The battle lines are now drawn for Europe’s final test: the may 2019 European Parliament elections. That’s when far-right and populist parties will attempt to complete their power grab in the EU. In the elections of 2014, they made gains. Next year, they’ll seek to dominate. The dramatic events we’ve witnessed over the past fortnight, in Germany and Italy have been a mere foretaste of the showdown that lies ahead.
It’s often said that anti-establishment and nationalist parties want to dismantle the European project altogether. But what’s at stake is more likely to be a full-on effort to redraw it to their liking. The migration issue is the starting point of a continental power struggle pitching two very different versions of the principles that should bind Europe together. One is liberal democratic, and attuned to the notion of an open society; the other is fortress-minded, illiberal and intolerant. This has global implications: anti-EU leaders in Washington and Moscow want to reap their own rewards from the mayhem – which they are playing their own part in fomenting.
June 2018 shook Europe’s liberal order in unprecedented ways. First, there was a far-right show of strength in Italy (the first EU founding state to be run by a far-right dominated government), as the Aquarius migrant rescue ship was turned away. Next, the 31-year-old Austrian chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, who governs alongside the Freedom party, an institution created in the 1950s by former Nazis, heralded the creation of a new “axis of the willing” in Europe, comprising like-minded populists in Italy and Hungary.
Then came an assault on the power of Angela Merkel in Berlin. The chancellor has now been given a two-week ultimatum by her own federal minister of the interior, Horst Seehofer, leader of the conservative Bavarian Christian Social Union, a party that has absorbed just about all of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland rhetoric on migrants. The EU summit scheduled for the end of this month, and destined to dominated by the subject of immigration, is likely to be an acrimonious shambles.
To top it all off, from across the Atlantic Donald Trump decided the occasion warranted one of the most provocative tweets of his presidency. In an intervention unprecedented for a US leader, Trump appeared to relish the possibility of Merkel’s downfall, writing: “The people of Germany are turning against their leadership as migration is rocking the already tenuous Berlin coalition.” Trump had earlier given the nod to irredentism in Europe, in claiming: “Crimea is Russia because people there speak Russian.” Who else will have heard that message loud and clear: far-right Hungarian irredentists perhaps, who still dream of a Greater Hungary stretching beyond current borders? One could be forgiven for quoting Yeats: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
“Axis”, with its second world war connotations, is perhaps an innocent choice of words by Kurz – or perhaps not. An ideological nexus does connect him to Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Seehofer in Bavaria and Matteo Salvini in Italy. Look at the map, and what emerges is the shaping of a core transalpine and Danubian Europe of the far-right and nationalist conservatism. With elections due in October in Seehofer’s powerful southern regional German state, and the Austrian presidency of the EU Council starting on 1 July, Catholic-dominated, German-speaking regions of Europe look set to define much of the debate about Europe’s future.
Trump may well be oblivious to the minutiae and dark symbolism. But be sure that Vladimir Putin isn’t. Some of these political forces have a track record of closeness to Russia’s strongman. The far-right Freedom party, to take one example, has a formal partnership with the Kremlin-sponsored United Russia party, and regularly calls for the lifting of EU sanctions – just as Seehofer does. Meanwhile, in the midst of his World Cup extravaganza, Putin is reportedly awaiting a call from Washington soon to set up a meeting with Trump – a summit Kurz would like to host in Vienna.
What Seehofer, Orbán and others are gearing up for is an overthrow of the values of the liberal order within the EU. They want to mould it according to their conservative Christian, nation-centered beliefs, and they see the west as being under assault from non-white and Muslim threats and migration. This was a vision also laid out by Trump, remember, in his 2017 Warsaw speech.
They don’t want to break up Europe, they want to take control of it. The “axis” will grow branches in Poland’s populist-led government and in parts of the Balkans. These people may not agree on everything, (for example, Salvini wants compulsory EU relocation plans for refugees, which Orbán rejects) but their interests are sufficiently aligned to make this the perfect moment to launch a common assault on EU institutions.
The “axis” aims to get rid of Merkel and seize control of the European People’s party (EPP), which has dominated the EU parliament for years and encompasses all the mainstream rightwing forces. The EPP has been a vehicle for Merkel’s hegemony over the EU all these years, which is one of the reasons she has always refrained from chucking out Orbán and his Fidesz party.
These leaders are now uniting to attempt a national-populist takeover of the EU as we’ve known it. Merkel is only the first target in a wider endeavour. And don’t be fooled by talk of an utterly powerless EU parliament: it does matter if the populists gain control, because the parliament has co-decision powers on legislation, alongside the council of ministers.
Orbán, who’s arguably the most outspoken about this, made the strategy abundantly clear in a speech last week. He suggested the EPP would need to change if it wanted to survive, and threatened to set up a new, “pan-European anti-immigration formation” if the EPP isn’t ready to be renewed on his terms. What’s to be done? The French president, Emmanuel Macron, and Merkel (if she survives the coming weeks in power) will try to peel away some parts of the “axis”. Macron has already courted Kurz in the Elysée palace, despite his association with the far right. On Tuesday Macron met Merkel at a castle north of Berlin to try to showcase a plan for eurozone consolidation. The news coming out of Europe isn’t all bad. Spain has a new, centre-left government. The EU’s economy is also doing better, and polls show growing support for it among citizens.
But for the democratic-minded across Europe, now is the time to make a clear choice. There’s no need to be obsessed with history to know that, when the “rough beast” slouches, “its hour come round at last” (Yeats again), surely anti-far-right forces must unite.
Given the context, hard-left clashes with centrists become something of a distraction. And criticism of the EU’s institutional “democratic deficit” is currently a sideshow. Let’s protect what we have. On 14 June, in the European parliament, the far left and the far right voted together against a resolution calling for the release of political prisoners in Russia. Would they likewise have voted together against a call for the release of migrant children held in cages by Trump’s America? Some people need to get their priorities right, before it’s too late.