Spontaneous applause erupted as she entered the room. It was the middle of November and Marine Le Pen had just walked into the Bulgarian National Assembly as the most prominent guest at a meeting of European right-wing populists. Representatives from Flanders in Belgium were there, as were delegates from Italy and radicals from Bulgaria and the Czech Republic.
The head of the French right-wing party Rassemblement National, known as the Front National until last June, took a seat toward the front of the horseshoe of tables. Behind her was a poster: "Movement for a Europe of Nations and Freedom," it read. "A new model for European citizens!"
That's why she had traveled to Bulgaria -- to show that she and her allies are a force to be reckoned with and that 2019 will be the year of right-wing populists on the European stage. They hope that the European Parliament elections in May will send the Continent in a new political direction.
And surveys show that the right wing could end up becoming stronger than ever before. There are, to be sure, significant differences between some of the parties on the far right and they are not nearly well-organized enough to be able to push through a joint political platform. But they could certainly put the brakes on European integration.
Right-wing populists have become a feature in the political landscape of almost every European Union member state, while in Italy, Austria, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Denmark and Finland, they are either part of the government or support the government. They are no longer merely a fringe phenomenon or a passing anomaly. Rather, they are a movement that could continue to grow -- and they are doing all they can to position themselves as such.
Despite all of their differences, the target of their ire is the same: the cosmopolitan elite, liberal opinion leaders in the media and EU bureaucrats in Brussels. Their best enemies? German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, the latter having proven to be a tireless promoter of deeper European integration.
From the perspective of the right wing, the plans pushed by Macron and his supporters can mean only one thing: Further impositions on "normal people," upon whom much has already been imposed -- things like smoking bans, gay marriages, refugees and expensive environmental protection regulations. The populists claim they are the only ones who speak for the majority of Europeans. And one of their primary goals is a Europe free of immigration. They call their concept the "Europe of Nations."
The right wing hopes to transform the European elections into a kind of plebiscite: What kind of Europe do people want? Open or closed? Traditionalist or tolerant? Should the European bloc become a political union with fewer powers reserved for the nation-states or should it merely be something like a free-trade area in which each individual country can chart its own course?
The Most Pressing Problem
The mood on the Continent is currently playing into the hands of the right-wing populists. According to the most recent Eurobarometer survey, a majority of 62 percent believes that EU membership is a good thing, but at the same time, exactly half of EU citizens believe that things are "going in the wrong direction," an increase of eight percentage points over the results of a survey from half a year before. Migration continues to be seen as the most pressing problem facing the bloc.
Public opinion researchers believe that right-wing populists could end up with 20 percent of the EU-wide vote. That is, of course, far short of a majority, but it is enough to throw a spanner in the Brussels works by blocking joint initiatives on financial issues, social welfare and migration. In short: They can turn back the clock on European integration. Hungarian political scientist Daniel Hegedüs of the German Marshall Fund believes the elections in May will be vital to Europe's further development.
That is precisely to Marine Le Pen's liking. "We are at an historic turning point," she said in Sofia. "Wild globalization is coming to an end." Now, she said, it is time for the peoples of Europe to take center stage.
Le Pen has already had posters printed for the European election campaign, depicting her with Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, a close friend of hers with whom she likes to go dancing on occasion. Another poster has likewise been produced, with the message: "Our ideas are winning across Europe!"
That is certainly true in Italy. According to the results of the March 2018 elections in the country, Salvini is merely the junior coalition partner in the Roman cabinet. But the head of the Lega party has long since taken on a dominant role when it comes to defining the government's agenda. And he also leaves no doubts about his ambition of becoming the figurehead of the European right wing.
During an October visit to Moscow, he even said that he could imaging himself as a candidate to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker -- a man for whom he has nothing but contempt -- as European Commission president. In Rome, too, he seemed in December like he was brimming with confidence. He said that he often reads that "Europe is in danger because of these populists, racists and fascists, because of Salvini, Le Pen and the AfD," the latter a reference to the Alternative for Germany party. But, he went on, the EU's problem is actually "that it has been governed poorly by the same people for decades." That, he intimated, is something he intends to change.
Tight International Bonds
He had just finished speaking to 80,000 followers on Rome's Piazza del Popolo, where he promised to launch a new era in Brussels. "There are people," he said in that speech, "who have betrayed the European dream. But we will give our blood and veins for a new Europe." Still, it was notable that he said nothing about leaving the eurozone, something he promised frequently when his party was still in the opposition. It appears that Salvini has reinvented himself yet again. Now, he is presenting himself as the leader of the charge to take over power in the parliament of a united Europe.
He is constantly receiving guests from around Europe. One of them, Austrian Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, dropped by in June, a visit that produced a nice selfie with Italy's new strongman for Strache's Facebook profile.
Strache's Freedom Party of Austria has long been a major player in the European right-wing movement, with former FPÖ leader Jörg Haider many years ago adopting the phrase "Europe of nations," a slogan coined by France's nationalist-minded postwar president Charles de Gaulle. Haider's former disciple Strache, who has led the party since 2005, has continued pursuing the strategy, strengthening his own position by establishing tight international bonds.
Strache has toned down his anti-European rhetoric since he became junior partner in Chancellor Sebastian Kurz's right-wing coalition, but he continues to cultivate tight relations with fellow populists across Europe. FPÖ General Secretary Harald Vilimsky, who has grabbed headlines in the past by deriding Juncker's alleged fondness for alcohol, has repeatedly demanded solidarity on the right. He says that a right-wing alliance should be developed to the point that "we can save Europe."
Then there is the FPÖ's traditionally tight ties with Moscow. Strache's right-wingers have a cooperation agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party -- a deal that took center stage in August at the wedding of Austria's FPÖ foreign minister, Karin Kneissl, who thanked Putin for coming with a highly publicized curtsy that doubled as an affront against the EU and its sanctions against Russia.
The FPÖ also has ties with right-wing parties in neighboring countries, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's Fidesz party, which takes a position on immigration that is at least as nationalist as that of the government in Vienna.
But the European right wing has a significant Achilles heel. Thus far, the various parties have had trouble cooperating, a problem that has been particularly apparent at the European level. There are two right-wing populist groups in the European Parliament, the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) and the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF), but both are rather loose alliances, with coordinated voting more the exception than the rule. A study conducted by the Berlin-based Jacques Delors Institute found that members of the ENF group maintain fraction discipline in only 69 percent of the votes. With other European Parliament groups, that number is up to 90 percent.
Cheap Loans from Russia
That lack of discipline shows that despite all the demonstrations of unity, the basis for real cooperation is narrow at best. The differences in the parties' interests are rather substantial in places. Salvini, for example, wants to see refugees -- if migration can't be stopped altogether -- distributed more fairly across Europe, including to Eastern European countries. That is something to which the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, which heads up the government in Poland, is adamantly opposed, as is Orbán in Hungary.
The European right wing is also divided when it comes to relations with Russia. For historical reasons, the Poles want nothing to do with Putin, but Orbán and Le Pen have both turned to the Russian president for cheap loans in the past.
The German nationalists in the AfD are also broadly viewed with suspicion, likewise a product of 20th century history. That makes it virtually impossible for right-wing populists from Poland to consider working together with the right-wing populists from Germany. After all, the new Desiderius Erasmus Foundation, launched in 2017 as the AfD's right-wing populist think tank, is led by Erika Steinbach, a woman who was once head of the Federation of Expellees, which represents those Germans expelled from present-day Polish territory following World War II. In the 1990s, Steinbach even questioned the legitimacy of the current German-Polish border. She is, in short, enemy No. 1 for Polish nationalists.
There is also little agreement when it comes to budgetary issues. Alice Weidel, co-leader of the AfD in the German parliament, issued a press statement recently in which she was sharply critical of the Italian budget: "Germany cannot become Italy's paymaster!" she wrote, and reminded Salvini that without EU support, Italy "would have been broke long ago." The statement ended with a quote from the Asterix comic series: "These Romans are crazy!"
Furthermore, there is disagreement regarding who should be the right wing's leading figure: Salvini or Orbán. The latter has been prime minister of Hungary for the last eight years and is fond of posing as the pioneer of the new, populist right. He has a solid parliamentary majority at home and has largely brought the state, the media and the judiciary under his control.
Spreading Orbán's Ideas
It was also Orbán who demonstrated in summer 2015 how to reap political capital from the presence of refugees. In a propaganda offensive that year, he stigmatized refugees as potential terrorists, as competition on the labor market and even as carriers of infectious diseases. His government then built a razor wire-topped border fence that is up to four meters tall. And Orbán subsequently demanded that the EU reimburse him for the cost.
Orbán's team also invented the treacherous, and widespread, propaganda lie about the alleged Soros Plan. According to the fabrication, the billionaire George Soros, who is originally from Hungary, is planning to have Christian Europe flooded with Muslim refugees and is preparing the way for that invasion by funding all manner of liberal foundations. Elements of the conspiracy theory are frequently quoted by nationalists in Poland and Bulgaria.
Orbán is particularly fond of posing as the savior of the Christian West. And he has a plan for that as well: A new training center allied with his party is to establish branches in the most important capital cities in Europe to spread Orbán's ideas across the Continent.
Orbán's links to the political establishment provide him with a strategic advantage among the European right. His Fidesz party belongs to the European People's Party (EPP), the parliamentary group in the European parliament that is also home to Germany's conservative Christian Democrats.
"Orbán can deliver his message from the center," says political scientist Hegedus, which boosts his standing and could attract new groups of voters.
The Hungarians, though, are largely dependent on EU subsidies. Between its accession to the EU in 2004 and the end of 2017, the country received 40 billion euros from Brussels. The same is true of Poland. The country, with a population of 38 million and led by the EU-critical PiS party, has transformed itself from a backward, agrarian nation into a center of growth -- in part thanks to European subsidies.
Troublemakers in Brussels
Yet despite the benefits they reap from EU membership, Poland and Hungary tend to be troublemakers in Brussels. But why?
It is a question to which conservative professor Krzysztof Szczerski, appointed as cabinet chief by Polish President Andrzej Duda, has given a lot of thought. "The EU has lost the support of society," Szczerski notes. "It is no longer the guarantor of security that it once was."
Europe failed in the euro crisis, he says, but above all in border protection. The sociologist claims that Muslim mass migration is bringing terrorism to Europe. "Without this EU policy, people would not feel threatened."
He also says that the EU is assuming ever greater powers. "Anyone who builds a house or opens a company knows that." Szczerski claims that Brussels has become a threat to freedom. "That's why the political elite fear elections -- they're afraid of the people's dissatisfaction."
In any case, he says, democracy is only possible at the national level, which is why he believes that EU member states need to be given more powers. He wants to see the EU return to the principle of unanimity in all decision-making. "Nothing can be decided over our heads, without us." The professor gets angry when he thinks about what he alleges to be a paternalistic tone coming from Brussels at times. "The tone," he says, "is similar to the one between east and west Germans. But we don't want to be the eastern Germans of the EU."
By making the comparison between eastern and western Germans in the reunified country, he touches on an open wound that Germans are all too familiar with. Around three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, considerable resentment still persists along the former Iron Curtain.
As such, it is no coincidence that the Alternative for Germany has particularly strong support in the east. In Saxony, it is only four percentage points behind the CDU, with around 25 percent approval.
The AFD vs. the EUSSR
When party chair Jörg Meuthen stepped onto the stage at the Magdeburg convention center on Nov. 16, he knew exactly how to get his audience in the right mood. "People have the choice in the European elections between two completely different political visions," he told the audience. On the one hand, he said, you have the "socialist Greens who deliberately disintegrated the fatherland, abolished Germany and re-educated the people" in their desire for some kind of EUSSR, a European version of the USSR. The AfD on the other hand, stands for the opposite: "conservative, (economically) liberal and patriotic politics."
The disparaging term EUSSR has long been popular in right-wing radical circles, but now it has arrived in the AfD mainstream. Meuthen also promised his audience that they have many "natural allies" in the European Parliament.
When questioned a few weeks later in a Berlin cafe, Meuthen said his party's partnerships were still in their infancy. Meuthen says he knows Strache well but he has never met Salvini personally. His contact with Orbán, meanwhile, has been limited to a brief handshake. The AfD's contacts with Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement National party have also gone into a slumber since former party leader Frauke Petry and her husband Marcus Pretzell bolted the AfD in September 2017.
Fragile or Non-Existent Alliances
Ultimately, AfD's alliances with other European right-wing parties are fragile or non-existent. Not only because Meuthen is the sole member of the AfD in the European Parliament, but also due to the fact that his ideological brethren there regard him as being powerless.
Meuthen says the language barrier also presents an obstacle to successful partnerships. "It's hard to imagine a joint election campaign," he says, before suggesting that something like a joint political rally might be more realistic.
Is it possible the initiative will get a little help from America in the form of Stephen Bannon?
Meuthen says with no lack of pride that the former Donald Trump confidant is currently trying to set up an appointment with him. "I wouldn't be against meeting with Mr. Bannon either," he says. But he doesn't seem to be in a great rush. "I don't think we Europeans need American support in the election campaign. We can manage very well on our own." Trump's former campaign manager has taken on the task of promoting the European right to success through his intiative "The Movement." To that end, he's been traveling around the Continent, meeting with Salvini, Le Pen and Orbán -- and he apparently planning to stay: Bannon confidant Benjamin Harnwell recently rented an 800-year-old monastery just outside of Rome. Trisulti in the Apennines mountains is to be developed into a right-wing populist think tank, a "gladiator school for culture warriors," as Harnwell has described it.
But these partial successes can't hide the fact that Bannon is currently not making much progress. As the Guardian has reported, foreign election campaign assistance is prohibited in many EU member states, including France, Spain, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Finland. It is possible only to a limited extent in Germany and Austria. The only countries that don't limit such assistance are Denmark, Sweden, Italy and the Netherlands, but right-wing populists in Denmark and Sweden have refused to work together with Bannon, leaving just Italy and the Netherlands at the moment.
But even Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders, weakened after a poor election result in the summer of 2017, has rejected the American politician. "Bannon is our friend, but we don't need American help in this form," he says.
Despite their numerous differences, though, European nationalists are still dangerous. Their core message, a direct challenge to democracy as such, has taken root: We are the people and we must drive out the elites. It's also likely that the right-wing will be newly structured in the future European Parliament. On the one hand, there is the comparatively moderate European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group. Given that the group is losing Britain's Tories with Brexit, Poland's PiS is likely to gain influence in that body.
Parties oriented further to the right are likely to be part of the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF), the parliamentary group that is home to true EU skeptics. Italy's Lega, Austria's FPÖ and Germany's AfD could all form a group together with Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement National. Current polls show that the two groups could together account for up to 150 out of a total of around 705 members of the European Parliament.
Slamming the Brakes on Europe
And within the European Council, which represents the leaders of the EU member states, movement on refugee policy has already come to a standstill because Salvini is blocking such efforts.
The populists could also slow down a number of other things at the European Commission, the EU's executive branch. The question is the degree to which several commissioners from countries with euro-skeptic governments will hinder the effectiveness of the European Commission. So far, there have only been problems with Orbán's appointee, Tibor Navracsiscs, who is responsible for the education, youth, culture and sport portfolios -- a post where there's not a lot he can mess up.
But if several EU-critical governments were to send commissioners at the same time, it wouldn't be as easy to sideline them with second-tier portfolios. In the Brussels power game, the Commission has so far been the authority that has been the most committed to finding joint European solutions. But a Commission with a number of commissioners and critics pulling the brakes all the time would weaken the European Union.
And that would be a boon to the EU skeptics. After all, one of their main messages has long been that Brussels is incompetent. They claim the EU is incapable of identifying and resolving the problems people are facing. If they ascended to positions where they were able to exert more control, the EU would likely come to resemble what its critics claim it to be: bureaucratic, cumbersome and irrelevant.
At the end of the day, Europe's right-wing populists are in a position to make some of their own predictions come true, while at the same time attracting more voters for the next election.
By Melanie Amann, Julia Amalia Heyer, Walter Mayr, Peter Müller, Dietmar Pieper and Jan Puhl