3 October 2018
In the third week of July, we heard about the ambitions of Steve Bannon, strategist of Donald Trump’s electoral victory in 2016, to set up a coordination office, tentatively based here in Brussels, that would bring together and promote the populist movements across Europe, shepherding them into his own AltRight camp. Bannon was said to be modeling himself after George Soros as outside influencer and heavy weight in European affairs. Soros has been financing Liberal, pro-EU, Antlanticist political agents on the Continent now for decades through Open Society and other channels. Of course, Bannon would be furthering diametrically opposite politics from Soros. The immediate objective would be to change the political calculus of Europe for the May 2019 Continent-wide elections and specifically to capture one third of the seats in the European Parliament for Euro-skeptics of all stripes.
Politico and The Daily Beast carried the story on the 22nd and 23rd. On 24 July, Roland Freudenstein, an author at the Martens Centre, a mainstream think tank in Brussels pooh-poohed the notion that Bannon had the intellectual capacity or charm sufficient to lead European populists. Freudenstein also dismissed the possibility that nationalists or populists could by definition submit to any supranational project given their inherent isolationism and focus on domestic concerns. See https://www.martenscentre.eu/blog/steve-bannon-coming-brussels-dont-hold-your-breath.
Freudenstein appears to have come to his conclusions from his reading of France’s right-wing politics and from his consideration of the policy contradictions between even such reputed allies as the Polish and Hungarian nationalists who are presently challenging in tandem the principles of liberal democracy emanating from Brussels but are dogs and cats when the issue turns to relations with Russia.
I do not dispute Freudenstein’s conclusion that Bannon has only slight chances of succeeding in his mission. However, the abstract reasoning that Freudenstein applied has its limitations. I say “abstract” because I am doubtful that he ever got down from his ivory tower to discuss Bannon with live members of the European Far Right or Far Left.
It is very common for folks in centrist politics here to shun politicians at the extremes, as if a handshake and a shared lunch would discredit them forever among their mainstream peers. I have no such prejudices. It is my rule to enter into discussion with all men of good will and certifiable intelligence, whatever political label they wear on their sleeve. That is how you learn and, possibly, grow.
Indeed my recent lunchtime chat with one of the founding members of the National Front who worked alongside Jean-Marie Le Pen and has been a long time Member of the European Parliament yielded some highly relevant observations not only on why Bannon is unlikely to succeed, but also on who is more likely to wield influence on Europe’s Euroskeptics and populists as we go into the 2019 elections.
Going back to 2016, there have been lines of communication between Bannon and nationalists, populists, and EU skeptics like Geert Wilder in The Netherlands, Nigel Farage of the U.K. and Marine Le Pen in France over defense of national sovereignty against the immigration policies, multiculturalism, and radical social values being promoted from Brussels. The most visible evidence of their comradery was perhaps the guest speaker slot given to Bannon when Le Pen convened her party’s gathering in Lille in May of this year.
However, the party faithful were not enthusiastic about Bannon’s presence. Not because their sympathies are anti-American, as Freudenstein supposes, but because they see no reason to submit to an agenda set on another continent. My interlocutor sees no magnetic force in Bannon, whereas there are such personalities within the European populist movements, particularly among those in power.
Le Pen and Wilder may be in the opposition, but Matteo Salvini and Sebastian Kunz are in power in Italy and Austria, respectively. Both have the strength of personality, energy and physical attractiveness of youth, suaveness in managing relations with political competitors and intellectual acuity to give credibility and force to the assorted populist movements rising across Europe, where Bannon is just a big mouth.
In the case of Kunz, his most visible feature is charm and prudence, avoiding giving unnecessary offense, a quality that Bannon never learned. In the case of Salvini, it is strategic and tactical brilliance. He got the attention of the broad Italian public by his stand against the boatloads of immigrants. But he also countered his would be defamers from the political mainstream by offering financial outreach to the countries in Africa and Southern Asia whence the big immigration flows are coming for the sake of agreed repatriation and also to reduce the economic hardship propelling emigration. Moreover, once established in the Government, he quickly moved on to a broader agenda of promoting economic growth in Italy by loosening the budgetary purse strings in defiance of Brussels’ continuing counterproductive emphasis on austerity. As for the European Union, Salvini’s objective is to return the European Union to its status before the Maastricht Treaty, meaning an economic community rather than supra-national sovereign entity. In this vision, many of the powers now exercised in Brussels would go back to the Member States. To achieve this, clearly Salvini has to reach across national borders and engage directly with other populist movements. He needs no mentoring from Bannon to see this.
For a very good insight into the remarkable intellect and personality of Matteo Salvini, I heartily recommend his recent interview with Stephen Sackur on the BBC’s show Hard Talk. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SihWTOyICco Salvini, not Bannon, is clearly the man to watch going forward. In this sense, the smugness that results from Roland Freudenstein’s dismissal of Bannon as a spent force and his view of European populists as lacking in competent leadership is misplaced.
Another side of mainstream complacency that should be jettisoned is the notion that identity politics is the enemy of democracy and panders only to base instincts. Here in Belgium, the most forthright defenders of national borders against unrestricted immigration is the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), which is at the same time the “power behind the throne” of Prime Minister Charles Michel, holding the portfolios of Ministry of Interior and the secretary of state for Asylum and Migration. While the repatriation efforts of this government have been decried as in violation of human rights, the Secretary of State in question, Theo Francken, is no rude xenophobe. He has just published a book entitled Continent Without Borders the key points of which were published on a full page of the leading French daily Le Soir, weekend edition of 29-30 September. Those who believe they can defeat Francken and his fellow thinkers by applying pejorative labels to them, i.e. by ad hominem argumentation instead of engaging in point for point debate may be in for a surprise in May 2019 no less stunning than the Brexit vote or the 2016 US presidential vote.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2018