Friends like these: How foreign policy could derail an alliance of Europe’s populist right

A populist alliance in the European Parliament may prove unworkable because of the parties’ diverging global outlooks

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Italy’s League party leader Matteo Salvini pose for a picture after a news conference following their meeting in Budapest, Hungary, April 1, 2021. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo
Image by picture alliance / REUTERS | Bernadett Szabo

Last week, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán met with his Polish counterpart, Mateusz Morawiecki, and Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s League, in Budapest to discuss closer cooperation between their parties. “Europe is at a crossroads; it has lost its roots, and we want to help it rebuild those roots”, said Morawiecki, on behalf of Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice (PiS) party.

All of them have good reasons to combine their powers. Orbán faces a parliamentary election next year against a mobilised opposition. He needs to be able to show that the recent departure of his party, Fidesz, from the European People’s Party (EPP) is a new opening – rather than the beginning of the end. Salvini would be happy to escape the embrace of Rassemblement National leader Marine Le Pen in the Identity and Democracy group, which is becoming particularly uncomfortable now that his party supports the government of Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi. And Kaczynski is keen not just to boost his party’s standing in the European Parliament but also to build a political counterweight to German influence on the European stage – as MEP Witold Waszczykowski, a member of PiS and a former foreign minister, argues.

Currently, almost half of the MEPs in the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group come from the ranks of Poland’s ruling coalition. Since Brexit prompted the withdrawal of the British Conservative Party, the ECR has been only the sixth-biggest group in the European Parliament.

Political balance in the European Parliament

If Fidesz and the League joined ECR, it would become the third-largest group. And it could even become the second-largest if – miraculously – they united the entire anti-EU internationale (as they failed to do two years ago, ahead of the European Parliament election).

Even an alliance between PiS, Fidesz, and the League may prove unworkable because of the parties’ diverging ambitions. Kaczynski would be happy to welcome his two friends into an expanded ECR, but Orbán may prefer to create a completely new group – to avoid becoming merely a junior partner of Kaczynski. And Salvini might want to keep his options open; apparently, some members of his party are eager to join the EPP. Equally, he would not fit in the ECR so long as the Brothers of Italy, his domestic rival on the far right, is still in this grouping.

But, even if they did find a way to work together, they would eventually be divided over foreign policy. PiS, Fidesz, and the League might be united in their dissatisfaction with the direction in which the European Union is moving – and with the leading role that Germany and France play in the bloc. But their geopolitical outlooks are radically different. These differences are reflected in the beliefs of their supporters, as shown by a public opinion poll that the European Council on Foreign Relations conducted in late November 2020.

Most important country to have a good relationship with

A staggering 69 per cent of PiS voters say that the United States is their country’s most important partner, compared to less than 10 per cent for China and Russia combined. In contrast, around one-fifth of Fidesz voters consider the US to be their country’s key partner – while more than 20 per cent each point to China and Russia. Supporters of the League are somewhere in between: they have relatively strong transatlantic instincts but say that it is important to nurture relations with China and Russia. Salvini’s sympathy for Russian President Vladimir Putin is hardly a secret.

Nonetheless, supporters of all three parties are much less likely than their compatriots to regard Germany as their country’s key partner. Supporters of the League consider China to be a more important partner than Germany. And just 7 per cent of PiS voters recognise the need to have good relations with Germany – even if the country is Poland’s largest trade partner by far, as well as the biggest foreign employer of Polish workers.

Interestingly, PiS supporters are reluctant to place Germany even in second place, preferring the United Kingdom. This could reflect old anti-German phobias in the Polish society, avidly exploited by PiS and the pro-government media. It could also have something to do with PiS’s disagreement with the EU over the rule of law: since the party’s leaders portray the EU as being skewed towards German interests, its supporters might conclude that Germany is partly to blame for the tensions between Warsaw and Brussels.

The three parties might find it impossible to speak with one voice on topical issues

Thus, if a common enemy is needed for building a useful alliance, the three parties could find one. However, they are far from having identical lists of enemies and friends. For PiS, Russia is still a much bigger problem than the EU. Working closely with parties that openly flirt with Moscow is not just difficult in practice but also hard to explain to voters at home. They cannot afford the same level of anti-EU stance either. Almost eight in ten League supporters, and nearly six in ten Fidesz supporters, believe the EU’s political system is broken – but only around four in ten PiS voters hold this view (and they are outnumbered by those who believe it works).

At the same time, Warsaw’s hopes to maintain a strong relationship with Washington (despite the end of the Trump presidency) could clash with Orbán’s and Salvini’s sympathies for Moscow and Beijing. When the Hungarian foreign minister condemned the EU’s human rights sanctions on China as “pointless” and “harmful”, he was criticising not just the bloc but also the efforts of the Western alliance that coordinated this move.

Thus, the three parties might find it impossible to speak with one voice on topical issues such as the supply of vaccines, the construction of 5G networks, human rights in China, the political situation in Belarus, energy policy, or – more broadly – Europe’s strategic autonomy. And some internal EU issues might divide them too. For instance, the League is critical of migration within the bloc – which, for central European societies, is a crucial benefit of EU membership.

True, all three parties are either in power or form part of a governing coalition. This heightens their interest in implementing the EU’s coronavirus recovery fund as soon as possible, and in strengthening their countries’ say in European politics. But it also makes them poor bedfellows for most other European populists, who build their legitimacy as radicals on eternal opposition. Given the inevitable differences on foreign policy among the three, they must ask themselves if an alliance is worth the effort.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.