An Inside Job

The Right-Wing Populist Plan to Destroy Europe

Europe's right-wing populists haven't been stopped by the scandal in Austria. They are working hard to destroy the European Union from within its own institutions and the European elections may show how close they are to success. By DER SPIEGEL Staff

Balasz Szecsodi/ AFP/ Source/ Byline

Hungarian Prime Minsiter Viktor Orbán and Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini visiting Hungary's border fence.

Friday, 5/24/2019   06:01 PM

After the Ibiza videos had made their way around the world, after Austria's vice chancellor had resigned and the government appeared to be on the verge of collapse, as people found themselves wondering just how deep the abyss could be, the operatic aria "Nessun dorma" -- "none shall sleep" -- could be heard on the square in front of Milan's Duomo cathedral. It's Matteo Salvini's entrance music.

It was last Saturday, one week before elections to the European Parliament. And Salvini, Italy's interior minister, had assembled a pan-European festival of right-wing populists and radicals. Marine Le Pen had come in high spirits from France, Geert Wilders was there from the Netherlands, Jörg Meuthen from the Alternative for Germany party, along with Bulgarian, Slovak, Austrian, Flemish, Danish, Finnish and Estonian nationalists, 11 parties from Europe's right-wing periphery who want to form a "super group" in the next European Parliament.

Together, they performed what is by now a well-known work, one with some surreal features: Full of bluster, the self-proclaimed "true Europeans" campaigned for entry into a parliament they despise. And they asked the people to give them the power to hollow out a European Union that has been painstakingly built over decades. All of it to the tune of "Nessun dorma," along with Puccini's "Turandot," its aria ending in fierce chanting: "Vanish, oh night! Set, stars! Set, stars! At dawn I will win! I'll win! I will win!" Vincerò!

On the stage in Milan, not a word was said about the drama unfolding in Vienna, as Heinz-Christian Strache, the head of the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), stepped down from his position as vice chancellor following the leak of a video demonstrating the depth of his corruptibility - a scandal that also threatened to take down the entire Austrian government. And yet, in Milan they all pretended that nothing had happened. Even as they all knew: Quite a lot had happened.

Strache Is No Isolated Incident

This time around, it's not about some low-level party official sending Hitler pictures via WhatsApp on the Führer's birthday in provincial Austria. This time it goes right to the top level of the Austrian government, casting light on the worrying state of the Austrian political scene. The videos raise fundamental questions about whether the populists are fit for power. And whether they can be entrusted with government business. And whether Strache and his protégé Johann Gudenus should be regarded as isolated cases or as symbolic figures of a fast and loose relationship between right-wing populists and donations from foreign donors, rule of law and the truth.

Most Austrians, with the exception, perhaps, of FPÖ supporters, were likely to have been deeply shocked by the disregard to the country's constitution shown in the recordings, and many Europeans were astonished by the crooked behavior displayed by the second in command of a government of an EU member state. If the scenes in the Ibiza videos had been part of a TV crime show, people probably would have dismissed them as having been exaggerated and overdone.

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Now, though, the race is on in the competition to interpret the videos. Opponents of the right-wing populists will argue that the scenes filmed of Strache are the final proof that breaking the law, corruptibility and a self-serving mentality are inherent to the culture of right-wing nationalist groups like the FPÖ. Then there are Strache's followers, who have been posting comments on his Facebook page since the scandal broke defending the politician by saying he was tricked and attacking his pursuers.

Either way, "IbizaGate" feeds into the well-founded suspicions that those thumping their chests as über-patriots in their countries have little problem with conniving with foreign powers, obtaining financing from dubious donors or even being pulled like puppets on a string when it comes to policy. The Strache scandal is undoubtedly detrimental to the original narrative offered by the right-wing populists -- namely that the parties are the lone forces defending the good people against "old parties" and other corrupt elites. But as Strache has now shown, it's the right-wing populists themselves who are in fact the corrupt elite.

Relevant Only to Austria?

Strache's German counterpartsfrom the Alternative for Germany (AfD) have recognized the dangers of such discussions, but they don't want to admit it. Meuthen, one of the party's leaders, has been in damage control mode since last Saturday, describing the Strache Video as a "singular matter" reflecting abominable behavior, but also as a domestic issue relevant only to Austria.

Spiegel/Süddeutsche Zeitung/dpa

A still from the damning Ibiza video which resulted in Strache's resignation the day after it was reported on by DER SPIEGEL and the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Until AfD leaders came up with that formulation, the party seemed to be all over the map in their response to the scandal. At first, the AfD appeared to be too overwhelmed to come up with a definitive response to the revelations published by DER SPIEGEL and the Süddeutsche Zeitung last Friday. In an initial reaction shortly after the publication of the explosive story on Friday, the spokesman for the party's parliamentary group tweeted that an attempt was being made to create a "pseudo scandal out of nothing." And: "Poor DER SPIEGEL, the magazine has never been this uninteresting."

After the resignations in Vienna the following day, the AfD spokesman deleted his tweet and the party leadership began considering a different response. A number of AfD officials tried get in touch with people they knew within the FPÖ to try to find out more about what had happened. Before his appearance in Milan, AfD leader Meuthen consulted with a small group and then asked the press spokesman to send an email at noon to the party's national board. "In consultation with Mr. Meuthen and Mr. Lüth (on behalf of Mr. Gauland) we have just decided not to say anything today about the current events relating to Strache and the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition in Austria." ÖVP stands for the Austrian People's Party, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz's party. And: "These are domestic Austrian affairs..." If that was supposed to be analysis, though, it was wrong.

The Strache circus is of course also a problem for right-wing populists outside of Austria, because the issues raised by the video are a problem for them all across Europe. For months the AfD itself has been tangled up in several party donation scandals involving Alice Weidel, the party's floor leader in German parliament, as well as its leading candidates heading into this weekend's European elections, Meuthen and Guido Reil. Weidel is under scrutiny over a dubious election campaign donation of around 130,000 euros. In Meuthen's case, he is being scrutinized over 90,000 euros from dubious sources used to finance his campaign in a state election in Baden-Württemberg. And there are questions surrounding the nearly 45,000 euros used in a state election campaign in North Rhine-Westphalia for Reil, a member of the AfD's national board.

Kremlin Shifting Strategy

No less troubling is the fact that the Ibiza video once again sheds light on the close contacts many right-wing populists in Europe have with Russia, a problem for which the AfD has also been in the headlines. In April, DER SPIEGEL, ZDF, La Repubblica and the BBC reported on the activities and connections of Markus Frohnmaier, a member of German parliament with the AfD. A document circulated inside the Russian presidential administration at the time of the Bundestag election campaign describing the politician as potentially becoming "a deputy under absolute control" of Russia.


The popularity of right-wing populist parties in Europe.

The BND, Germany's foreign intelligence agency, and the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the country's domestic intelligence apparatus, are currently detecting a change in the Kremlin's strategy. Rather than relying solely on its own media and channels for campaigning and aiming to steer the agenda, it is now focusing much more on individuals, a small group of parliamentarians were recently told in a classified meeting. They were informed that the people selected by Moscow included somewhere between a half-dozen and a dozen members of the Bundestag. One is Markus Frohnmaier. When contacted for comment, he responded: "I do not allow myself to be used by the Russian government for its purposes and would always refuse to accept attempts of this kind. The reporting about me is nothing more than a campaign."

Senior AfD politician Alexander Gauland is also a frequent guest in Russia, but he rejects any criticism because he claims to be following the foreign policy footsteps of Bismarck, who believed in strong German-Russian relations. Marcus Pretzell, at the time a member of the AfD and current member of the European Parliament, visited the Russian-occupied Crimea as "Guest of Honor" in 2016 and thought it petty when he was later questioned about who paid for the trip.

Loans from Moscow

Similar episodes can be found all across Europe. When Marine Le Pen's Front National, now known as Rassemblement National, convened a party conference in Lyon in November 2014, the guest list was similar to that of Salvini's rally in Milan and delegates from Vladimir Putin's United Russia Party also attended. That same year, Le Pen's party had received two loans from Russian banks amounting to 11 million euros to help finance its election campaigns.

Two years later, the French right-wing populists asked Moscow for another 3 million euro loan, but it is unclear whether it was ever granted. There are, though, indications that Marine Le Pen may have promised not to criticize Russia's annexation of the Crimea and to promote Moscow's interests in exchange for the money. The suspicion, which Le Pen denies, is supported by mobile text messages from a well-known and high-ranking Kremlin official, who wrote among other things: "Marine Le Pen has not disappointed our expectations." And: "We will have to thank the French in one way or another."

Luca Bruno / AP

Italian Interior Minister Salvini hosted a right-wing populist gathering in Milan last week. He is joined on stage by Geert Wilders of Holland, Jörg Meuthen of Germany and Marine Le Pen of France.

In Great Britain, the National Crime Agency is investigating suspicions that Brexit leader Nigel Farage received money from Russia through indirect channels. Many consider it probable that the Kremlin sought to manipulate the Brexit vote to destabilize the European Union.

There is a greater amount of urgency surrounding these questions in the aftermath of the Strache-Ibiza video. Are economic interests at stake when Matteo Salvini's Lega party repeatedly advocates an end to the EU's "useless, or even harmful" sanctions against Russia? Do the Greek far-right parties get money for their frequently expressed conviction that there is a "natural alliance" between Greeks and Russians? How does Russia's president exploit the image he enjoys as being one of the last guardians of true values among European groups of both extremes? A leader who seeks to prevent what he describes as a weakened, immoral, decadent EU from prevailing?

"There is conspiracy of all the radical right-wing nationalists everywhere, apparently with the help of the Kremlin, or of oligarchs round the Kremlin, to disrupt this union," Guy Verhofstadt, a prominent Belgian member of European Parliament, told the Times of London on Wednesday. The German newspaper Die Welt this week quoted former French President François Hollande as saying that whoever votes for populists in Europe is "giving their vote to Trump and Putin."

That may sound preposterous, but it has long since become apparent in the European Council, where European heads of state and government still establish the broad parameters of EU policy. Coalition governments that include populist parties are often more open to influence from abroad than others. Once example is Middle East policy. Countries like Hungary have begun diverging from the European stance to serve American interests. Because Hungary stood in the way, the EU was not able to condemn the Trump administration's decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as a diplomatic mistake in December 2017. Budapest essentially became Donald Trump's advocate in Brussels.

The unanimity requirement for important decisions in the European Council thus gives populists veto power. And their partners abroad are quick to praise them for services rendered. Twelve days ago, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was showered with praise by the U.S. president himself during a visit to the White House. Orbán, Trump said, does a "tremendous job" and is "highly respected all over Europe."

That, of course, is far from the truth. In many countries, respect for Orbán is a thing of the past, and when it comes to domestic policy and the judiciary, his government is seen as having betrayed European values. Externally, Hungary has become a gateway for all those wishing to divide the EU. And the number of these open gateways is growing: Russia and the U.S. are not alone in their desire to weaken the EU block. China has also incorporated the EU, the world's largest internal market, into its geopolitical considerations and is searching for access.

The EU isn't equipped to stand up to such adversaries. It does have a couple of instruments it can use to punish intractable member states, but it hardly ever uses them. EU countries worried about being punished in the future regularly block their deployment. The dream of outgoing European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker that the EU might one day become a global political player seem illusory.

By chance, Juncker was in Vienna this week for a visit that had long been planned. He had apparently decided that he would remain silent about the Strache scandal - but couldn't ultimately resist. "The idea that one country is put on a silver platter so that others can help themselves," he said, "does not reflect my idea of patriotism."

Jean Asselborn, Juncker's compatriot who is the foreign minister of Luxembourg, expressed deep discomfort. "The European right wing is unified by its desire to bring the free press and the judiciary under its control wherever they have power," he says. "That is true of Hungary and Poland, and that is shown by Strache's comments in the video."

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