Report

Europe’s Far-Right Seeks to Unite

Can European far-right parties overcome their differences and boost their clout in Brussels? 

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and Italian Lega party leader Matteo Salvini
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and Italian Lega party leader Matteo Salvini after talks in Budapest, Hungary, on April 1. ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP via Getty Images

In much of Europe, the far-right is thriving. Hard-line anti-immigrant parties rule Poland and Hungary. In Italy, Matteo Salvini’s League tops the polls and wields significant power after entering a national unity government. In France, National Rally leader Marine Le Pen is President Emmanuel Macron’s most fearsome rival, while Spain’s Vox has steadily bled support from the mainstream conservatives since its creation in 2013. But Europe’s far-right is finding it a lot harder to translate the power it has at home into influence across Europe, even though hard-line nationalists occupy more seats in the European Parliament than ever before.

Now, some of the continent’s most prominent right-wing parties—Italy’s League, Poland’s Law and Justice, and Hungary’s Fidesz—are seeking to build a new alliance to boost their clout at the European Union level. This month, League leader Salvini, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban held a high-level meeting in Budapest, Hungary, with more talks expected as early as May.

The three parties, said Marco Zanni, a League member of the European Parliament, are hammering out a political platform that includes protecting Europe’s roots against “soulless multiculturalism,” stemming immigration, and defending the traditional family. He says they are working to improve coordination when votes on these issues are held in Brussels.

Creating a common front would translate into more funding and resources, and boost the hard right’s prominence and ability to influence policy on the European stage. The immediate catalyst for the new grouping might have been Fidesz’s exit, in March, from the biggest bloc in the European Parliament, the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), which brings together mainstream conservative parties such as Germany’s Christian Democratic Union and Spain’s People’s Party.

In the current European Parliament, the far-right is divided into two relatively small groups. Identity and Democracy includes the League, as well as France’s National Rally and a smaller delegation from Alternative for Germany (AfD). The other hard-right bloc is European Conservatives and Reformists, dominated by Poland’s Law and Justice Party. While traditionally more mainstream—it used to host Britain’s Conservative MEPs—this group is also to the right of the EPP and includes such immigration hard-liners as Brothers of Italy and Spain’s Vox.

If the far-right parties were combined, including Fidesz, they’d be the second-biggest group in the European Parliament.

If they were combined, including Fidesz, they’d be the second-biggest group in the European Parliament—just behind the EPP but ahead of the social democrats.

The purpose of the new axis is “to reunite and refresh the European Christian Democratic right,” said Katalin Novak, vice president of Fidesz and a minister in Orban’s government. “We need a renaissance in order to best represent the national interests and to serve a competitive Europe while preserving our core values. In recent years the EPP has moved significantly toward the left. On some crucial issues, it is now difficult to distinguish between the EPP’s positions and those held by European socialist parties. This leaves millions of European citizens without a real representation at European level.”

For parties that cut their teeth with nationalist platforms and slogans—often including frontal attacks on Brussels and the EU—international cooperation might seem strange. But ever since the 2014 European elections and the subsequent creation of the Europe of Nations and Freedom group—a Le Pen-led assembly of far-right European parties in the European Parliament that later became Identity and Democracy—the continent’s far-right parties have shown a growing appetite for international alliances, said Duncan McDonnell, a professor of politics at Griffith University and co-author of a book on the radical right in the European Parliament.

Indeed, the Budapest talks were hardly the first initiative of this kind. The AfD in 2017 hosted a convention attended by, among others, Le Pen, Salvini, and Dutch right-wing firebrand Geert Wilders. In the months leading up to the 2019 European vote, Salvini met with Orban, traveled to Poland, and organized a rally in front of Milan’s Duomo alongside 11 other nationalist leaders.

And it’s not just a European phenomenon. Salvini has touted his warm relations with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. In 2019, India’s nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited a group of largely far-right MEPs to visit Kashmir, after he’d revoked the region’s autonomy. Former U.S. President Donald Trump hosted pro-Brexit U.K. politician Nigel Farage at his rallies—and famously bonded with Polish leaders in his visit to the country—while his ex-aide Steve Bannon has had frequent contacts with Europe’s sovereignists, supporting their efforts to unite.

Reasons for Europe’s far-right to band together are easy to find. Orban and Morawiecki are clashing with Brussels over their democratic backsliding at home—that’s what put an end to Fidesz’s membership of the EPP. For Salvini, who is playing a delicate game in a large coalition with mainstream parties back in Italy, teaming up with Central Europe’s hard-right rulers offers the opportunity to further strengthen his credentials as prime ministerial material, while also remaining faithful to his ideological roots.

Uniting the far-right camp, however, is easier said than done. The deepest rift concerns the relationship with Russia.

Poland’s Law and Justice is staunchly anti-Russian and has reaffirmed its ties to the West and the United States especially. In contrast, the League, National Rally, and AfD have all opposed EU sanctions on Moscow, with representatives of the three parties visiting Russian-annexed Crimea on multiple occasions. AfD delegations have repeatedly met with top Russian officials in recent months, and Le Pen even held face-to-face talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in early 2017, in what many viewed as a ringing endorsement by the Kremlin in the thick of the French presidential campaign.

The deepest rift concerns the relationship with Russia. 

Relations with Moscow are the main sticking point in the otherwise natural axis between Hungarian and Polish right-wingers. In a poll carried out in late 2020, 22 percent of Fidesz supporters viewed Russia as the “most important country to have a good relationship with,” against just 4 percent of Law and Justice sympathizers, a whopping 69 percent of whom cited the United States instead.

“Relations with Russia differ depending on the historical, cultural backgrounds, and economic and security interests. We respect our allies’ interests and represent ours, just like any other country. I do not see this issue being a major obstacle to a new alliance,” said Novak, the Fidesz minister.

Another potential obstacle is between parties that have governed and those that have only shouted from the cheap seats.

To Law and Justice or Fidesz, which, despite a populist bent, have run their countries for years, leaders like Le Pen, who never has, can still appear toxic. It’s true that Le Pen has sought to rebrand her party by shedding overtly racist and anti-Semitic language of the old days. But “she is still seen as an eternal outcast, somebody who never played a government role,” said Pawel Zerka, of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

And that means a different approach to Brussels. The National Rally, for example, “really lacks some strategy and EU policy expertise, whereas with Orban, Salvini, or Poland it’s different—they seem to have a much stronger idea of what they want at European level,” said Sophie Pornschlegel, a senior analyst at the European Policy Centre in Brussels. Some maverick parties also remain attached to a kind of hard-line Euroskepticism that others, including the National Rally and the League, have sought to tone down in recent years: The AfD’s manifesto for the upcoming federal elections in Germany includes a call to leave the EU.

But that gap may be narrowing. The League, when it was under the leadership of founder Umberto Bossi, wanted nothing to do with the National Front (as the National Rally used to be called); cooperation only improved over the last decade, after Salvini took over the reins of the party.

“A few years ago it was difficult to even talk” with the French far-right, said Polish Law and Justice MEP Witold Waszczykowski. “Now we are still in a wait-and-see mode, but of course we are open for discussion.”

The caution is mutual, though. Gilbert Collard, a National Rally MEP, believes it’s too early to express any views on the Budapest initiative, whose details remain blurry. “If a solution can be found to unite everyone, we will definitely be on board, but we are not there yet,” he said.

And then there are personal ambitions. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of what became the National Rally, was one of the first proponents of a pan-European nationalist front. Now, his daughter might be reluctant to join a project spearheaded by Salvini, who in the last couple of years has boosted the League’s European representation from almost nothing to potential kingmakers.

“Salvini started as Marine Le Pen’s delfino at the European level, but now he may be the master,” McDonnell said.

Given all their differences, the chances of the far-right forming a coherent bloc anytime soon are slim, Pornschlegel said.

But that doesn’t mean they’re going to stop trying. The recent summit, the upcoming meetings, and the spate of cross-border contacts speak to the far-right’s attempts to build its own popular front in Europe.

“They may be nationalist,” McDonnell said, “but they are also internationalist in the alliances that they form.”

Michele Barbero is an Italian journalist based in Paris, where he covers French and international news for various news organizations in Italy and abroad.