Out of favor at the White House and out of a job at Breitbart, U.S. President Donald Trumps former chief strategist Steve Bannon is looking for new paying clients by making waves in Europe. His latest brashly stated venture is to build a far-right foundation that would “rival the influence” of the organization I lead, the Open Society Foundations.
Thats a cheap attempt to draw false equivalence between his partisan politics and our support for civic engagement. Yet at its root, this Bannon bombshell is a threat to European democracy that should spur progressives across the Continent to step up efforts to protect the values at the heart of the EU.
Bannons grand plan is to campaign on behalf of far-right political parties across Europe ahead of next years European Parliament election. It should come as no surprise that he was invited to the fray by the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, whose National Rally party has been bankrolled by Russian loans.
Bannons idea betrays a deep lack of understanding of how European politics work. Even if one leaves aside the inherent contradiction of a nationalist American trying to use the European Parliament to undermine national governments, its unclear exactly how the mechanics of his operation will function.
A Euroskeptic bloc in the European Parliament could paralyze the EU.
Nationalist movements campaigning in 27 countries and speaking 24 different languages are unlikely to dance to the tune of an American pied piper.
Yet Bannons effort does put its finger on a weak point of the EU that has persisted for decades: Political parties often deprioritize the European Parliament, choosing to focus their resources and send their best candidates to domestic parliaments instead.
That has allowed fringe groups like the British National Party to sneak into the Parliament, use its platform to reach a wider audience and access its funding opportunities. Far-right groups such as the United Kingdom Independence Party, Le Pens National Rally (then called the National Front) and the Alternative for Germany have also used the European Parliament to cannily expand their domestic reach.
Should traditional parties once again treat next years election as a second-string event, the far-rights success could paralyze the EU. A Euroskeptic bloc in the European Parliament could delay ratifying accession or association agreements, hold up budgets and prevent sanctions against members that flout the EUs rules — such as Hungary or Poland — or act aggressively against it, such as Russia.
Bannon believes he can bring U.S. dollars to Brussels, exploit issues like migration and manipulate social media algorithms to determine the election outcome. His goal is to create a far-right super-bloc that would bring together parties with a xenophobic, anti-EU and authoritarian bent, from Italy to Poland. Hes declared that they should wear accusations of racism “like a medal.”
Marine Le Pen and Steve Bannon in Lille | Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images
This mission couldnt be further from that of the Open Society Foundations.
Bannon is a drum major for a hyper-sovereignty that tells frightened citizens we can wall off the world, build moats and pull up the drawbridge — all without consequence. With toxic isolationism grounded in myth and profoundly insecure identity politics, he reaches for Milton with the bombastic vision that he will “reign in hell” in a Europe riven by his tribal politics.
Where Bannon is thinking about how to shape Europe in his image, were partnering with Europeans who are engaged in the long, hard toil towards economic inclusion and equal access to justice.
Our vision is to help Europe hold together, with an appreciation that post-war peace has been sustained by cross border cooperation and the establishment of governments responsive to the need to share prosperity more broadly, despite evident imperfections.
Through transparent grantmaking, we invest the resources of our founder, George Soros, in the democratic initiatives of activists, advocates and academics working with shared values, but with pluralistic approaches that dont always align with our own.
The work of the foundation derives its energies from local advisory boards who make autonomous decisions about who to fund and which institutions to partner with.
That can mean giving a grant to a struggling community in Hungary campaigning for better transport between their village and the nearest city. It can mean hiring lawyers to stop banks illegally seizing peoples homes, as were currently doing in Ireland. Or it can mean staying the course with activists in Macedonia who campaign courageously against corruption and for independent media.
The EU cant afford to sleep-walk into another political crisis.
Despite the cartoon of Soros that the right is fond of, ours is a bottom up approach, inclusive of local culture and histories. It has resisted fashionable political winds to work patiently over decades on some of the worlds most vexing human rights challenges. We count Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch among our most successful grantees.
We cant know if Bannons latest desperate gasp for relevancy poses a real threat, or if this is another grand delusion. Breitbart failed to make inroads into Europe, and his last political endeavors, on behalf of Le Pen and U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, ended in failure.
But we do know that the EU cant afford to sleep-walk into another political crisis and that the European Parliament has a key role to play making the bloc more democratic.
As the narrative of an out-of-touch Brussels elite increasingly gains traction, political representation in Europe is now more important than ever. Its time for the Continents political and civic stakeholders to give the EU election the attention it deserves.
Patrick Gaspard is president of the Open Society Foundations, former executive director of the Democratic National Committee and was director of the White House Office of Political Affairs under President Barack Obama.