Bannon’s Conquest of Europe Has Not Gone Well

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Steve Bannon’s setback in opening an academy for nationalist politicians in Italy crowns an ill-fated European adventure for the political strategist. His Napoleonic plans on the old continent ran into an obstacle he obviously failed to foresee: Europe is not the U.S.

Last September, Bannon promised a major effort to help European nationalist parties do as well in the European Parliament election as his client Donald Trump did in the 2016 U.S. presidential race. It would, Bannon said, be a “continent-wide presidential election.” He promised to set up “war rooms” for right-wing forces, run polls for them and help them with data analytics. He hoped to “drive the stake through the vampire” of globalism, with the vampire’s “beating heart” being the European Union. But first, nationalists would win at least 30% of the seats in the European Parliament; they’d even aim for 50%.

In February, I went to see Bannon’s chosen point man in Europe, Belgian lawyer Mischael Modrikamen, who had set up a Brussels foundation called The Movement to help unify the EU’s far right. Modrikamen told me the war rooms had been a nonstarter because of tough campaign financing laws in European nations — and because he saw himself as running a kind of nationalist social club rather than “providing assistance to some Croatian party.”

The club hasn’t really gotten off the ground, either — The Movement keeps putting off its grand launch event, and I doubt now that it’ll ever be held. Modrikamen’s small Popular Party achieved its worst results ever in both the European Parliament vote and the simultaneous Belgian national election, failing to get any seats. On May 31, Modrikamen announced he was quitting the party and Belgian politics.

Bannon’s activity, of course, wasn’t limited to cooperation with Modrikamen and his small group, run out of his Brussels home. Bannon also looked to Italy, where Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing League party and current interior minister, is a like-minded politician. The League joined The Movement last September. Bannon met with Salvini multiple times, praised him as “the most important guy on the stage right now” and called last year’s Italian election, in which Salvini won enough votes to form a governing coalition with the populist Five Star Movement, the local equivalent of Trump’s victory in the U.S.

But Salvini’s attempt to bring together all European nationalist and euroskeptical parties ahead of the EU election fizzled in two important ways.

First, Salvini has had little luck with key eastern European parties such as Law and Justice in Poland and Fidesz in Hungary. His group in the European Parliament will include some important nationalist forces, such as the Alternative for Germany and France’s National Rally, led by Marine Le Pen, but not other key ones, such as the Sweden Democrats. Second, nationalists and euroskeptics wouldn’t have made any gains in the EU election had it not been for the Italian political anomaly. Even with a big contribution from the League, and even using the most inclusive definitions of “nationalist” and “euroskeptical,” these forces have won about 23 percent of the seats.

Since the League’s support is none of Bannon’s doing, all the speeches the American made across the continent and all the noise he made about unifying the right haven’t had any visible effect on the nationalists’ election performance.

Besides, even in Italy, Bannon doesn’t have enough political support to establish a foothold. Italy’s culture ministry said last week it would revoke the lease of the Bannon-linked lobby group Dignitatis Humanae Institute on a state-owned monastery not far from Rome. Bannon had planned to open an academy for nationalist leaders there. The ministry said the institute didn’t have enough experience in the preservation of historic monuments such as the 13th century monastery and that it had failed to comply with its financial obligations related to the monastery’s maintenance. The Italian daily Repubblica reported last month that the group had submitted a fake bank guarantee, an accusation Bannon denies.

Although the Dignitatis Humanae Institute has vowed to appeal the ministry’s decision in the Italian courts, it’s obvious that Salvini’s authority doesn’t stretch far enough to let Bannon make Italy his permanent European base. The culture ministry is run by Salvini’s coalition partner, the Five Star Movement, which, although also euroskeptical, wants nothing to do with the American.

Since the European Parliament election, Bannon has tried to put a brave face on the nationalists’ performance. He declared that “the integration movement which is what the EU has always been about is dead” and renewed calls for a nationalist “supergroup” in the European Parliament. But in the extremely unlikely event that such an umbrella group materializes, it won’t have the votes to defeat any integration projects — and it won’t owe anything to Bannon.

European nationalists applauded Trump’s victory in 2016 because they saw it as an anti-establishment breakthrough. If it was possible in the U.S., why not in Europe, where most nationalist parties are excluded from government by coalition politics? This doesn’t mean, however, that any of these parties have much use for Bannon, ejected from the Trump team and devoid of clear political prospects in the U.S.

Besides, Bannon has shown a lack of appreciation for how electoral and coalition politics function in Europe. The EU, despite all of the nationalist laments about its excessive centralization, isn’t a place where one can run political campaigns from a single center. Nor can its umbrella political forces be the same kind of mixed bags as the major U.S. political parties: They don’t operate in a two-party system and are therefore geared toward making deals, often temporary ones, across the aisle rather than accepting any kind of unified leadership.

And, of course, when it comes to parties that put national sovereignty above all else, any kind of U.S. interference is as doomed as, say, Russian interference. The European nationalists may seek U.S. or Russian resources, but they can’t accept the help openly and, in any case, they won’t be loyal to their sponsors because maximum sovereignty is their fetish.

Today’s Europe is such a complex tapestry of interests, political systems, traditions and eccentric personalities that no external actor can hope to influence EU politics sufficiently to change anything. Bannon ought to admit it and go home.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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