Brussels Wakeup: Europe Must Find A Way To Work With Populist Extremes

Far-right League party's leader Matteo Salvini in Rome, Italy on April 12
Far-right League party's leader Matteo Salvini in Rome, Italy on April 12
Cécile Ducourtieux


BRUSSELS — It was a colleague from Agence France-Presse who set us thinking a few days ago, by retweeting an interview that Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, gave to Le Monde two years ago. "No debate or dialogue is possible with the far right," the former prime minister of Luxembourg explained back in May 2016 from his office on the 13th floor of the Berlaymont building, the Commission's imposing Brussels headquarters.

At the time, the EU was already trembling. The Austrians were about to elect their president and, after the first round, the candidate for the far-right party FPÖ was neck-and-neck with Alexander van der Bellen, supported by the Greens. After the initial ballot was canceled, the latter was elected in December 2016.

"With the prospect of seeing the hard-line right and right-wing extremism win, I feel obliged to say that I do not like them," said Juncker, who came up through the ranks of the Christian Democratic establishment. "We should not try to keep up with populists, who often ask good questions but give bad answers. (...) I am not tempted to give in to these base reflexes. I won't get dirty doing this."

These remarks have aged quite a bit with the extreme, Europhobic and xenophobic Italian right, allied to the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), at the gates of power in Italy. As it takes over leadership in Italy, who then, in Brussels, will be in a position to snub the government of a founding country of the Union? Nobody.

When the exception becomes commonplace and threatens the heart of Europe, Brussels leaders have no choice but to see, negotiate and compromise with these "new barbarians', as the Financial Times recently called them. Otherwise, there is the risk of feeding even more into the accusations of denying democracy that have been directed at them for years.

For since May 2016, the far-right, shamelessly exploiting the migrant crisis, has made many other breakthroughs, and the anti-Brussels sentiment has not ebbed. In Austria, the FPÖ finally imposed itself within a coalition government with the traditional right. In Germany, the young AfD party has entered the Bundestag. In Poland, the conservative, reactionary PiS government remains popular in the opinion polls despite its power struggle with Brussels, the Commission demanding that Warsaw amend its legislation weakening the independence of the judiciary. And in Hungary, Viktor Orban was triumphantly re-elected Prime Minister in April, on a fiercely anti-immigrant platform.

Encircled, the Commission has proposed the opening of an unprecedented procedure against Poland (Article 7 of the European Treaty, in case of systematic violation of the rule of law), but it's now seeking an honorable compromise. The European People's Party (EPP, gathering the Union's traditional right-wing parties), the first pan-European political party, that of the same Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, continues to tolerate the excesses of Viktor Orban, also a member of the EPP.

And the first reactions to the prospect of a League/M5S coalition government suggest that the rest of the Europeans would, in the same way, have agreed to discuss with this team of extremes. Pierre Moscovici, the European Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, told French public radio on Monday: "We must stop thinking that, in Brussels, we impose this or that democratic choice." Even the German Finance Minister, Olaf Scholz, had said two days before that he was ready to "respond to the extended hand" of the incoming Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, after a pro-European statement by the latter.

European policy has already begun to become contaminated.

Perhaps some were maneuvering to soften the extremes in the hope that the financial markets would quickly do their work and convince the 100% anti-establishment Italian government to fall into line with the Union's budgetary rules? The German Commissioner Gunther Oettinger set Twitter on fire on Tuesday after saying that "markets, government bonds, and Italy's economy could be so drastically impacted that they serve as a signal to voters not to vote for populist on the right and left."

In any case, there was no longer any question of quarantining the extremes, as was the case with Austria, when, in 2000, the FPÖ had participated for the first time in a coalition government. Especially since one month from now, Vienna and its right/far-right coalition government will take over the rotating presidency of the Union for the following six months. To be sure, the very young Conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz reasserted his commitments to the EU as soon as he took office. But three key sovereign ministries — the Interior, Defense and Foreign Affairs — are in the hands of the FPÖ.

European policy has already begun to become contaminated. On the migration front, it has even "Orbanized" itself, working, as it has been, for two years on the "Fortress Europe" recommended by the Hungarian Prime Minister: Closure of borders for economic migrants, legal entry reserved for political refugees only.

And yet on the economic front, unfortunately, Brussels hasn't given any sign that it is ready to ease off. Or, to paraphrase Juncker: to provide the right answers to the right questions of extremes, to turn Italian voters away from the misleading siren songs of the populist far-right.

Hampered by its enormous debt, Italy urgently needs gestures of solidarity from other European countries. But Brussels, and especially Berlin, have so far failed to take the measure of these expectations or to follow up on Emmanuel Macron's idea of a genuine eurozone budget.

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Protests against gasoline price hikes in Lebanon

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Wai!*

Welcome to Thursday, where leaked documents show how some countries are lobbying to change a key report on climate change, Moscow announces new full lockdown and the world's first robot artist is arrested over spying allegations. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt looks at the rapprochement between two leaders currently at odds with Europe: UK's BoJo and Turkey's Erdogan.

[*Bodo - India, Nepal and Bengal]


• Documents reveal countries lobbying against climate action: Leaked documents have revealed that some of the world's biggest fossil fuel and meat producing countries, including Australia, Japan and Saudi Arabia, are trying to water down a UN scientific report on climate change and pushing back on its recommendations for action, less than one month before the COP26 climate summit.

• COVID update: The city of Moscow plans to reintroduce lockdown measures next week, closing nearly all shops, bars and restaurants, after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a nationwide seven-day workplace shutdown from Oct. 30 to combat the country's record surge in coronavirus cases and deaths. Meanwhile, India has crossed the 1 billion vaccinations milestone.

• India and Nepal floods death toll passes 180: Devastating floods in Nepal and the two Indian states of Uttarakhand and Kerala have killed at least 180 people, following record-breaking rainfall.

• Barbados elects first ever president: Governor general Dame Sandra Mason has been elected as Barbados' first president as the Caribbean island prepares to become a republic after voting to remove Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.

• Trump to launch social media platform: After being banned from several social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter, former U.S. President Donald Trump announced he would launch his own app called TRUTH Social in a bid "to fight back against Big Tech." The app is scheduled for release early next year.

• Human remains found in hunt for Gabby Petito's fiance: Suspected human remains and items belonging to Brian Laundrie were found in a Florida park, more than one month after his disappearance. Laundrie was a person of interest in the murder of his fiancee Gabby Petito, who was found dead by strangulation last month.

• Artist robot detained in Egypt over spying fear: Ai-Da, the world's ultra-realistic robot artist, was detained for 10 days by authorities in Egypt where it was due to present its latest art works, over fears the robot was part of an espionage plot. Ai-Da was eventually cleared through customs, hours before the exhibition was due to start.


"Nine crimes and a tragedy," titles Brazilian daily Extra, after a report from Brazil's Senate concluded that President Jair Bolsonaro and his government had failed to act quickly to stop the deadly coronavirus pandemic, accusing them of crimes against humanity.


Erdogan and Boris Johnson: A new global power duo?

As Turkey fears the EU closing ranks over defense, Turkish President Erdogan is looking to Boris Johnson as a post-Brexit ally, especially as Angela Merkel steps aside. This could undermine the deal where Ankara limits refugee entry into Europe, and other dossiers too, write Carolina Drüten and Gregor Schwung in German daily Die Welt.

🇹🇷🇬🇧 According to the Elysée Palace, the French presidency "can't understand" why Turkey would overreact, since the defense pact that France recently signed in Paris with Greece is not aimed at Ankara. Although Paris denies this, it is difficult to see the agreement as anything other than a message, perhaps even a provocation, targeted at Turkey. The country has long felt left out in the cold, at odds with the European Union over a number of issues. Yet now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting his sights on another country, which also wants to become more independent from Europe: the UK.

⚠️ Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel always argued for closer collaboration with Turkey. She never supported French President Emmanuel Macron's ideas about greater strategic autonomy for countries within the EU. But now that she's leaving office, Macron is keen to make the most of the power vacuum Merkel will leave behind. The prospect of France's growing influence is "not especially good news for Turkey," says Ian Lesser, vice president of the think tank German Marshall Fund.

🤝 At the UN summit in September, Erdogan had a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the recently opened Turkish House in New York. Kalin says it was a "very good meeting" and that the two countries are "closely allied strategic partners." He says they plan to work together more closely on trade, but with a particular focus on defense. The groundwork for collaboration was already in place. Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU, and gave an ultimate proof of friendship after the failed coup in 2016.

➡️


"He has fought tirelessly against the corruption of Vladimir Putin's regime. This cost him his liberty and nearly his life."

— David Sassoli, president of the European Parliament, wrote on Twitter, following the announcement that imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was awarded the 2021 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the European Union's highest tribute to human rights defenders. Navalny, who survived a poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin, is praised for his "immense personal bravery" in fighting Putin's regime. The European Parliament called for his immediate release from jail, as Russian authorities opened a new criminal case against the activist that could see him stay in jail for another decade.



Chinese video platform Youku is under fire after announcing it is launching a new variety show called in Mandarin Squid's Victory (Yóuyú de shènglì) on social media, through a poster that also bears striking similarities with the visual identity of Netflix's current South Korean hit series Squid Game. Youku apologized by saying it was just a "draft" poster.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Anyone want to guess Trump's first post on his upcoming social media platform...? Let us know how the news look in your corner of the world — drop us a note at!

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