COVID-19 Prompts Rethink of European Populist Tactics  

Euro-skeptic populist leaders are adjusting political tactics — instead of calling for their countries to follow Britain and quit the European Union, they’re focusing now on changing the bloc from within. “I think after the COVID crisis, the EU needs to reinvent itself and find a new soul,” Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s Lega party and a former Italian deputy prime minister, told the New Europe newspaper.  The interview came just days after Salvini met Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Poland’s prime minister, Mateus Morawiecki, in Budapest to discuss shaping an alliance of their nationalist parties at the European level, the nucleus for a broader reformist movement that will play up the sovereign rights of member states and block, they hope, deeper European integration. They hope the grouping will attract other nationalist, conservative and reformist-minded parties to form what would be the second largest political alliance in the European Parliament — “a true alternative,” says Salvini, to the parties favoring deeper political integration of the EU’s 27 member states.  Last week in Budapest, the trio of nationalist populist leaders said they had agreed to launch “an alternative vision to that of a bureaucratic EU that has drifted from the citizens.” “We are going to launch a new platform, an organization, a process which will give those citizens who believe in a traditional Europe the representation that they deserve,” Orban said at a joint press conference in the Hungarian capital. He said the trio shares the same beliefs, “Atlanticism, freedom, family, Christianity and sovereignty.” Morawiecki said Europe needed to return to its Christian roots.  Right timing?All three believe their timing is right — the lack of solidarity among member states during the pandemic and the EU’s mishandling of vaccine procurement and rollouts have left Europeans fed up with Brussels. A recent pan-Europe poll, undertaken for the International Republican Institute, a U.S.-based NGO, in partnership with a group of European parliamentary groups, found that only 36 percent of respondents felt that the EU had played an efficient role in combating the coronavirus. FILE – European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a media conference on the Commission’s response to COVID-19, at EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, March 17, 2021.EU officials had hoped the bloc would come out of the pandemic with its strengths displayed, which in turn would help garner greater public backing for deeper political integration. But it hasn’t turned out that way and Europe is lagging behind on vaccinations as a third wave of the pandemic roils the continent. There have also been sharp disagreements over how vaccines are shared among member states. FILE – Health workers prepare doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination center in Naples, Italy, Jan. 8, 2021.Some analysts suggest that squabbles over economic recovery funds and vaccine procurement missteps risks undermining the appetite for further political integration. “With its disastrous vaccine procurement policy, the EU committed the ultimate mistake: it has given people a rational reason to oppose European integration,” argued Wolfgang Münchau, director of Eurointelligence, a specialist analysis service. And Europe’s cohort of populist nationalist leaders appears eager to seize on the EU’s stumbles, but with more moderated aims. Why seek to quit like Britain, they are asking themselves, when there are greater opportunities to reshape the EU into a bloc that doesn’t try to standardize European politics along liberal lines and isn’t forever seeking to restrict the sovereignty of nation states?   
Brexit impactTheir shift in thinking is also an acknowledgement that Brexit — Britain’s departure from the EU — has been anything but easy and has advertised the political and economic perils of quitting the bloc, say analysts. They also say it is a reflection that European publics are themselves divided about the EU — wanting more EU involvement when it suits their purposes but reluctant about acknowledging a role for Brussels when it doesn’t. Most of Europe’s key populist nationalist leaders are in the process of shifting their tactics and adopting reformist positions while shelving talk of quitting the EU. That doesn’t mean that their criticism of the EU is any less scorching.  FILE – Children walk past election campaign posters for French centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, in Osses, southwestern France, May 5, 2017.France’s far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who is now only four percent behind French President Emmanuel Macron in the opinion polls, has launched a series of attacks on the EU. Last week, she said the EU’s “catastrophic” COVID vaccination efforts would likely be a decisive factor for voters in the French presidential election, which is 12 months away.  “The European Union has failed totally,” Le Pen said last week. “They still tell us that as 27 countries we are stronger, but that is false — the solution must come at the national level, for this issue as in many others,” she said. “This health crisis has in reality revealed all the flaws of the dogma defended by Emmanuel Macron: I’m thinking of his dogma of ultra-liberalism,” Le Pen said. “Lots of French people will have understood that we have a choice, and that there is a new economic model to imagine,” in particular with stricter national oversight of industrial strategy and sovereignty, she added. Likewise, Salvini wants a more corralled EU, one that gives member states greater room for maneuver and burdened with fewer EU rules and regulations. The EU should “let Italian entrepreneurs, farmers, fishermen and researchers work without ridiculous regulations,” he said this week.