An Inside Job The Right-Wing Populist Plan to Destroy Europe

Hungarian Prime Minsiter Viktor Orbán and Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini visiting Hungary's border fence.
Balasz Szecsodi/ AFP/ Source/ Byline

Hungarian Prime Minsiter Viktor Orbán and Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini visiting Hungary's border fence.

Part 2: Social Media Masters

The dangers presented by populists to European unity is significant, says Asselborn. "If European citizens continue placing their trust in these people, there is a risk that we could end up landing where we were back in the 1930s," he says.

The Austrian scandal was also of interest to Angela Merkel. On the Saturday Salvini's party in Milan and the political earthquake in Vienna were taking place, the German chancellor was standing in a basketball arena in Zagreb fulminating against the populists. "Nationalism is the enemy of the European project," she said from the stage. In the press conference that had preceded her speech, she said, "We are faced with populist currents that want to destroy a values-based Europe." Apparently referring to Strache, Merkel added: "That includes putting politicians up for sale. We must decisively stand up to all of that."

But the populists are currently finding success with their assault on the political establishment. They have representatives in parliaments across the continent, and established parties in almost every country in Europe are worried about their advance. In Sweden, the xenophobic Sweden Democrats received 17.5 percent of the vote in last year's elections, a result recently matched by the True Finns, whose overt nationalism fueled their success. The Conservative People's Party of Estonia, which has dedicated itself to the defense of the Estonian ethnicity, jumped from 8.1 percent support to 17.8 percent in March elections.

The numbers show that the populists are generally still far from securing a majority on a national or European level -- Poland and Hungary notwithstanding. But in places like Italy and Austria, they are becoming more than just convenient partners for parties in need of parliamentary majorities and in France, they could become the largest party in the country. In many European nations, it has become increasingly difficult to put together stabile governments made up of moderate political parties.

The communication strategies adopted by the right-wing populists are simply far better than the rather old-fashioned methods of the established parties. It is impossible to ignore the parallels to the 1930s, when the Nazis discovered the power of film and the possibilities presented by television - as exemplified by the broadcast of the 1936 Olympic Games. The populists and extremists of today were much quicker to understand the opportunities inherent in the digital world than their political rivals, many of whom remain stuck in analog antiquity. Populists still use traditional media outlets, but are increasingly circumventing them.

The Germans may still be playing catch-up, but in Italy, France and Austria, the populists have learned to take full advantage of what the new media world has to offer. They may like to complain that they are being treated unfairly by the "leftist media" and libeled by the "fake news," but in truth, other channels have long since become more important for them.

Matteo Salvini reaches 3.7 million people directly via Facebook, the kind of follower numbers otherwise only seen with pop stars. It helps explain why he always seems to be the center of attention. The traditional political reports seen on Italian public broadcasters or in critical newspapers merely serve to round out his brand. As strange as it might sound, Salvini is one of the largest mass-media outlets in Italy, which works to his tremendous advantage. It means that he can present himself and his worldview free from pesky critical questions.

Heinz-Christian Strache's supporters are willing to forgive him for every possible transgression.
Andreas Gebert/ Getty Images

Heinz-Christian Strache's supporters are willing to forgive him for every possible transgression.

Austria's fallen Vice Chancellor Strache has 779,000 Facebook followers in a country with a population of not even 9 million. Like Salvini, he and his team are adept at using emotion, both positive and negative. Mother's Day and children's birthdays are celebrated with pretty pictures, hearts and kisses - the idyllic world the FPÖ professes to protect. Then he posts stories about ungrateful asylum seekers, sex criminals and unwanted migrants, often with his own indignant commentary. Strache's posts aren't just read and liked, they are also shared and commented on thousands of times, increasing their value.

No Filter

Marine Le Pen similarly has 1.5 million followers on Facebook. Victor Orbán has 657,000. Some might argue that these numbers are something of a counterfeit currency and that their appearance in an article such as this represent the downfall of political analysis, but it is almost impossible to overrate their value. In this day and age, for politicians and others in positions of power, large follower counts mean message control, the ability to disseminate one's own messages without the inconvenience of a filter.

The more people follow a politician on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Instagram, the less dependent that politician is on the reporting of independent media and the fewer critical questions from journalists he or she needs to answer. Of course, it's not all hearts and kisses on their social media accounts - they are badgered and taunted, and not all of their followers are fans. But anger and controversy serve to jack up the click numbers - and in the new currency of digital attention, clicks are good, no matter where they come from.

U.S. President Donald Trump recently heaped praise on Hungary's right-wing populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán during the latter's recent visit to the White House.

U.S. President Donald Trump recently heaped praise on Hungary's right-wing populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán during the latter's recent visit to the White House.

It has become something of a parallel reality. Manfred Weber, the lead candidate in the European elections for the center-right European People's Party, doesn't even have 60,000 followers on Facebook. Weber presumably prefers devoting himself to projects he believes are more important than improving his internet presence. But it is doubtful that today's politicians can afford the luxury of such an approach. What has been true for the media for the last several years is now true for politicians as well: If you're not present in the digital world, you soon won't be present at all. Low name recognition translates to diminished election prospects, not to mention a weakened ability to attract younger voters or those voters who tend to stay away from politics.

Clever politicians like Salvini or Strache are perfectly suited to an era in which voters prefer watching videos than reading essays. But the current wave of populism aimed at the European Union and its Brussels headquarters is more than just a game being played by self-obsessed demagogues online media. The current form of populism, whose actors pose as the uncorrupted in a sea of corruption, has many roots: real problems and unrealistic expectations; broad fears of eroding financial security; feelings of being left behind. That is where populism derives its strength. And the anger that comes with it is perhaps best studied in the Eastern European countries that joined the EU a decade and a half ago.

These European elections are falling on a European anniversary that is being largely ignored. Fifteen years ago, the EU incorporated an entire group of Eastern European countries, enabling the peaceful unification of the continent - an historical godsend that led to a Nobel Peace Prize for Brussels. Today, however, this same EU has a terrible - catastrophic even - image within the right-wing governments in these countries.

Established Everywhere

In many parts of Eastern Europe, the EU is seen as a conspiracy of overpaid, traitorous bureaucrats. Like the communists before them, it is said, the EU technocrats are intent on reeducating the Eastern Europeans. They see the EU as trying to tame nation, tradition and religion. The women are to have fewer children, gays and lesbians are to be allowed to get married and adopt, and Muslims from Africa and the Middle East are to be permitted to settle wherever they want. And the blame, in this view, lies entirely with Brussels.

That is the message delivered by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the nationalist-conservative Law and Justice party in Poland, and by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz Party. The governments in Estonia, Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia also include similar figures. EU-skeptics have become established everywhere in the region.

And yet, contradictions abound. No halfway influential party in Eastern Europe wants to leave the EU. Despite the success of the Kaczynskis and the Orbáns, the EU enjoys tremendous support from the Baltics to the Balkans, including 90 percent support in Poland. The governments clearly have no mandate to escort their countries out of the EU. Indeed, surveys indicate that people there have more trust in the EU than in their own elites.

There is an economic explanation. Between 2004 and 2020, 356 billion euros will have flowed into the 10 accession countries from the European Structural and Investment Funds alone. Struggling state economies have transformed into regions of significant growth. The EU brought in investors, financed road construction, built universities and developed data networks. City halls and hospitals were renovated with EU money. And Brussels also helped reform the public administration and the judiciary - and strengthen civil society.

The EU triggered a wave of modernization in Eastern Europe that took three decades longer to unfold in the west. Prosperity, of course, is not equally divided. Statistically, however, the standard of living has risen significantly in all the accession countries. Eastern European societies have also become freer and more mobile in the last 20 years. There is no "objective" reason to be opposed to the EU in Warsaw, Budapest or Ljubljana.

There are, however, subjective, less concrete reasons. Karel Schwarzenberg, who spent several years serving as Czech foreign minister and is a passionate supporter of the EU, argues that people know what the EU has done for them, but don't feel at home in it. He says that all too often, Eastern Europeans have been delivered the message that they are second-class members of the bloc - poorer and still backwards, and that they should become real Europeans, real democrats before they speak up. A comparison can be drawn to the feeling former East Germans often have in reunified Germany.

It is a feeling not just experienced by politicians from Eastern Europe sent to Brussels, but by millions of Poles, Hungarians, Czechs and Slovaks in their day-to-day lives. Around 20 million people have at least temporarily left their Eastern European homelands to work in the West. Instead of getting to know the continent as student travelers or vacationers as many in the West were privileged enough to do, an entire generation of Eastern Europeans have experienced Western Europe as cleaning ladies, itinerant farmworkers and manual laborers. As domestic help for the wealthy of the West.

The Hallmark of Democracy

The resulting feelings of inferiority have fueled right-wing populists. The decades in which Eastern Europeans wanted nothing more than to emulate the West are over and a phenomenon has developed that the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev describes by saying: "Imitation engenders resentment." That resentment, he says, is directed at the erstwhile role models. It is stoked by the populists, who transform feelings of inferiority into aggression directed against the Brussels elite and the "servants" of the EU in their own capitals.

In places like Warsaw and Budapest, people have begun to feel like they have already experienced the best of what the EU has to offer. Now everything coming from Brussels is a threat to their own culture and lifestyle: environmental requirements, gay rights, migrant quotas, all kinds of duties and obligations, the arduous negotiations that are the hallmark of democracy.

The 2015 refugee crisis plunged half of Europe into temporary chaos, but more than anything, it gouged out a chasm between West and East. The demand primarily from Western European countries - or, to be more precise, from Germany - that all countries must help when it comes to distributing the refugees triggered the release of dissatisfactions that had been developing for quite some time. People in the east felt like they had survived the collapse of communism, lost jobs and got jobs, changed themselves, changed everything, and still hadn't caught up to the West. And now they were supposed to look after people even weaker than them?

In Brussels, such a point of view is seen as petulance and leads to a loss of influence. Exaggerated nationalism and unilateralism aren't welcome in the EU. They are a dead end. Poland and Hungary, in particular, sideline themselves in negotiations, frequently avoid complicated issues and tend to pound testily on the table rather than patiently pursuing their own interests and trying to listen to and understand the interests of others.

This leads to a dangerous cycle: countries driven by nationalism achieve less and less in Brussels, which leads to increasing alienation from the EU back home. Blame for a lack of success is pinned on anonymous powers in Brussels, the technocrats, the immovable and corrupt elites, thus paving the way for the empty yet pithy slogans of the populists.

Spluttering Expostulations

The disruptive potential of the right-wing fringe in European Parliament has long been limited to mere spluttering expostulations from the plenary floor - and their occasional misuse of EU money for their own benefit. Instead of using parliament for serious policy work, they saw it as a stage from which they could send messages back home - a stage adeptly used by Farage, Salvini, Le Pen and others of their ilk. For some time, they were content to mock Europe's legislative body, but that is now changing. Le Pen has undergone perhaps the most profound metamorphosis, and for her opponents, that should be rather unsettling.

For a long time, her focus was on "Frexit," on leading France out of the common currency. She saw anything European as evil and abhorrent. These days, though, she ends her campaign speeches with the battle cry: "Long live the real Europe! Long live France!"

The chant "vive l'Europe" is, despite the qualification represented by the word "real," a 180-degree reversal. Until this year, Le Pen had consistently campaigned on the promise of freeing her country from the yoke of the common currency. It is a promise that, most recently, failed to generate its desired result in 2017, when she performed so badly in a now legendary televised debate on EU issues with the ultimate election winner Emmanuel Macron that it seemed like her political career may have come to an end.

In the parliamentary elections that followed, her Front National party didn't even win enough votes to form its own parliamentary group, a failure that Le Pen interpreted as the result of widespread fear in France of leaving the eurozone. As a result, since fall 2017, she has been an ardent supporter of the "real Europe," a message that proved divisive in her party. But she was determined. She no longer wanted to frighten people away with "Frexit" - and now she appears to really believe that an alliance with her new friends in Italy, Poland, Austria, Germany and elsewhere represents a plausible path to power for the right-wing movement.

That's not particularly realistic. Thus far, every attempt at a broad, right-wing alliance in Europe has failed miserably, with the Front National itself having been part of many of those failures. The new concept for a European Alliance for People and Nations is also unlikely to go anywhere and conflict seems unavoidable.

The AfD in Germany and Lega in Italy are roughly as far away from each other on economic and finance policy as the liberals from the FDP and the far-left Left Party are in Germany. There are also deep, seemingly unbridgeable ideological rifts between Le Pen's party and the PiS in Poland and Fidesz in Hungary when it comes to society, family and women. As such, the planned right-wing "super fraction" is nothing more than a typical populist mélange of braggadocio and canniness. Likely the most important motivation for cooperation is the prospect of forming a large fraction that would automatically become more visible in European Parliament. It would also be handed more responsibilities, receive more speaking time and, most importantly, get more money.

By Maik Baumgärtner, Christian Esch, Ullrich Fichtner, Claus Hecking, Martin Knobbe, Walter Mayr, Ann-Katrin Müller, Peter Müller, Jan Puhl, Britta Sandberg, Christoph Scheuermann, Jörg Schindler, Jörg Schmitt, Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt and Bernhard Zand


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