After the Ibiza videos had made their way around the world, after Austria's vice chancellor had resigned and the government appeared to be on the verge of collapse, as people found themselves wondering just how deep the abyss could be, the operatic aria "Nessun dorma" -- "none shall sleep" -- could be heard on the square in front of Milan's Duomo cathedral. It's Matteo Salvini's entrance music.
It was last Saturday, one week before elections to the European Parliament. And Salvini, Italy's interior minister, had assembled a pan-European festival of right-wing populists and radicals. Marine Le Pen had come in high spirits from France, Geert Wilders was there from the Netherlands, Jörg Meuthen from the Alternative for Germany party, along with Bulgarian, Slovak, Austrian, Flemish, Danish, Finnish and Estonian nationalists, 11 parties from Europe's right-wing periphery who want to form a "super group" in the next European Parliament.
Together, they performed what is by now a well-known work, one with some surreal features: Full of bluster, the self-proclaimed "true Europeans" campaigned for entry into a parliament they despise. And they asked the people to give them the power to hollow out a European Union that has been painstakingly built over decades. All of it to the tune of "Nessun dorma," along with Puccini's "Turandot," its aria ending in fierce chanting: "Vanish, oh night! Set, stars! Set, stars! At dawn I will win! I'll win! I will win!" Vincerò!
On the stage in Milan, not a word was said about the drama unfolding in Vienna, as Heinz-Christian Strache, the head of the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), stepped down from his position as vice chancellor following the leak of a video demonstrating the depth of his corruptibility - a scandal that also threatened to take down the entire Austrian government. And yet, in Milan they all pretended that nothing had happened. Even as they all knew: Quite a lot had happened.
Strache Is No Isolated Incident
This time around, it's not about some low-level party official sending Hitler pictures via WhatsApp on the Führer's birthday in provincial Austria. This time it goes right to the top level of the Austrian government, casting light on the worrying state of the Austrian political scene. The videos raise fundamental questions about whether the populists are fit for power. And whether they can be entrusted with government business. And whether Strache and his protégé Johann Gudenus should be regarded as isolated cases or as symbolic figures of a fast and loose relationship between right-wing populists and donations from foreign donors, rule of law and the truth.
Most Austrians, with the exception, perhaps, of FPÖ supporters, were likely to have been deeply shocked by the disregard to the country's constitution shown in the recordings, and many Europeans were astonished by the crooked behavior displayed by the second in command of a government of an EU member state. If the scenes in the Ibiza videos had been part of a TV crime show, people probably would have dismissed them as having been exaggerated and overdone.
Now, though, the race is on in the competition to interpret the videos. Opponents of the right-wing populists will argue that the scenes filmed of Strache are the final proof that breaking the law, corruptibility and a self-serving mentality are inherent to the culture of right-wing nationalist groups like the FPÖ. Then there are Strache's followers, who have been posting comments on his Facebook page since the scandal broke defending the politician by saying he was tricked and attacking his pursuers.
Either way, "IbizaGate" feeds into the well-founded suspicions that those thumping their chests as über-patriots in their countries have little problem with conniving with foreign powers, obtaining financing from dubious donors or even being pulled like puppets on a string when it comes to policy. The Strache scandal is undoubtedly detrimental to the original narrative offered by the right-wing populists -- namely that the parties are the lone forces defending the good people against "old parties" and other corrupt elites. But as Strache has now shown, it's the right-wing populists themselves who are in fact the corrupt elite.
Relevant Only to Austria?
Strache's German counterpartsfrom the Alternative for Germany (AfD) have recognized the dangers of such discussions, but they don't want to admit it. Meuthen, one of the party's leaders, has been in damage control mode since last Saturday, describing the Strache Video as a "singular matter" reflecting abominable behavior, but also as a domestic issue relevant only to Austria.
Until AfD leaders came up with that formulation, the party seemed to be all over the map in their response to the scandal. At first, the AfD appeared to be too overwhelmed to come up with a definitive response to the revelations published by DER SPIEGEL and the Süddeutsche Zeitung last Friday. In an initial reaction shortly after the publication of the explosive story on Friday, the spokesman for the party's parliamentary group tweeted that an attempt was being made to create a "pseudo scandal out of nothing." And: "Poor DER SPIEGEL, the magazine has never been this uninteresting."
After the resignations in Vienna the following day, the AfD spokesman deleted his tweet and the party leadership began considering a different response. A number of AfD officials tried get in touch with people they knew within the FPÖ to try to find out more about what had happened. Before his appearance in Milan, AfD leader Meuthen consulted with a small group and then asked the press spokesman to send an email at noon to the party's national board. "In consultation with Mr. Meuthen and Mr. Lüth (on behalf of Mr. Gauland) we have just decided not to say anything today about the current events relating to Strache and the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition in Austria." ÖVP stands for the Austrian People's Party, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz's party. And: "These are domestic Austrian affairs..." If that was supposed to be analysis, though, it was wrong.
The Strache circus is of course also a problem for right-wing populists outside of Austria, because the issues raised by the video are a problem for them all across Europe. For months the AfD itself has been tangled up in several party donation scandals involving Alice Weidel, the party's floor leader in German parliament, as well as its leading candidates heading into this weekend's European elections, Meuthen and Guido Reil. Weidel is under scrutiny over a dubious election campaign donation of around 130,000 euros. In Meuthen's case, he is being scrutinized over 90,000 euros from dubious sources used to finance his campaign in a state election in Baden-Württemberg. And there are questions surrounding the nearly 45,000 euros used in a state election campaign in North Rhine-Westphalia for Reil, a member of the AfD's national board.
Kremlin Shifting Strategy
No less troubling is the fact that the Ibiza video once again sheds light on the close contacts many right-wing populists in Europe have with Russia, a problem for which the AfD has also been in the headlines. In April, DER SPIEGEL, ZDF, La Repubblica and the BBC reported on the activities and connections of Markus Frohnmaier, a member of German parliament with the AfD. A document circulated inside the Russian presidential administration at the time of the Bundestag election campaign describing the politician as potentially becoming "a deputy under absolute control" of Russia.
The BND, Germany's foreign intelligence agency, and the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the country's domestic intelligence apparatus, are currently detecting a change in the Kremlin's strategy. Rather than relying solely on its own media and channels for campaigning and aiming to steer the agenda, it is now focusing much more on individuals, a small group of parliamentarians were recently told in a classified meeting. They were informed that the people selected by Moscow included somewhere between a half-dozen and a dozen members of the Bundestag. One is Markus Frohnmaier. When contacted for comment, he responded: "I do not allow myself to be used by the Russian government for its purposes and would always refuse to accept attempts of this kind. The reporting about me is nothing more than a campaign."
Senior AfD politician Alexander Gauland is also a frequent guest in Russia, but he rejects any criticism because he claims to be following the foreign policy footsteps of Bismarck, who believed in strong German-Russian relations. Marcus Pretzell, at the time a member of the AfD and current member of the European Parliament, visited the Russian-occupied Crimea as "Guest of Honor" in 2016 and thought it petty when he was later questioned about who paid for the trip.
Loans from Moscow
Similar episodes can be found all across Europe. When Marine Le Pen's Front National, now known as Rassemblement National, convened a party conference in Lyon in November 2014, the guest list was similar to that of Salvini's rally in Milan and delegates from Vladimir Putin's United Russia Party also attended. That same year, Le Pen's party had received two loans from Russian banks amounting to 11 million euros to help finance its election campaigns.
Two years later, the French right-wing populists asked Moscow for another 3 million euro loan, but it is unclear whether it was ever granted. There are, though, indications that Marine Le Pen may have promised not to criticize Russia's annexation of the Crimea and to promote Moscow's interests in exchange for the money. The suspicion, which Le Pen denies, is supported by mobile text messages from a well-known and high-ranking Kremlin official, who wrote among other things: "Marine Le Pen has not disappointed our expectations." And: "We will have to thank the French in one way or another."
In Great Britain, the National Crime Agency is investigating suspicions that Brexit leader Nigel Farage received money from Russia through indirect channels. Many consider it probable that the Kremlin sought to manipulate the Brexit vote to destabilize the European Union.
There is a greater amount of urgency surrounding these questions in the aftermath of the Strache-Ibiza video. Are economic interests at stake when Matteo Salvini's Lega party repeatedly advocates an end to the EU's "useless, or even harmful" sanctions against Russia? Do the Greek far-right parties get money for their frequently expressed conviction that there is a "natural alliance" between Greeks and Russians? How does Russia's president exploit the image he enjoys as being one of the last guardians of true values among European groups of both extremes? A leader who seeks to prevent what he describes as a weakened, immoral, decadent EU from prevailing?
"There is conspiracy of all the radical right-wing nationalists everywhere, apparently with the help of the Kremlin, or of oligarchs round the Kremlin, to disrupt this union," Guy Verhofstadt, a prominent Belgian member of European Parliament, told the Times of London on Wednesday. The German newspaper Die Welt this week quoted former French President François Hollande as saying that whoever votes for populists in Europe is "giving their vote to Trump and Putin."
That may sound preposterous, but it has long since become apparent in the European Council, where European heads of state and government still establish the broad parameters of EU policy. Coalition governments that include populist parties are often more open to influence from abroad than others. Once example is Middle East policy. Countries like Hungary have begun diverging from the European stance to serve American interests. Because Hungary stood in the way, the EU was not able to condemn the Trump administration's decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as a diplomatic mistake in December 2017. Budapest essentially became Donald Trump's advocate in Brussels.
The unanimity requirement for important decisions in the European Council thus gives populists veto power. And their partners abroad are quick to praise them for services rendered. Twelve days ago, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was showered with praise by the U.S. president himself during a visit to the White House. Orbán, Trump said, does a "tremendous job" and is "highly respected all over Europe."
That, of course, is far from the truth. In many countries, respect for Orbán is a thing of the past, and when it comes to domestic policy and the judiciary, his government is seen as having betrayed European values. Externally, Hungary has become a gateway for all those wishing to divide the EU. And the number of these open gateways is growing: Russia and the U.S. are not alone in their desire to weaken the EU block. China has also incorporated the EU, the world's largest internal market, into its geopolitical considerations and is searching for access.
The EU isn't equipped to stand up to such adversaries. It does have a couple of instruments it can use to punish intractable member states, but it hardly ever uses them. EU countries worried about being punished in the future regularly block their deployment. The dream of outgoing European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker that the EU might one day become a global political player seem illusory.
By chance, Juncker was in Vienna this week for a visit that had long been planned. He had apparently decided that he would remain silent about the Strache scandal - but couldn't ultimately resist. "The idea that one country is put on a silver platter so that others can help themselves," he said, "does not reflect my idea of patriotism."
Jean Asselborn, Juncker's compatriot who is the foreign minister of Luxembourg, expressed deep discomfort. "The European right wing is unified by its desire to bring the free press and the judiciary under its control wherever they have power," he says. "That is true of Hungary and Poland, and that is shown by Strache's comments in the video."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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