EAPN: opportunities and challenges to turn back the European project

EAPN: opportunities and challenges to turn back the European project

05.03.2019  |  Carolina Plaza Colodro

Last April 8, Matteo Salvini officially revealed the intentions of the far right for the upcoming European elections. The Italian politician no longer wants to leave the euro or to end the integration project but to change Europe from within. His main ambition is to increase the influence of the Eurosceptic bloc in Brussels to introduce reforms that return powers to national governments. To this end, Salvini’s strategy involves uniting the European far right in a single parliamentary group, The European Alliance of Peoples and Nations (EAPN). The aim is to break the balance of power between conservatives and socialists that currently prevails in the European Parliament (EP) and to challenge the Liberals’ third place in the chamber. Despite the uncertainty that Brexit has unleashed and the fact that immigration is not one of the main campaign issues, electoral surveys predict a surge of the national-populist right in the next European elections. The growing presence in the European institutions thanks to its entry into different national governments, the greater influence of the countries of the Visegrad group, as well as the emergence of new right-wing populist parties in countries where they did not exist before, indicates that the nationalist populist right may have a real chance to play a significant role in the near future of the EU. Can Salvini and the EAPN be the catalyst for a new populist right with the ability to promote its political agenda in the European institutions? Perhaps, but the success of Salvini’s strategy requires to overcome two main obstacles: to establish a wide alliance and, more difficult, a common political manifesto.

It is foreseeable that the national-populists will get support in almost every European country. However, it is not clear if all of them will be part of Salvini’s nationalist alliance. Until now, the populist right has not been able to act as a single voice in European arenas, being divided into three different parliamentary groups: the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), the Europe for Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) and the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF).  Salvini is confident that the eleven members of the ENF, specially the larger parties France’s Rassemblement National, Austria’s FPÖ, the Flemish Vlaams Belang and Wilders’ Dutch Freedom Party, will become part of EAPN. On its side, the EFDD and the ECR, will split because of the controversies regarding the new parliamentary group. The EAPN has already attracted the German AfD from the EFDD, the Danish People’s Party and the True Finns from the ECR to its ranks, while the Swedish Democrats (EFDD) and the Polish Law and Justice PiS (ECR), have declined.

Regardless of the final alliance and its electoral results, political divergences can hinder the establishment of a united front that allows advancing the political agenda of European nationalists. Salvini’s main challenge will be to establish a common political approach with which to stand for election. At first glance it may seem that the national-populist parties can share a political program, but the truth is that there are many divergences regarding their political positions. They have in common their anti-establishment rhetoric, the emphasis they give to national and traditional identities, and their willingness to stop the deepening of the EU and to force to rethink the European project. It also seems that they are in tune with issues related to immigration (closing borders), but experience shows that they do not always share the same vision regarding the arrival of foreigners. Salvini did not find support for the distribution of migrants when he asked for help from ideologically close governments. There are also divergences in economic issues beyond that some of the parties favour an open economy (Lega, AfD and the Nordic) and others are more inclined to a strong statism (RN in France). One example is the confrontation between Salvini and the European Commission over the Italian budget, which was considered by AfD and the Nordic parties as irresponsible.

Thus, the significance of the Salvini’s alliance rely on two main factors: the moderation of the national-populist bloc’s Euroscepticism and the role played by the European People’s Party (EPP). The permanence of Orban in the EPP increases his likelihood to act as a Trojan horse and try to influence the Conservatives to turn to the right. This would increase the chances of a pact between Conservatives and the new alliance and, consequently, the end of the de facto Grand Coalition with social democrats in the EU institutions. But this will only be possible if the national-populists control their Euroscepticism. Moreover, moderating their Euroscepticism would allow the EAPN to compete with the EPP ideologically and to challenge its internal unity, as it will be able to attract the most conservative and critical groups with the EU of the EPP.