Saturday, 18 June 2016 19:41


Anton Troianovski, The Wall Street Journal, 17.06.2016


Europe’s anti-immigration, populist parties are working to strengthen their cross-border alliance, hoping to capitalize on recent electoral gains and next week’s U.K. referendum to start rolling back more than five decades of efforts to integrate the Continent.

The parties’ increasing coordination and their rising ambitions were on display here in the Austrian capital on Friday as the country’s Freedom Party hosted allies from France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, the U.K., the Czech Republic, Poland and Romania. French populist leader Marine Le Pen met with the Freedom Party’sNorbert Hofer,whose near-win in this spring’s presidential elections represented one of the biggest electoral successes for a far-right candidate in Western Europe since World War II.

“We would like to deepen and extend our cooperation,” said Freedom Party Chairman Heinz-Christian Strache, “along the motto: ‘Patriots of all European countries, unite and work together!’”

The influx of refugees and migrants to Europe has boosted parties across the Continent that want to curtail immigration, particularly from Muslim countries, and to weaken or dismantle European Union bonds. Beyond Austria, the parties’ gains in the past year range from national parliamentary elections in Slovakia and Poland to state and local votes in Germany and France. A victory next week for the “Leave” campaign in Britain’s EU membership could bring the biggest boost yet for the euroskeptic movement.

“I hope that ‘Brexit’ will win, because that would be the start of a process that cannot be turned back anymore,” said Gerolf Annemans, a member of European Parliament who represented Flemish nationalist party Vlaams Belang at the Vienna gathering. Even if British voters choose to remain in the EU, he added, other countries will also start pushing for less EU integration, as the U.K. did, meaning that “the decomposing of the Union will be an inevitable fact.”

In a sign of the euroskeptics’ growing influence, mainstream European politicians who have long been in favor of deepening EU ties are cooling on those plans.Wolfgang Schäuble,Germany’s 73-year-old finance minister, said in an interview published last Saturday that a “Leave” vote in Britain should put a halt to efforts to centralize EU powers further.

“We couldn’t simply demand more integration as a result of a Brexit,” Mr. Schäuble told newsmagazine Der Spiegel. “This would be crude; many would be right in asking whether we politicians have still not understood.”

Germany’s anti-immigrant party, the Alternative for Germany, sent three senior representatives to Friday’s gathering—a significant move because some party officials had previously shunned foreign parties identified with the far right for fear of turning off voters at home.

“A German patriot loves what Germany once was, he loves what Germany could be, but he cries over the state in which Germany now finds itself,” a member of European Parliament for the party, Marcus Pretzell, told more than 1,000 people at a Freedom Party rally Friday night featuring the international guests. “We have come to change our countries. We have come to change Europe.”

In a news conference earlier Friday alongside her allies, Ms. Le Pen described her wish for a Europe in which individual countries could pick and choose which elements of European integration they want to participate in while having more control over immigration and other matters. Supporters of deep European integration argue that the bloc works best when all its members follow the same rules.

“Maybe this is the start of a Europe a la carte,” Ms. Le Pen said, referring to the coming British referendum.

Officials said the parties gathered in Vienna would seek to coordinate political campaigns and positions on international issues such as refugee policy. At the same time, they promised that they wouldn’t get too close and underscored that they had their differences—it was too much European integration, after all, that they were fighting against.

“Showing unity in a context where we plead for less unity—it seems paradoxical,” Mr. Annemands said. But, he added, “meetings like this show exactly that we have a vision of European cooperation out of the European Union.”

The apparent paradox reflected the tightrope that Europe’s populist, euroskeptic parties are walking as they look to expand their base of voters. While many Europeans say there is too much immigration and too much power in Brussels, they also often see benefits to the EU—from open borders to the single market. As a result, populist parties in Germany, France, Austria and elsewhere are eager to show their voters that they are able to cooperate across borders to achieve their common aims of rolling back EU centralization and limiting immigration.

“It’s not about deepening and deepening the cooperation ever more, a la EU,” said Austrian lawmaker Johannes Hübner, the Freedom Party’s specialist for foreign policy. “Our goal is a cooperation of parties that have common ground on various points.”

Officials said they chose to meet in Vienna in part to mark the Freedom Party’s near victory in last month’s presidential runoff. The party is contesting the result of that vote because of alleged violations in how mail-in ballots were counted, with a decision by the Constitutional Court due early next month.

Mr. Pretzell, of the Alternative for Germany, said the location of Friday’s meeting was also significant because Europe’s future had been determined in the city once before—at the Congress of Vienna 200 years ago, when diplomats divvied up the Continent among its powers.

“There has already once been a new order for Europe established in Vienna,” Mr. Pretzell said. “I hope that we will be a bit more successful and that we won’t repeat the errors of our forefathers.”

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