Europe’s far-right leaders continue to flirt, but are still reluctant to marry.
On Friday and Saturday in Warsaw, a group of the continent’s leading nationalist, anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic politicians gathered in their latest attempt to unite in some sort of grand coalition. Some highlights from the guest list: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen and Polish conservative broker Jarosław Kaczyński.
News of the meeting sparked rumors that they had rallied around the idea of creating a new supergroup that could rebalance power in the European Parliament.
Yet the speculation only lasted a few hours, the politicians themselves canceled it almost immediately.
“Cooperation and joint communication with a family photo, yes, but there is nothing beyond this step,” said Nicolas Bay, a French MEP who heads the parliamentary delegation of the National Rally of Le Pen, before the conclusion of the meeting.
At the end, they discussed “closer cooperation” in the European Parliament, “including organizing joint meetings and aligning votes on common issues”, but a statement made no mention of a common political group.
This was a similar result to when 16 right-wing European parties inscribed their names on a joint statement in July, cursing the EU, but avoiding suggestions of a united party.
There are reasons for push-pull relations between the far right. Despite being happy with these headline-grabbing gatherings, parties often play different games, taking different paths in domestic politics and with different goals in Brussels. Their ideologies clash in key areas. Often times, they just don’t like each other.
Italian populist conservative leader Matteo Salvini, under internal pressure from a rival right-wing group, withdrew before the start of the meeting. “We have to wait until the time is right that selfishness and fear at the party and national levels can be overcome,” his party, the League, said in a statement.
Here’s a look at some contentious issues preventing far-right forces from rallying.
Brussels plays the power
There are clear advantages for the nationalist and more conservative parties of Europe to come together in Brussels to push their common distrust of the EU.
Currently, two of the most conservative groups in the European Parliament, Identity and Democracy (ID) and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) each have around 70 MEPs. This places them fifth and sixth in the assembly standings. Together, a collective of 133 MEPs would propel them to third place.
Such a leap could, in theory at least, mean more money, more talk time, and more leverage.
However, there may be downsides for some.
The ECR already has some influence in Parliament. One of its members chairs a committee and its MEPs are called upon to draft reports. The identification is more isolated, sealed off by leaders of Parliament who do not want its most extreme views to end up in legislation and reports.
If the two merged, ECR lawmakers could suddenly find themselves kicked out along with their new ID brethren. Moreover, they would have to defend the alliance in the next European elections to voters who might not like some of the more radical views of the ID.
Behind the scenes, far-right parties spent the week blaming themselves over who was preventing coalition formation.
Frictions were particularly noticeable between the French and Polish camps.
Poland dominates the ECR – its delegation comprises over 40 percent of the group. Conversely, France and Italy dominate the ID – each country’s delegation represents about a third.
An ID official accused “Polish domination” within the ECR of having separated the groups. The official also launched a more general offensive against the ruling party in Poland, the Law and Justice Party (PiS), one of the most powerful hard-right conservative forces in Europe.
“There are complaints about the power of PiS in the European Parliament,” the official said. “They are everywhere, they have too much power.”
On the ECR side, a legislator explained that the PiS intends to keep its status in the EP. He wants to be considered for leadership positions and to nominate his MEP Kosma Złotowski as the ECR candidate for the presidency of the Parliament.
“They want to remain attractive to groups like the EPP,” said the MEP, referring to Parliament’s largest group, the center-right European People’s Party. “They will no longer be attractive if they have ID. ”
ECR even released an official statement this week rejecting the gossip of a Parliament supergroup.
A member of Orbán’s Fidesz party, which is closely linked to PiS, agreed that the Polish party is still hesitant to be part of the same group as some of the other potential members. Yet, added the member, Fidesz – who is neither a member of ECR nor of ID – “Definitely wants” to create a new group in the European Parliament and “make your voice heard in Europe”.
The Identity Officer summed up the acrimony. “On a human level, these groups are not ready,” the official said. “It’s a mess between the French and the Poles. Why would we merge two head offices? And who would run it?
Russia, Russia, Russia
Franco-Polish tensions go beyond legislative maneuvers. Russia hovers over the relationship.
The PiS is hawkish towards Russia, regularly imploring the EU to confront more aggressively a vengeful Moscow. More recently, it has been quick to accuse the Kremlin of a puppet mastering a Belarusian ploy to push thousands of migrants to the EU border.
Conversely, in France, Le Pen is accommodating towards Russia.
She called for warmer relations with Moscow and pushed to lift the sanctions imposed on the country after the annexation of Crimea. She traveled to Moscow to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin during his last candidacy for the French presidency in 2017.
Likewise, Orbán in Hungary has maintained warm ties with Russia and Salvini has faced allegations that the League courted Russian funding in the European elections.
This fundamental disagreement makes it difficult for the parties to come together, even though they share rhetoric on other issues like immigration.
Divergent domestic policies
While far-right parties outwardly project a unified focus on tackling EU excesses, they are also sending messages to potential supporters back home. This can lead them in different directions.
Le Pen, who is running for president again in April, can claim his trip to Warsaw as an example of “international diplomacy”. She can highlight photos from her interviews with other heads of government as she pushes back her insurgent rival Eric Zemmour – another far-right polemicist vying for the presidency, who lacks his political background.
For Orbán, the meeting can strengthen his credentials as one of the main organizers of the European right.
Since his Fidesz party left the EPP group in parliament in March, Orbán has sought to cement ties with longtime friends in countries like Poland and Italy, and to seek new allies.
Outreach has included those Orbán has traditionally avoided, such as Le Pen. Only two years ago, Orbán proclaimed that he “would not ally” with Le Pen because “she is not in power”. But with Hungary increasingly ostracized within the EU and Orbán facing a potential challenge in next year’s elections, the Hungarian leader appears to have changed his approach.
Amid supergroup rumors earlier this week, Fidesz vice-president Katalin Novák was quick to point out in a Facebook post that in the future, “Fidesz will also only work with conservative democratic parties “.
She added: “Our aim is for people who have a national, pro-freedom, anti-migration sentiment and respect traditional family values to have the strongest possible representation in European decisions. “
Conversely, in Italy, Salvini’s domestic quarrels with other far-right political parties seem to have played a role in his staying at home.
In the League statement explaining Salvini’s decision to step down, the party appears to blame its right-wing rival, the Brotherhood of Italy party, which the League sees as working against a parliament supergroup in order to preserve its status within the League. of the ECR group.
The League, the statement promises, “continues to work for a successful center-right which offers an alternative to the left in Europe. As soon as the conditions are right, Salvini will tour several European capitals.
Clea Caulcutt and Louise Guillot contributed reporting.