Steve Bannon and the European Union: Why Winning in Europe Won’t Be Easy
Steve Bannon, one of the main orchestrators of Donald Trump’s successful 2016 presidential campaign, announced that his new plan is to establish political operations in Europe. This, he claims, is an effort to support and unite right-wing politicians in their fight against the European Union, George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, or any other actor that could threaten the rise of far-right populist governments across the continent. Despite the attention that his announcement has received in the press, and despite some actually believing that Bannon’s operations will succeed in Europe, there are many indications that his plan will not come anywhere close to having the success he enjoyed while running Trump’s campaign.
The timing, more than anything, will probably be the biggest opponent that Bannon will face. He is a former executive of Cambridge Analytica, the data firm accused of improperly using the data of tens of millions of Facebook users in order to sway the U.S. presidential election. This relationship will be hard to avoid, especially given the high number of online privacy scandals in 2018 alone. Both Europe’s institutions and its citizens have always been vocal on issues of data protection. Bannon’s association with any politician could thus create a push-back if there is even the slightest indication that tactics similar to those used by Cambridge Analytica are being reproduced. Furthermore, the proximity of Europe to Russia, and the perceived threat the latter poses to free elections in many countries, has led European Union leaders to take concrete steps for protecting their democracies. The infrastructure to combat false or misleading information for the purpose of electoral gain already exists. Using similar methods as those used to target voters in the United States in 2016 will prove much more difficult.
Furthermore, the success that Steve Bannon saw in the United States was largely due to the very nature of the political system. During the 2016 elections, it was enough to convince registered Democrats not to cast a vote in their party’s favor. The lack of an alternative when it came to major candidates meant that a Democrat not voting was just as good as a vote for Trump. In Europe, however, such a strategy would not suffice. It won’t be enough to simply turn voters away from one party. They would also have to be convinced that no alternative other than the far-right is acceptable. Take Germany, for example, where dozens of parties competed in the 2017 parliamentary elections, and seven of those garnered enough votes to make it to parliament. Even if somehow the AfD, the German far-right party, had managed to get the highest percentage of votes (it received the third highest), they would still have had a hard time putting together a government. More than likely, other parties would have formed a coalition, pushing the AfD into opposition. For Bannon to succeed in cases such as this he would not only need to help far-right parties win the elections. He would need to ensure that they receive at least 50% of the votes, something not often seen in multi-party systems.
Lastly, there is also the issue of actually managing to unite far-right parties in one cohesive movement. While these parties have had successes in places like Poland, Hungary, and most recently Italy, this is far from a continent-wide movement powerful enough to counter the influence of the European Union. These parties do indeed have similar talking points regarding immigration and their perceived ‘islamization’ of Europe. However, many differences can be found in their approach to the economy, defense, and even their perception of the European Union’s enlargement strategies. The European parliamentary elections in 2019 should be able to provide further insight into the ability of far-right movements to converge into one, continent-wide force. Despite some signs of upward mobility in national polls for Eurosceptic and anti-immigration groups, the idea of all working together on a wide variety of issues is ungraspable. National contexts differ, and it cannot be expected that the wants and needs of right-wing parties in northern Europe, for example, will match those of Italy, Hungary, or Poland.
This is not to say that Steve Bannon is destined to fail outright. There are many divisions in the continent that he can help exploit, and there is already a presence of the far-right on the European political scene that is yearning to grow. The challenge of creating a transnational movement, however, is a great one. With recent scandals relating to the way voters are targeted through social media, the vastly different political landscape of Europe as compared to the United States, and the differences found among Europe’s far-right movements, Bannon will face an uphill battle if he ever manages to get his European operations off the ground. The European Union and its allies have plenty of ammunition at their disposal to ensure that the orchestrator of Donald Trump’s election victory cannot replicate his success in Europe.