[Leonid Bershidsky] Steve Bannon wants to divide and conquer in Europe too

By Bloomberg
  • Published : Jul 26, 2018 - 17:14
  • Updated : Jul 26, 2018 - 17:14

As European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker heads to Washington to try to prevent a full-scale trade war, Europeans should expect him to be treated like a US adversary. In President Donald Trump’s worldview, a strong European Union is not in US interests. His former chief strategist Steve Bannon’s recent activity aimed at weakening the EU is further proof of that.

Juncker will caution Trump against slapping a punitive tariff on European cars, but he’s not bringing a specific offer to Washington: His goal is merely to maintain a dialogue, something European national leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron have not been successful at. Ever since Trump came to power, he’s been trying to negotiate on trade with specific EU members, appearing not to listen to their protestations that trade is an EU, not nation-state, competence. To Trump, the EU is an obstacle, an intermediary to be weakened and dispatched.

Even though Bannon is out of the White House and looking for a new high-profile project, his view of US interests isn’t far removed from Trump’s. The best way to advance it in Europe is to work against the EU through the more or less euroskeptic parties that stress the importance of national sovereignty. Bannon is setting up a Brussels-based coordination center for these parties, ambitiously titled The Movement, to help them with polling, messaging and other elements of US-styled politicking ahead of the 2019 European Parliament election. If nationalists and populists win a third of the votes and unite, the thinking goes, they will influence the running of key EU institutions and help shape the leadership of the next Commission and the European Central Bank. Federalist impulses could be blunted for the next five-year electoral cycle.

With just 10 staffers, The Movement looks like a classic startup in which an ambitious founder -- and Bannon is nothing if not ambitious -- is scouting both for a market to conquer and the money to conquer it with. But then, European campaigns are not as dependent on massive funding as they are in the US, and Bannon has been impressed with how cheaply British populists achieved their Brexit victory (“Dude! You just took the world’s fifth-largest economy out of the EU for 7 million pounds!” he enthused in a Daily Beast interview).

The market, though, may be tougher than Bannon realizes. The elections are not winner-take-all like in the US, and nationalist and populist parties are scattered through four political groups in the European parliament.

The Fidesz party of Viktor Orban -- Bannon’s hero, a man he’s called “Trump before Trump” -- has held on to its membership in the center-right European People’s Party, the biggest bloc in the current parliament, which also includes Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. Orban considers himself a classic Christian Democrat, not a populist, and he’s pro-EU on pretty much everything except immigration. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) is part of European Conservatives and Reformists, a group that will be hurt, perhaps even destroyed, by the departure of the UK Conservatives after Brexit. PiS, however, is unlikely to join any euroskeptic alliance because Poland is deeply pro-EU and dependent on EU subsidies to maintain its high rate of economic growth.

Even the determined euroskeptics, self-described populists and far-right politicians aren’t united. For example, Italy’s Five Star Movement is part of the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group, which also includes the only European Parliament member for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). Meanwhile, Five Star coalition partner, the League, is a member of Europe of Nations and Freedom, along with France’s National Rally (Marine Le Pen’s party, formerly called the National Front) and the Freedom Parties of Austria and the Netherlands.

The League’s leader Matteo Salvini, whom Bannon came to Rome to support during Italy’s recent election and dramatic coalition talks, plans to unite the right-wing populist factions, which makes him Bannon’s great hope in Europe. But even a merger of the two populist blocs that include Five Star and AfD is not predetermined, and if it happens, many members will be leery of any Bannon role: The nationalist parties’ voters are traditionally anti-American.

Harald Vilimsky, the general secretary of Austria’s Freedom Party and a European Parliament member, is all for Salvini’s proposal but is wary of Bannon. “We have come pretty far with parliamentary-level talks about expanding our alliance and we’ll go on working on it without any external influence,” he told Die Presse. In Germany’s AfD, there will be an internal debate: While Alice Weidel, the party’s parliamentary co-leader, likes Bannon and is on board with Salvini’s plan, party co-leader and only European Parliament member Joerg Meuthen is openly dismissive of Bannon: “We do not need coaching from outside the EU,” he said.

Gaining sizable influence in the next parliament isn’t an easy target for the nationalists even if they unite. Protest voting, of course, often plays an important part in European elections, and there could be surprises, but the latest projections don’t give the nationalist groups enough representation to undermine the EU. These parties are still the 20 percent club, struggling to achieve any relevance beyond their frustrated, xenophobic, unhappy base.

A US divide-and-rule policy in Europe, whether it’s pursued by Trump personally and through his ambassadors or by formally private individuals like Bannon, is a clear and coherent one. It’s also rather new, and it’s unclear how long it will hold, so European leaders aren’t sure whether they need to do anything about it yet. But now that it’s spilling over into elections, Trump, Bannon and other proponents of weakening Europe are likely to find out how resilient the EU is politically. The trade war, for its part, will showcase Europe’s economic resilience. Juncker will probably explain that part to Trump, even if the US president’s instinct is to ignore such explanations.

Leonid Bershidsky
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business.