The European Union usually plays only a subordinate role in the American debates on Europe. But recently, interest in the European Parliament elections has picked up markedly—focused mainly on the current upswing, real or imagined, of conservative or far right populist parties. And there is certainly someone who would welcome a strong result for these nationalist forces: US President Donald Trump.
After a troubled decade most US observers see the EU as a weakened organization. This perceived weakness hasn’t softened Trump’s ire, however. While frequently criticizing those governments that support further European integration, Trump lavishes attention on the nationalist governments in Warsaw and Budapest. Following Trump’s speech in Poland in 2017, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Budapest and Warsaw this February; a Berlin visit, planned for earlier this months, was canceled on short notice. And last week, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was a guest at the White House, allowing Trump to clearly indicate which political forces he is routing for in the European elections.
Prior to the Trump-Orbán meeting, both Republican and Democrat senators had called on the US president to address the Orbán government’s increasingly repressive actions against civil society and independent media organizations in Hungary. Instead, Trump praised Orbán (“respected all over Europe”) for his stance on immigration and that he had been “great with respect to Christian communities.” In other words, the president sided clearly with Europe’s nationalist, euroskeptic, and anti-liberal forces. For Orbán, whose Fidesz party has been suspended from the center-right EPP parliamentary group and whose government is in dispute with the EU, Trump’s support could not have come at a more favorable time.
Good and Bad Allies
Trump’s EU-critical stance has been reinforced by his National Security Advisor John Bolton, who openly opposes the supranational EU and sees in it an anti-American organization that deprives its member states of their national sovereignty. Like Trump, Bolton supports Brexit and has promised the United Kingdom special trade relations with the US after it leaves the EU. In addition, the Trump administration—similar to some members of the government of George W. Bush—seems to distinguish between EU members that are considered good and those that are considered bad partners for the US. The present aversion against the EU was also at play in the small, but symbolic step taken by the State Department at the end of 2018 to downgrade the diplomatic status of the EU delegation in Washington, DC. (It reversed the decision after protests.)
Meanwhile, similar to politics, the US news media, conservative and liberal, is particularly interested in the surge of the right-wing populists and nationalists in Europe. Fox News, whose commentators often share Trump’s EU-critical stance, argued that the election could become a tipping point in post-war European politics. Others zoomed in on the strong poll ratings for the Brexit Party in the UK and Nigel Farage’s announcement that his fight against the “globalist project that seeks to replace national democracies with unelected bureaucracies” would be continued after the election.
Breitbart News, the website once run by the one-time White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, also mostly focused on the UK campaign, reporting on Tony Blair’s “desperate” calls on the British not to vote for the Brexit Party. It also pointed to strong poll results for the French Rassemblement National and on Marine Le Pen’s call on Macron to step down if his party La République en Marche won’t come top in France in the European elections.
The Washington Post focused on the strength of Farage, Le Pen, and Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, but also reported on the difficulties the latter had to bring together all right-wing populist parties. The populist parties can only agree on a few topics beyond advocating for strong national borders, rejecting immigration, and combating Islamic terrorism, The Atlantic concludes.
A Trump-like Triumph?
The great interest among US observers in the right-wing populist movements can be partly explained by the fact that many see parallels to the developments in the US, and some wonder whether nationalist politics will continue to gain ground. Polls across Europe showed that “the forces that fueled President Trump’s rise are gaining, not losing, strength,” argued the conservative Washington Post columnist Henry Olsen. Since Trumpism would outlast Trump, the mainstream parties would need to adapt and offer real, effective responses to drive down populist discontent, Olsen wrote.
With Bannon eager to pave the way for a global revolution, US observers have also shown much interest in his efforts to bring together the right-wing populist parties in Europe. However, Bannon has been largely unsuccessful so far, as far-right leaders like Le Pen have rejected his advice, pointing to Bannon’s lack of understanding Europe, The New Yorker reported.
This may make gratifying reading for Bannon’s critics. But the queasy feeling that European right-wing populists could achieve a surprise success next Sunday remains—just like Donald Trump did it in 2016.
This article was originally published in the Berlin Policy Journal on May 20th, 2019.