It was raining in Milan on Saturday when Marine Le Pen addressed the crowd.
Attendees listened patiently, peering out from beneath a colorful smattering of umbrellas. Le Pen, dressed in a navy blazer and jeans, spoke in French. “We are living in a historic moment and you can tell your grandchildren, ‘I was there.’”
Days earlier, Le Pen proudly flashed a white supremacist hand gesture while posing for a selfie alongside the far-right Estonian lawmaker Ruuben Kaalep. “It isn’t a white supremacist gesture, it’s a gesture that means ‘O.K.'”, she later explained. Nobody was convinced.
Geert Wilders showed up in Milan too. His tall, coiffed hair (whiter than Le Pen’s) accentuated his cartoonish facial features. Wilders’s Willy Wonka-ish appearance makes his nefarious reputation all the more unnerving, like the clown, from It. In 2016, Wilders called for the Netherlands to ban “all asylum-seekers from Islamic countries”. “Our women are in danger from the Islamic testosterone bombs, I propose that we lock the male asylum seekers up in the asylum centers”, he said, in a widely-circulated video.
Steve King, the Iowa Republican who was stripped of his seat on congressional committees earlier this year for asking, in an interview with the The New York Times, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”, once said of Wilders that he “understands… we can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”
But the crowd in Milan wasn’t there to see Le Pen or Wilders or any of the other nine populists who shared the stage in Cathedral Square. They were there to see Matteo Salvini, who convened the event. “Enough with all this English! We want Italian!”, someone shouted.
Salvini sported his signature royal blue suit and white shirt – no tie, top button undone. Italy’s strongman played the proverbial hits. He railed against “the elites and the powers which have occupied Europe in the name of finance, of multinationals, of the God Money and of uncontrolled immigration.” He called out his enemies by name: “Macron, Merkel, Soros, Juncker.”
He then turned to fiscal policy. “Look at what Donald Trump is doing for the US economy, with courage, lowering taxes, the economy is restarting, we don’t want to increase taxes here either”, Salvini said. “This Europe would force us to increase taxes. But if you make the League the first force in Europe I will not give up until everyone in Italy pays 15%.”
To be clear, the most important takeaway from Saturday’s rally in Milan wasn’t what Salvini said about his willingness to flout EU budget rules – his comments on fiscal policy are just a reiteration of the sharpened tone he’s adopted over the past two weeks.
What’s notable about Salvini’s efforts to campaign for the nationalist/populist cause ahead of the EU elections is just how assertive he is. Salvini’s domineering presence has the effect of relegating his would-be nationalist compatriots to also-ran status. Le Pen, a fiery speaker and a “name brand” (as it were), was little more than a stage prop on Saturday – and not just because the event was held in Milan, Salvini’s hometown.
“Speakers at the rally were dwarfed by a giant banner that read ‘Italy First! Toward a Common-Sense Europe'”, Bloomberg wrote. “Mr. Salvini [is] clearly eager to appear as Europe’s top populist”, the Times said.
In their piece, the Times writes that “the far-right populists of the European Union are banding together for a frontal assault on the political establishment in this week’s elections for the European Parliament.” And then, describing the situation in broad strokes: “The races are seen as the best barometer of just how angry and alienated Europe really is — and just how broadly populists of various stripes can break through after years of gaining political strength.”
That’s the narrative. The EU elections are supposed to be a non-event. This time, things are different.
“It’s true that past elections to the European Parliament have tended to be low stakes, low turnout affairs, but all of that has changed this time around”, Mark Leonard, co-founder and director of the European Council on Foreign Relations and former director of foreign policy at the Center for European Reform told Goldman’s Allison Nathan earlier this month. He elaborated:
First, it’s not simply a national election. Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Matteo Salvini in Italy, and a group of others helped by Steve Bannon are attempting to use the elections to reset the direction of the European project away from a mentality of openness and towards one of closed borders in terms of trade and especially migration. Indeed, they see the elections as a referendum on the latter. In that pursuit, they’re trying to mobilize voters, and have been inspired by the lessons of Brexit where the “Leave” campaign found 3 million voters who don’t normally vote. So election turnout could be much larger than in the past.
Ahead of the vote, there’s no shortage of commentary documenting how fractious any populist alliance will ultimately be. The Times on Saturday cites “dim prospects” for populists to form the largest bloc in the Parliament, the push stymied by “a clash of egos and agendas among different populist parties.”
But, as Leonard notes, a majority isn’t necessary to upend the system.
“There tends to be a focus on the majority threshold, but these groups only need to secure 1/3 of the seats in European Parliament in order to disrupt many processes”, he told Goldman, adding that “they would be able to disrupt the selection of the new leadership of the European Commission, could refuse to ratify the EU’s budget, could effectively stop the EU from pursuing rule of law proceedings against countries like Hungary and Poland [and] could block free trade deals with third countries like Canada or the US.”
It goes without saying (although Leonard says it anyway), that a strong showing in the European Parliament elections for a loosely-bound alliance of right- and left-wing populist groups would further destabilize centrist politics at the national level.
“[In Italy] the EP results could trigger policy changes, government changes or both, or even further confrontation between Italy and the EC, which in an adverse scenario could raise the risk of a sovereign rating downgrade, further denting investor interest in Italian risk”, Barclays wrote in a May 15 note, adding that “beyond Italy, there could be changes in other countries, including the possibility of government crisis in Germany.”
Turnout was just 42.5% in 2014. You can expect that to rise. Goldman reminds you that “since the establishment of the EP as a directly-elected body in 1979, the two largest parties, the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the center-left Social Democrats (S&D), have maintained a majority of seats in all but one EP term [and] as a result, following the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009 that gave expanded powers to the EP, these dominant parties… have had substantial say on almost all European legislation.”
The bank expects populists to increase their share of the vote to as much as 25% (from 15%). Counting populist-leaning parties included in mainstream European groups, as well as new parties, it’s possible to get to 30-35%. That’s not enough for “victory”, but, as Goldman writes, it’s “sufficient for the EPP and S&D to lose their traditional majority that historically approved about 95% of EU Commission proposals.”
For their part, Barclays expects “the next parliament to retain its pro-European stance, non-traditional parties to see increased influence, while not having anything close to a majority, and parties to use ad-hoc alliances to legislate on select policies.”
Credit Suisse calls the idea that populist parties will exercise “significant” influence over the Parliament’s powers “unlikely”. “Right and left wing populist parties have very different political opinions and will unlikely align behind the same legislations, and the EP usually votes by either simple or absolute majority, so even with 30% of EP seats, populist parties have no ‘blockage’ power”, the bank wrote this week, on the way to cautioning that “the increase in support for populist parties will not come without consequences, as a larger representation of populist parties at both EP and national levels can led to tensions and prevent further EU integration.”
Coming back to Salvini, one almost senses angst in the body language and demeanor of other nationalist, far-right leaders in his presence. To the extent that’s real, it’s not indicative of concern for his views. Indeed, it’s possible to argue that Salvini is not as extreme as some of the figures he’s keen to bring under his umbrella. And it’s not quite jealously, either. Rather, Salvini’s larger-than-life persona leaves no room for other voices, even when the message is the same (albeit communicated in a different language, as on Saturday in Milan). Nobody is entirely comfortable playing second fiddle.
The same odd juxtaposition came through in the visuals that emerged from Salvini’s trip to Hungary, where he and Orbán toured the country’s infamous border fence. Salvini, clad in a tailored suit, at times beamed, at other times appeared to be lecturing Orbán, and in still other pictures, was all ears, keen to express extreme consternation for Hungary’s immigration plight. Orbán, by contrast, looked disheveled – his belly bulging from under a nylon windbreaker, sitting not-so-comfortably atop a pair of dark jeans that clearly did not fit him.
Perhaps that’s just Orbán’s way these days. He appeared similarly unenthused while meeting with Donald Trump last week. Bernard-Henri Lévy recently described Orbán as having “transformed” over three decades. “A pudgy satrap with the physique of a retired wrestler, Vladimir Putin without the muscles, with something sad and somber in his look—all accompanied by an odd reserve, bordering on shyness, that he did not have before”, Lévy wrote.
Irrespective of the chemistry between Salvini and any one personality, one thing is constant: He is assertive, charismatic and overbearing, even when standing next to Le Pen, a right-wing icon.
Some of that is probably by accident. He can’t help who he is, after all. But one gets the distinct impression that Salvini is intentionally outshining like-minded political figures with a mind towards establishing himself as the alpha.
Early last month, when Salvini officially launched his European Parliamentary campaign, he brushed off those who worry that Europe’s far-right parties are risking the return of Nazism and fascism as “snobs from the radical chic Left.” “There is no bad company at this table”, he said, referencing leaders convened at the pro-nationalist event.
“The tired debate over Fascists does not interest us. We are looking ahead to the future”, he continued. “There are no extremists or nostalgics among us.”
That isn’t true. There are most assuredly “extremists and nostalgics” among the motley crew Salvini is attempting to assemble under his unlikely tutelage. The only question is whether he’s one of them and, if he’s not, how he’ll ultimately deal with those who are, assuming he succeeds in establishing his brand of far-right populism as a semi-legitimate political movement at a delicate juncture for Europe.