The rise of Euroscepticism, which this year has been subsumed by the more generic political designation Populism has been a subject of fascination for those of us who have been hoping for some breakthrough in European politics, an end to the stranglehold of the center right, center left parties. Such a breakthrough could finally lead to an independent-minded foreign policy for the 28 Member States of the European Union, an end to servile pandering to Washington and its instrument of control that is called NATO, an end to the sanctions on Russia and the start of efforts to build a new European Home in which Russia finds its rightful place in the Europe-wide security architecture.
I have called out in particular the last named point, because it is not just one among many policy positions for the EU to rethink thanks to an impulse from the populists. It is the issue facing Europe that must be resolved if we are to have any other issues to deal with.
The present US, and by imitation the European foreign policy towards Russia, which entails vilification of Putin, provocative military exercises at the Russian borders and generally pushing the Kremlin into a corner, is leading us all to the abyss. The suspension by the United States of its adherence to the INF treaty pending withdrawal from the treaty in six months, now the mirror-image suspension of participation by Russia this past weekend opens up the possibility of Europe becoming the first battleground of the coming WWIII should the United States proceed with installation of nuclear armed ground based cruise missiles in Europe as withdrawal from the treaty allows it to do, precipitating a Russian counter measure. This would put European peace on a hair-trigger just as it was in August 1914 over the issue of mobilization orders, but with the time allowances on “to be or not to be” firing of missiles cut down to two or three minutes from first warnings.
Meanwhile, proofs of populism’s rise in political might in Europe have been plentiful. Electoral victories of extreme right “populist” parties in last autumn’s communal (local government) elections across Europe provided reason to expect change when the public again goes to the voting booths in May 2019 to elect the deputies to the European Parliament. Nowhere was this more evident than in Germany where the Alternativ fuer Deutschland (AfD) gained strongly in several of the Laender and became an inescapable part of the political landscape.
In his statements to the press last summer when he launched a platform to coordinate and help finance the Europe-wide populists, former chief strategist for Donald Trump’s election in 2016, Steve Bannon, set the objective for populists to take control of the European Parliament via the coming elections
Looking from the outside, various commentators on European politics have pointed to challenges that the populist parties across the Continent have to overcome if they are to become a force to be reckoned with at the European level. A good enumeration of these issues was published by the International edition of Der Spiegel at the start of the new year: “The Year of Populism. Europe’s Right Wing Takes Aim at the EU.”
Among the internal problems facing any coalition of populist forces Der Spiegel named precisely the issue of policy towards Russia, pointing to the fiercely anti-Russian position of Poland, which otherwise, in terms of its critical position vis-à-vis the European Union institutions stands at the forefront of the Eurosceptical forces.
In recent weeks Europe’s most influential populist leader in power, Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini spoke about the formation of an Italian-Polish axis to counter the longstanding tandem of Germany and France in charge of European policy-making. Given his own strongly pro-Putin, pro-Russian stance, Salvini chose to overlook the differences with Poland on that subject. But is that wise, is it feasible?
This and other obstacles to Europe-wide cooperation of the populist parties arose in a tour d’horizon discussion I had a couple of weeks ago with Steve Bannon’s chosen head coordinator of The Movement, Brussels-based Mischaël Modrikamen.
Neither the name Modrikamen nor the name of the French-speaking political party in Belgium that he heads, the Parti Populaire, are likely to be familiar to readers. But given the man’s central position in determining whether the populist wave in May will be tidal or merely empty hype, it paid to hear how the European populist movement looks from inside.
Modrikamen was the head of a high-flying law firm specializing in major banking and other corporate litigation who left private business some time ago to pursue a political career. In the last elections his extreme right Parti Populaire polled nearly 5% of the electorate. It has just one deputy in the Belgian parliament and none in the European Parliament. Nonetheless, Bannon’s choice of this underweight politician who happens to hold Eurosceptic positions had its own clear logic.
Had Bannon looked to the far right in the numerically greater Flemish speaking part of this country, he would have been speaking to the Vlaams Belang, an old style folk nationalism party that was marginalized on its home turf more than a decade ago by the pocketbook (economic) nationalists of the New Flemish Alliance (NV-A), that has turned centrist since it joined the ruling parties to form a coalition government in 2014. But Vlaams Belang, with or without reason, is widely condemned for its Nazi sympathizer past, and allies with anti-Semitic labels are something Bannon would have avoided for understandable reasons.
In choosing Modrikamen from French-speaking Belgium, Bannon brought into play a leading member of the Jewish community here and a rather astute political thinker. However, he also brought into the very heart of his organization the contradictions that can vitiate chances of populism gaining real power in May.
Front and center is, once again, the question of relations with Russia.
And here, notwithstanding all of his worldly sophistication and rejection of the political correctness of our day in areas like Climate Change, the closing of nuclear power plants and unchecked immigration, Modrikamen showed himself to be fully brain-washed by our Neocons and Liberal Interventionists on the subject of Russia.
This ally of Bannon asked me in all seriousness whether it was true that Vladimir Putin is a dictator? whether or not I agreed that Putin has killed journalists?
He also made it clear that he is a strong defender of democratic values and rule of law. In the abstract, of course, these are worthy concepts. The problem is they have been weaponized by Washington to serve its global hegemony.
Less equivocal was Modrikamen’s avowal that he is an Atlanticist, meaning a strong supporter of NATO.
And so I ask, with friends like this, does Bannon really need enemies?
Modrikamen freely admitted that The Movement has a real problem with Poland, but the thought of expelling the madcap Poles and rejecting their Russophobia never crosses his mind. He wants to finesse what cannot in fact be papered over.
In this connection, I appeal to the most serious person in the European populist movement, Matteo Salvini, to rethink his axis with Warsaw. Salvini is the one smart and brave leader of the populists, as he showed us yet again by the veto Italy applied today to the European Council’s plans to recognize the self-proclaimed president of Venezuela Guaido. Bravo! But the alliance with Warsaw will bring down the roof on the heads of populists.
The possibility of defeat in May is very much on the mind of Modrikamen, and the most intriguing insight I took away from our discussion was his scenario for Belgium’s parliamentary election also being held in May. Modrikamen sees the anti-center sentiment likely bringing to power the till now small Green parties in Flanders and Wallonia. His reasoning here is solid. They are the groups in Belgium which in fact profited most from the anti-government sentiment in last autumn’s communal elections, doing especially well in the middle class districts and among young people.
The Left-leaning Greens are one of the few political forces in Belgium untainted by corruption. Partly that is the result of their not having been in power. But apart from their pro-environmental positions, no one knows what, if anything they stand for, least of all in foreign policy. As a wholly inexperienced group, they would easily be manipulated by the centrist party(ies) with whom they will align to form a coalition government. The result would (will) be continuation of the disastrous policies we see today in foreign affairs and in much else.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019