Having helped spearhead the populist insurgency that helped deliver Donald Trump to the White House, Steve Bannon has set his sights on repeating the trick in Europe.
In the year since President Trump ousted him from his perch as White House chief strategist, Bannon has been assiduously cultivating ties with European far-right and populist movements, including France’s National Rally (formerly the National Front), Italy’s Lega, Hungary’s Fidesz, and the British right-wing network centered around Nigel Farage, a prominent campaigner for Brexit. Now he’s unveiled the masterplan behind it all: a foundation to unite and support Europe’s populist right-wing parties, with the goal of winning power in the European Parliament.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Bannon said he planned to establish a foundation in Brussels called The Movement, whose 10-or-so staff will provide polling, messaging, data-targeting and research to European far-right and anti-establishment parties.
The short-term goal, he said, was to challenge the supremacy of liberal establishment parties at the next European Parliament elections, in May. Ultimately, he hopes, his group would act as a sort of right-wing counterbalance to George Soros’s Open Society, which provides billions of dollars in support to liberal causes, as well as a link between the European far right and the pro-Trump Freedom Caucus in the U.S.
“Everybody agrees that next May is hugely important, that this is the real first continent-wide face-off between populism and the party of Davos,” Bannon said in the interview. “This will be an enormously important moment for Europe.”
“Right-wing populist nationalism is what will happen”
Bannon has previously said he believes that “right-wing populist nationalism” is Europe’s future after decades of European integration and multiculturalism. Since his messy ouster from the White House, he has focused his efforts on building ties with European nationalists in a bid to make that a reality.
Links across Europe
Bannon has built strong links with leading European right-wing movements from London to Budapest. He has championed UK far-right causes such as the jailing of the British anti-Islam campaigner Tommy Robinson, helping to turn the case into a cause celebre for the American populist right. In March he spoke at a National Rally conference in the French city of Lille, urging the crowd to "let them call you racist" and "wear it as a badge of honour," as he claimed that history was on the side of their movement.
“Right-wing populist nationalism is what will happen. That’s what will govern,” Bannon told The Daily Beast, as he laid out his vision for how his foundation could help strengthen Europe’s often poorly financed and badly coordinated far-right movements.
“You’re going to have individual nation states with their own identities, their own borders.”
European analysts were divided over how much impact the populist instigator would have in European politics, with some believing Bannon had an inflated view of his own significance, and underestimated his own toxicity.
Teresa Coratella, program manager in the Rome office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said that Bannon’s efforts could give a strong ideological boost to the European far-right.
“This declaration could not come in a better moment for them,” she said. “They are rising and rising in polls, pushed forward by the wave of the migrant debate and lack of strategy by the EU, while pro-European parties and movements seem immobilized.”
Matthew Goodwin, visiting senior fellow in Chatham House’s Europe programme, said Bannon’s involvement in European politics reflected the growing internationalization of the far-right, but his impact will depend on whether he can bring new funds and donors.
“I don’t think Bannon is necessarily a game changer,” he said. “But he’ll come with links and networks from the U.S., and potentially access to money. You have to remember that many populist right groups in Europe have often lacked resourcing.”
He said he was less convinced that Bannon had anything to offer when it came to messaging.
“These parties have been experimenting with that for some time, and based on election results, seem to be doing a pretty good job,” he said. “But I think he can contribute to into the organizational element – how do you run effective campaigns, how do you get funding and how do you deal with the media?”
But others were sceptical about how much impact Bannon could have in uniting the European far-right beyond the status quo.
“I think he really exaggerates his significance in Europe”
Anton Shekhovtsov, visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, said that, while he wasn’t dismissing the threat that Bannon’s foundation could pose, “I think he really exaggerates his significance in Europe.”
There was little that Bannon could bring to the table to overcome the divisions that already existed between European populist movements, while Bannon’s former ties to the Trump administration might be a turn-off for some parties.
“Bannon is very toxic,” he told VICE News. “Being associated with Bannon is not going to win a lot of support, especially in national contexts. And these far-right parties are not really looking in the international arena, they’re looking at their own electorates.”
Cas Mudde, a far-right expert at the University of Georgia, said he considered Bannon a “minor player in the US and fairly irrelevant in Europe” and doubted he could achieve much through his European foray.
“Bannon has been fired by Trump, lost major financial support of the Mercer family, and is no longer in control of Breitbart," he said. “At this point in time Bannon is even less relevant than Marine Le Pen.”
Cover image: Steve Bannon, former White House Chief Strategist to U.S. President Donald Trump, attends a debate with Lanny Davis, former special counsel to Bill Clinton, at Zofin Palace on May 22, 2018 in Prague, Czech Republic. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)