When a photograph of Steve Bannon and the Italian strongman Matteo Salvini appeared on Twitter last month with the caption “He is in!,” it marked the official arrival of the American political operative’s next big project: uniting Europe’s populists in a right-wing insurgency.
Bannon announced his ambitious plan in July to fuel a populist revolt in Europe through Brussels-based nonprofit foundation The Movement — with the goal of aligning national right-wing movements on a European level, by providing polling, research, data analytics, and messaging. And with Salvini, the anti-immigration Italian deputy prime minister, in the fold, the project gained a co-sign from one of the most powerful voices on the European right.
But Salvini’s endorsement of The Movement looks pretty flimsy. The Italian populist is signing up on the basis of just a verbal agreement, according to Bannon’s key partner in Europe, Mischaël Modrikamen.
What’s more, Modrikamen told VICE News, the agreement asks nothing of Salvini other than an endorsement of a handful of conservative principles, and to attend The Movement’s inaugural convention — if he can make it. (Bannon declined to speak about The Movement to VICE News. His spokesman said he preferred to let Modrikamen’s comments ”stand on their own merit,” as the Belgian was “the lead on the ground.”)
“He said to me, ‘yes, provided I’m available’,” said Modrikamen, The Movement’s executive director, who is also the leader of Belgium’s right-wing populist People’s Party. The third proviso for membership, Modrikamen said, was that Salvini permitted The Movement to go public with their political marriage — although it seems the group doesn’t have yet a functioning website to advertise the association.
Despite plenty of big promises, the rest of Bannon’s political project in Europe doesn’t appear to be much better organized than their web presence, according to Modrikamen’s account. He describes the organization as simply an informal “club of parties,” but one that he hopes will upend the liberal political establishment in Europe.
That echoes Bannon’s description of The Movement as a “loose association” acting as the “connective tissue” linking national right-wing movements. The group's immediate focus appears to be providing the “fundamental building blocks for winning” to populist parties contesting the next European Parliament elections in May. In the bigger picture, he’s spoken of his ambition for The Movement to one day act as a right-wing counterbalance to philanthropist George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, which have provided billions to liberal causes in Europe.
“It’s a club of goodwill,” said Modrikamen. “If... you try to impose a very precise line on a certain number of issues, then you enter into all these disagreements. That’s why we say it’s just a club with four or five principles, with only advantages — no fees, no commitments from the members.”
As for that inaugural convention, no firm date has been set — it could be November, or January.
About the only thing that does appear to have been worked out thus far is the group’s guiding principles.
The four principles that Movement members are asked to embrace, according to Modrikamen, include a commitment to greater national sovereignty, stronger borders, migration control, and the fight against radical Islam.
“Americans cannot be candidates and trans-European movements also cannot be launched.”
“These four tenets, we know that from north to south, east to west, everybody can agree on that,” he said.
In return, The Movement, through its Brussels-based staff, is pledging to provide its members with expertise in polling, research, data analytics, and messaging. According to recent reports, the group has about eight staff working out of offices in Modrikamen’s Brussels home, and plans to add three or four more.
A lukewarm reception
Modrikamen was eager to talk up the prospects for The Movement during his conversation, claiming, “There’s only enthusiasm, because people see the benefits.”
But more than two months after Bannon publicly announced his plans for The Movement, the jury’s still out on whether the European parties are prepared to align themselves.
Salvini’s Lega is the only group so far to have publicly signed up, while France’s National Rally and the minor far-right group Brothers of Italy have also expressed their intention to join. But other key players on the European right remain circumspect or have rejected them outright, with the dominant influence of Bannon, as an American, emerging as a sticking point for many.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, another dominant right-winger locked in constant battle with the Brussels establishment, would be a powerful ally for the group. But after initially welcoming Bannon’s initiative in July, saying he wished the project “a lot of success” in advancing conservative ideals in Europe, Orban now appears set on keeping The Movement at arm’s length. When VICE News asked Orban’s office for clarification on whether he planned to join The Movement, they pointed to a statement he had made last month in Strasbourg, underlining that while immigration would be the defining issue of the next European parliamentary election, “Americans cannot be candidates and trans-European movements also cannot be launched.”
The same month, Alexander Gauland, parliamentary leader of the surging far-right Alternative for Germany party, rejected the notion of cooperating with The Movement, dismissing it as an American vehicle and noting the divergent interests of Europe’s populist movements. Austria’s Freedom Party has also ruled out joining The Movement, singling out the group’s American links as an issue, although it said it might consider working with the group in some capacity.
Modrikamen, too, carries a taint for some of his potential collaborators — due to existing political rivalries, and an ongoing investigation into misuse of European Union funds by one of his former political vehicles.
Gerolf Annemans, chairman of Belgium’s right-wing populist Vlaams Belang party, has spoken of his reservations that The Movement would simply become a vehicle for giving work to Bannon’s underemployed friends on the European right, and has ruled out ever working with Modrikamen.
Modrikamen’s political activities prior to forming The Movement are also under scrutiny. He was the co-founder and vice president of the now-defunct pan-European group called the Alliance for Direct Democracy in Europe, which was formed in collaboration with other right-wing parties in 2015, and the following year was found to have misspent more than 500,000 euros ($579,000) in European Union funds.
The EU’s European Anti-Fraud Office, known as OLAF, confirmed to VICE News that the party is subject to an ongoing investigation into the matter. Informed of the ongoing investigation, Modrikamen, who did much of the ADDE’s legal advice and paperwork, denied any wrongdoing by the party.
“I'm very confident that all this was just bullshit,” he said. “I’m not privy to any OLAF investigation. If there is, I have never heard about it.”
Despite The Movement’s modest progress so far, Modrikamen remains publicly bullish about their prospects. He thinks they can pull-off a Trump-like upset on the European stage.
He told VICE News that he had first reached out to Bannon in the wake of Trump’s win in November 2016, sending him a memo outlining his belief that they should organize the populist uprising internationally, “because our opponents are organized globally.”
When the pair finally met in London in July, introduced via Brexiter Nigel Farage, they found they were singing from the same songbook, and decided to join forces.
“It was a match,” said Modrikamen. “Basically we were having the same vision of what has happened and what should be done. And Steve said, ‘I could finish your sentence and you could finish mine, and it’s true. We basically agree on everything.”
Modrikamen, who is convinced Europe is “heading towards civil war” if it continues on its current trajectory, believes that by acting as Bannon’s navigator across the unfamiliar political European landscape, their club will eventually become “a worldwide movement.”
“Tomorrow we will have Swiss, we will have British, I’m sure, we will have Canadians, we will have Americans,” he said. It’s a bold sales pitch that so far few are buying.
Cover image: Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon gestures as he speaks during a conference of Swiss weekly magazine Die Weltwoche in Zurich, Switzerland, March 6, 2018. REUTERS/Moritz Hager