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A Vote for Populists Is a Vote for Putin

For years, the evidence of European populist and far-right parties' allegiance – and debts – to Russian President Vladimir Putin has been piling up. With the Kremlin now fully engaged in swinging the European Parliament election toward its chosen candidates, it's up to Europe's voters push back.
A man shows a picture depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin during a protest organized by Lega leader and Interior minister Matteo Salvini against European Union officials at Piazza del Popolo on December 8, 2018 in Rome. (Photo by Christian Minelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

On May 18, European right-wing leaders assembled in Rome for a rally ahead of the European Parliament election this week. Among the attendees were Marine Le Pen of National Rally in France, Geert Wilders of the Dutch Party for Freedom, and representatives from the Danish People’s Party, the Finns Party, the Alternative für Deutschland, and the Flemish nationalist party Vlaams Belang. Almost all of these parties have joined Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini’s planned new right-wing parliamentary grouping, the European Alliance of Peoples and Nations.

At the rally in Rome, Salvini checked all of the populist, alt-right boxes, describing the upcoming election as an, “historic moment to free the continent from the abusive occupation organized in Brussels for many years by traitors.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, and the philanthropist George Soros, he declared, “have built a Europe of high finance and uncontrolled immigration.” To top it all off, Salvini later told an interviewer that he was “waiting for Nigel Farage,” the leader of the new Brexit Party in the United Kingdom, to join him in the European Parliament.

But Salvini and his new allies are also waiting for – or, more accurately, waiting on – someone else. Apart from their Euroskepticism and xenophobia, Europe’s right-wing populist leaders are united by their adoration of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Their public statements sound as though they were issued directly from the Kremlin, where Putin’s minions constantly complain about the so-called “Washington-led Brussels elite.” Like the illiberalism of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the partnership between the European right and the Kremlin has been allowed to fester for far too long.

For years, I have watched far-right MEPs vote against any EU parliamentary resolution that could be seen as “anti-Russian,” even one condemning the Kremlin for the chemical-weapons attack in Salisbury, England, last year. Farage and other pseudo-“patriots,” including MEPs from Salvini’s League party, have essentially become a Russian fifth column within the European Union. If they are elected in large numbers this week, rest assured that their pro-Kremlin advocacy will continue. They will do everything they can to undercut Europe’s ability to respond to common challenges, thereby dragging the entire continent backward.

In return for their subterfuge, Europe’s far-right politicians have been offered campaign financing from Russian entities, as well as the assistance of Russian social-media trolls and propagandists. Since 2014, Le Pen’s party has received millions in loans from a Russian bank; and Salvini’s party was reportedly offered around €3 million ($3.4 million) to contest this year’s European Parliament election. And just this month, the UK Electoral Commission launched an investigation into the Brexit Party, following former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s public demand that Farage come clean about his funding sources.

Even more recently, Austrian Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) was caught on video soliciting Russian electoral help in exchange for government contracts. The Austrian government has now collapsed, but there is every reason to think that this brazen quid pro quo is just the tip of a pan-European iceberg.

After all, Russian money, support, and election interference have already enabled European populists and nationalists to come a long way. In Italy, after joining the coalition government as a junior partner, the League is now the country’s dominant party. In the UK, Farage, along with Boris Johnson and other Brexit leaders, succeeded in pulling his country out of the EU. And in France, Le Pen has become a mainstream politician – something her father, the far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, scarcely could have dreamed of.

Moreover, in the countries where Putin’s apostles have had the most success, the electorates are more polarized than ever. Since the Brexit referendum, the UK’s traditional party system has broken down, and the country has entered a full-blown culture war that shows no sign of abating. It has lost its seat at the European table, and become a shell of its former self. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, when the governments of the United States and China need to call Europe, now they dial Paris and Berlin, not London.

Make no mistake: dividing Western societies against themselves and setting them against one another is a key pillar of the Russian security strategy. The question for other European countries is whether they will follow the UK down the path of impotent rage and national self-destruction. At the end of the day, the future of Europe and the West is not up to Putin; it is up to us – starting with the European voters who will go to the polls this week.

My message to those voters is simple: do not become another one of Putin’s puppets. When you cast your ballot, have pride in your European identity. Vote for a renewal of the European project, not for its destruction. This is our chance to show resilience in the face of the Kremlin’s long shadow war against the EU. Now is the time to stand up for unity and democratic governance, and against the corruption and compromised loyalties of the European right.

Only by working together can we preserve control over Europe’s future in a world of rapidly shifting power dynamics. To have a seat at the international table alongside the US, China, and India, Europe first must stare down Putin’s Russia.

(Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister, is President of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group (ALDE) in the European Parliament and the author of Europe’s Last Chance: Why the European States Must Form a More Perfect Union.)

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