By Carlos Losa Valencia
With barely a few months to go until the European Parliament elections, which for many may be the most critical elections in the history of the European Union, all the political forces have gradually started to disclose their strategies, some of them with the stated ambition of undermining the integration project. Thus, encouraged by the increasing advance of the extreme-right wing parties across Europe, Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, along with the Belgian politician and leader of the People’s Party Michael Modrikamen, launches The Movement.
Although officially registered in the beginning of 2017, The Movement has not gained media interest until the second half of 2018, the moment of Bannon’s landing in Europe. Over this time, the Breitbart News’s former executive chairman has succeeded in getting the attention of top like-minded eurosceptic leaders such as Victor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary. In addition, Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Magio, the North League and Five Start Movement’s Italian leaders, respectively, have pledged their full willingness to join in.
However, an extensive contact list goes on. Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, President of Debout La France, Marine Le Pen, President of the National Rally (the former National Front) and her niece Marion Maréchal are only a few examples of such intense international activity. Even the leader of the Swedish Democrats, Jimmie Åkesson, has been tempted by Bannon, describing the success of his right-wing party as “a lesson for the whole word”.
By trying to beguile the vast range of European far-right political parties, Bannon has also restlessly established links with the Danish People’s Party, the True Finns, the Freedom Party of Austria and the Alternative for Germany. All of whom are political forces being widely represented in their national parliaments and/or are part of governing coalitions. This is why Bannon’s eyes are now on Spain. In a country once considered to be an exception to the global fascist menace, an extreme right-wing political party, Vox, has recently popped up with considerable forcefulness.
But, what is exactly The Movement?
The Movement is an ongoing and, to a certain extent, logic political consequence of the desire to build a transnational bloc by promoting an economic nationalism regarding the populist narrative of an undemocratic and unaccountable EU. Following Modrikamen’s words, it may be defined as a “sort of club, open to all populist leaders”.
Bannon, well-aware of the importance of the mediatization of politics has already begun to weave, paraphrasing Castells, his own network society. He aims at transforming The Movement into a connective tissue for coping with deliberate attacks from the establishment, represented by traditional political parties and EU institutions, which attempt to discredit its eurosceptic discourse.
Thus, strategic support in the form of polling operations, data analysis and waging-war instruments are widely provided, understanding the relevance of the social media logic where the virality, the spread of information, the role of fake news and the speed of response are the main cornerstones for setting the extreme right-wing agendas as well as reinforcing national identities. Its virtual operation center, located in Brussels, is a demonstration of its intentions. From the EU capital, and used as a Trojan horse, Bannon’s platform is intended to serve both as a stepping stone to EU institutions and a cohesive element which might unite Europe’s far right parties ahead.
However, regardless of what one might think, the actual The Movement’s political epicenter is not Brussels but Rome, specifically the monastery of Trisulti. In fact, this location has not been picked at random. There, Bannon has been surrounded by different allies within Vatican ultra-conservative circles such as Benjamin Harnwell, founder of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, and the American cardinal Raymond Burke who has always been highly critical about what Pope Francis’ openness agenda represents. This strategy clearly shows not only how Bannon’s commitment goes beyond electoral politics but also aims at catalyzing populist movements within the Catholic Church.
The bicephalic structure makes sense from a Bannonist perspective. While Brussels is the EU capital and, hence, home of the economic and political establishment, Rome is the Catholic capital which portrays both the eurosceptic populist’s coalition success and the importance of the Christian role values that, according to Bannon, “are being threatened by the increasing islamization of Europe”.
Once the structure, with its virtual and political locations as well as the links between like-minded eurosceptic leaders, is established, the most challenging objective behind Bannon’s platform arises: turning the European elections into a referendum on immigration and western identity values. To do so, Bannon aims at achieving at least one third of the European parliament represented by diverse far-right-wing parties, which may ensure further integrationist policies by disrupting the parliamentary procedure and its implementation. Unfortunately, an increasingly feasible objective.
How and why did populism succeed? Can Bannon’s opportunism undermine the already battered European project?
Let us take it one step at a time. Political and communication scholars as Wendy Brown or Natalie Fenton justify the rise of populism as intertwined driving forces which are currently shaping the so-called “late modernity”. An increasing globalization process dictated by the neoliberal rationality has gradually involved the fragmentation and the economization of the society, where the convergence of the traditional political parties has progressively created a political space to be filled by populist movements.
The salience of immigration, the national identity and its articulation through social media platforms has irretrievably provided the creation of filter bubbles that go beyond the national borders and this is, indeed, the point Bannon wants to boost: The EU as an enemy to be destroyed.
Nonetheless, as Habermas highlights, the anti-European feelings which spread out among the populist movements are not exclusively a phenomenon derived from a current xenophobic nationalism but also respond to different variables. The failure of the integration process as well as the imposition of the taken-for-granted anti-austerity measures by the IMF and the European Commission are the common axis that has enabled the government coalition of two antagonistic forces in Italy.
Oddly enough, Pro-Europeans have good reasons to welcome Bannon. Firstly, the extensive heterogeneity displayed by diverse far-right political parties regarding their understandings of EU could underscore an insurmountable obstacle within The Movement. Thus, following Habermas’ thesis about the non-existence of a European demos, the lack of a collective identity may hamper the creation of a flawless Parliamentary Group that could unite Europe’s far right ahead.
That fact is clearly evidenced by Jérôme Rivière’s, Le Pen’s strategic advisor, statements in which he refused any supranational entity or the possibility of participating in Bannon’s proposal. But perhaps the most undeniable rejection came from Alexander Gauland, co-founder and co-leader of the Alternative for Germany, with a brief “we are not in America”. Thusly, Bannon is tirelessly striving to explain The Movement as a shrewd instrument, a bridge with the potential of being used.
And secondly, it is worth recalling that any action is followed by a reaction. In this fashion, the reinforcement of the Franco-German axis in response to the increased risk of giving the extreme right a critical role on the future of the EU is more than evident. This is proven by the incessant appeals from the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, for the refoundation of Europe and its materialization through the Elysse extension treaty. In this spirit, Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, announced the last October a pan-European coalition with Macron and Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands.
Only time will tell whether EU is able to take the steps needed towards an authentic federal union as Nikolas Spanoudakis defends,or whether the economic protectionism will usher a new era in Europe. Perhaps, contradicting Habermas, the articulation of a European collective identity could revolve around the environmental realm. Only one thing is clear; either we will move towards a more integrated Europe or by contrast, we are witnessing the beginning of its death.
Carlos is a political scientist, who specializes in political communication through social media (Master Degree in Communication and Social media at Uppsala). He was a research assistant in an international project analyzing all the Swedish political parties’ communication strategies. He’s interested in identity formation processes, nationalism and foreign policy as well as the AI implications within public and private sectors.
Cover photo: Flickr