from pundit Éric Zemmour, whose new Reconquest! (Reconquête!) vehicle risks splitting the far-right vote and allowing other candidates to sneak through.

Meanwhile in Spain, Vox seeks to strengthen its prospects of governing together with Pablo Casado’s People’s Party (Partido Popular, PP), for four decades the country’s main conservative party. While these forces remain competitors, with the far-right party trying to steal voters from the larger PP, Vox’s votes have already supported PP-led regional governments in Madrid and Andalusia, with Isabel Díaz Ayuso’s administration in the capital region seen as a potential blueprint for a right-wing national government in 2023. Vox leader Abascal also offers fellow European far-right forces a particular channel for influence in Latin America. Through his crankish theory of an “Iberosphere,” he has begun to forge closer ties with like-minded parties in the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world, including Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro.

This alliance is also designed to organize the right-wing flank of European politics in the current conflicts at the EU level. Both Fidesz and Law and Justice, ruling Hungary and Poland respectively, have open conflicts with Brussels over the independence of the judiciary, but also over their asylum and immigration policies and moves against the rights of women and sexual minorities.

These conflicts have been especially sharpened, from these parties’ perspective, by the arrival of a new coalition government in Germany, made up of Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats as well as the Greens and the neoliberal Free Democrats. They fear that Berlin could harden its stance toward Budapest and Warsaw, especially now that Green party cochair Annalena Baerbock has become foreign minister. That said, during her recent visit to Poland, Baerbock notably watered down her campaign-era criticisms of the Law and Justice administration, vaguely speaking of resolving “discrepancies” between the two countries and backing the Polish government in its dispute with Belarus over refugees at the border.

Orbán has nonetheless highlighted the stakes of the conflict from the far right’s perspective: in December, with the new coalition yet to form, he had already described it as an executive supporting “immigration, gender policy [a dog whistle for LGBT-friendly measures] and a federal, pro-German Europe.” The Hungarian premier defiantly insisted, “Let’s not cross our arms — let’s prepare for the battle.”

German Soft Power

If the “battle” with the new government in Berlin, added to certain polling difficulties, may push the European far right to huddle together for warmth, another development in the recent German election also counsels in favor of such a pact. Parties who enter Germany’s Bundestag two elections in a row have access to federal funding for their party foundations — and after retaining most of its seats in September’s election, the AfD’s Desiderius Erasmus Stiftung (DES) is now eligible for state financing, to be used at the party’s own discretion. According to some media reports, this will begin with the hiring of over 900 staff members.

If it is anything like its counterparts elsewhere on the political spectrum, like the Christian Democrats’ Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (or even the much smaller Die Linke’s Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung), this could allow the DES to open up offices in dozens of other countries. Thus, the AfD’s foundation could succeed where former Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon failed, and create a cross-border far-right think tank for Europe.

The potential forces behind this pact should not be underestimated. Adding together the existing members of the European Parliament from the ECR and ID groupings, plus Orbán’s Fidesz, would amount to some 149 MEPs — enough to edge out the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and create the second-biggest force in the Brussels assembly. Even if some parties remained outside of the “supergroup,” or the center-left bloc sought to integrate forces like Italy’s erratic Five Star Movement, the far right would still be the third-biggest group, well ahead of the liberals of Renew Europe (101 MEPs), never mind the Greens and allies (seventy-three) or the Left (thirty-nine).

If this is the arithmetic in Brussels, left-wing MEP Miguel Urbán also reminds us that “this movement shouldn’t be read only in terms of the European Parliament, but from the perspective of a wider-reaching political-cultural counter-revolution.” The growth of these parties has allowed them to push conservative and liberal parties alike further to the right, harden official EU policies and public discourse on such issues as immigration or welfare, and — no less important — set the agenda of rival parties and media outlets around topics like immigration and security.

As Urbán emphasizes, far-right forces have time and again shown that they are prepared for the battle to change the terms of political debate. It’s high time that the Left prepared, too.