European politics: the ‘hidden hand’ and the ‘inevitable wave’

In the lead-up to this week’s EU elections apocalyptic predictions of a right-populist ‘sweep’ have abounded in both the European and international press. The concerns are, to a degree, justified – right and farther-right parties will probably gain an important number of seats in this electoral contest across a number of EU states. What is not at all a given, however, is the extent or the ‘sweep’ of their gains, and whether such parties will be able to necessarily gain sufficient seats to form the most sizeable block in the European Parliament.

National polls have been quite ambiguous in their findings regarding any further gains for right-populist parties: in some cases confirming the existing electoral support for parties such as the Lega in Italy or the AfD in Germany, but not necessarily giving any indication of a momentous ‘surge’ to come. A comprehensive survey carried out by the European Council on Foreign Relations with YouGov of 14 key EU states also debunks the myth of an impending far-right ‘earthquake’, noting indeed that a very important proportion of the EU electorate is still undecided – up to 97 million European voters.[i]

As voting begins today in the Netherlands and the UK, we should be wary of writing off the electoral results to come as an ‘inevitable’ success of the right. One of the striking things about representations of the seeming ‘inevitability’ of the success of the right is a very particular sort of conspiratorial geopolitics, with an exaggerated focus on wider global forces that are driving not just European politics but also individual European citizens’ political choices. We need to be very aware of the workings of such conspiratorial imaginaries for they risk profoundly colouring our understandings not just of what might happen but also of what can happen: that is, they risk seriously undermining our appreciation of European citizens’ political agency, imagining them to be mere puppets of social media manipulation and sinister external forces.

These elections will be a battleground, yes, and one in which a variety of powerful actors have attempted to shape the political landscape, in both licit and illicit ways. The insidious influence of ‘dark money’ flows to European far-right groups and parties has been thoroughly documented in a number of recent OpenDemocracy investigations.[i]

In the Italian context specifically, investigative journalists following the money flows into the coffers of both the Lega as well as more extreme right organizations have similarly documented the staggering span of these funding networks, characterizing it as a ‘black internationale money laundering operation’.[ii] Through the use of both off-shore bank accounts as well as donations to ‘legitimate’ organizations, donors ranging from those with ties to US Christian-right organizations, to those linked to ultra-conservative forces in the Russian Orthodox Church, have been pouring money into a range of causes and groups. These funding flows have undoubtedly been instrumental in allowing such groups to gain further visibility and to further extend their political reach, promoting a wide range of conservative agendas across Europe, from violent anti-abortion and anti-LGBTIQ campaigns, to anti-migrant mobilization under the rubric of ‘redeeming a Christian Europe under attack’.[iii]

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But I believe we need to be more careful in analyzing the potential effects of such external support on the conduct of European politics – just as we have to be more careful in assessing the impact of the (by now blatant) manipulation of social media, also often by actors and interests from outside of the EU. I am in no way suggesting that these effects are unimportant. But while recognizing their portent, we cannot – and should not – assume they will be the guiding determinant of Europeans’ political choices.

In particular, we must be more critical of the sort of geopolitical imaginary such understandings evoke: that of a Europe and Europeans entirely at the mercy of the ‘hidden hand’ of actors plotting to undermine democratic politics. Conspiratorial understandings are of course nothing new in European politics, emerging with full force at times of political uncertainty: such as in the period between the two world wars, at the demise of the Cold War order in the early 1990s, or in today’s moment of ‘geopolitical vertigo’.

In such moments of uncertainty, it is highly tempting to turn to a simple mapping of the ‘bad guys’ and the ‘good guys’, conveying with broad brush-strokes the ‘hidden forces’ to blame for the current condition – whether of economic distress or political uncertainty. Such a simple mapping is highly seductive for it absolves us from engaging with the much more complex workings of economic, political, but also political identity-making processes. In the current moment, it risks absolving us from seriously and carefully engaging with some of the very real reasons for the ‘European crisis’ – both ‘internal’ as well as ‘external’.

A perfect example of this is the mediatic obsession with Steve Bannon’s supposed guiding hand in orchestrating a trans-European far-right coalition in the lead-up to these elections. The imagination of Bannon’s purported role has all the elements of conspiratorial geopolitics: an ‘evil mastermind’, secret meetings in a mediaeval monastery, an extensive international network of funders stretching from US Christian groups to Russian oligarchs with ties to the Russian Orthodox Church.[i] If it all sounds like a bad cinematic rendition of an Umberto Eco novel, it is perhaps because we should take it as precisely that, remembering that before Bannon’s very short-lived stint as Trump’s campaign advisor, he was a (failed) movie producer of B-rate political documentaries.[ii] Bannon’s function as a ‘facilitator’ of far-right politics should be taken for what a variety of investigations in Italy have shown it to be: as someone very able at bringing together a range of funders, drawing on his US but also Russian connections. This is far from being the intellectual godfather of a new right revival: more appropriately, its financial go-between.

Money of course matters, as does the additional visibility that an able spin-doctor like Bannon can generate. But let us understand his function in European politics for what it is, and stop providing him with further legitimation.

The scandal that brought down the Austrian far-right FPO party just slightly over a week before the elections is another relevant example of the perils of focusing on an external ‘hidden hand’. When a secret video emerged showing the leader of the FPO H.C. Strache offering to sell-off an Austrian newspaper and provide privileged access to a variety of other state assets to the supposed ‘niece’ of a Russian oligarch, the immediate media attention focused on the ‘whodunnit’ question, weaving fanciful stories of international intrigue involving real and fake oligarchs and the secret services of various countries. The questions to be asked, however, should have centred on what the videotaped conversations revealed about the (sorry) state of politics and political elites in Europe itself, and why European voters were willing to give people like Strache – or Le Pen, or Salvini – their vote, since all three have been the subject of financial investigations for quite some time.

Although it may sometimes offer us blockbuster moments, it is very dangerous to see electoral politics through a cinematic lens. Focusing on sinister figures that manipulate the political process is politically debilitating, presuming a priori that it is these forces that will determine the course of events. What is more, it also absolves progressive forces in Europe from fully engaging with the real causes of European citizens’ malaise. Let’s start with these elections, abandoning any conspiracies at the door, and focusing first of all on how to address the really-existing weaknesses and ambiguities of our own democracies.

[1] https://www.ecfr.eu/specials/what_europeans_really_want_five_myths_debunked

[2] See, among others: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/dark-money-investigations/

[3] See the investigation by Paolo Biondani and Francesca Sironi, ‘Dalla Russia Con La Croce’, L’Espresso, March 24, 2019.

[4] As I noted in a previous commentary on the forces brought together in Italy for the World Congress of Families in March 2019:

[5] See the report by Giovanni Tizian, ‘L’oligarca di Dio e i soldi per la Lega’, L’Espresso, March 24, 2019.

[6] It is striking that only the Catholic press seems not to have bought into Bannon’s self-representation as ‘political mastermind’, referring to him simply as ‘the American film producer’ – see Avvenire, December 30, 2018. Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich, the head president of the Commission of the European Bishops Conferences of the European Union, also neatly dismissed Bannon’s role as ‘a priest of populism’ in his address to European congregations ahead of the elections: someone who ‘evokes a false pseudo-religious and pseudo-mystical world’ in order to help European populists ‘stave off real problems by organizing dances around a golden calf’ – https://www.laciviltacattolica.it/articolo/verso-le-elezioni-europee/

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