Why Doesn’t Steve Bannon Matter in Europe?

The former Trump strategist has spent the past year trying to bolster far-right parties on the Continent—with little to show for it.

A close-up of Steve Bannon.
Steve Bannon speaks during a news conference in Brussels. (Eric Vidal / Reuters)

“I think you do a very dirty job in Europe,” Bernard-Henri Lévy, the French philosopher and author, told Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, during their debate yesterday at the Athens Democracy Forum. “All these movements which you are trying to help, they are not so happy with it.”

The debate, moderated by the New York Times journalist Roger Cohen, is among several appearances Bannon has made across Europe over the past year in his quest to create a movement aimed at supporting nationalist, anti-establishment parties ahead of the European Parliament elections in May.

Yet after all that time, Bannon has little to show for his efforts. Though many far-right parties have made significant gains, further establishing themselves as permanent fixtures on the European political stage, the far-right surge that was expected didn’t come to pass. (This was reaffirmed in subsequent elections across the Continent, where although some parties underperformed, they at least demonstrated their relatively high electoral floor.)

“We are winning,” Bannon nevertheless insisted in his combative back-and-forth with Lévy, referring to far-right parties in Italy, France, and Britain. “We are going to win.”

Even if populist and nationalist forces are establishing themselves in Europe, though, it’s not clear that Bannon has had anything to do with it. Indeed, his Brussels-based think tank—known simply as the Movement—has largely been a stillborn effort, stymied by limited buy-in from European partners, as well as stringent laws barring financial contributions from foreign sources. A separate effort to establish a so-called alt-right academy to train the next generation of nationalist populist leaders faced its own challenges this week when the school was barred from the ancient Italian monastery in which it was to be housed.

But perhaps the greatest inhibitor of Bannon’s success in Europe has been the very far-right parties he has professed to support. Though the former Donald Trump strategist has appeared alongside some of Europe’s most high-profile far-right leaders—from Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Rally in France, to Matteo Salvini, the head of the League and Italy’s erstwhile interior minister—few have agreed to unite under his nationalist banner. The Sweden Democrats expressed “no interest” in Bannon’s project. Vlaams Belang, a Flemish nationalist party, called the effort “poorly organized.” The Alternative for Germany said the interests of Europe’s anti-establishment parties are too “divergent” to be united.

The most common refrain among those skeptical of Bannon’s plans is that he simply isn’t European. In their eyes, “he remains an American,” Jean-Yves Camus, a French political scientist and a co-author of Far-Right Politics in Europe, told me. “And you have to remember that several parties on the extreme right of the political spectrum are pretty much anti-American. They always criticize U.S. imperialism and U.S. foreign policy.”

But it’s not just Bannon’s Americanness that makes some European nationalist parties resistant to working with him. Their reluctance also stems from what is perceived as a fundamental misunderstanding of the way these parties work. Though many of Europe’s far-right movements are united in their shared views on immigration, the economy, and the role and future of the European Union, these beliefs don’t always manifest themselves in the same political goals. Despite hopes that they would be a dominant force in the European Parliament after elections this May, right-wing populist parties instead had to settle for forming the fifth-largest grouping in the legislature—their national priorities took precedence over any broader project. (The current far-right grouping, led by Salvini, failed, for example, to persuade Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz to join it.)

“You simply cannot build an alliance of all the mainstream right-[wing] conservative and extreme-right political parties,” Camus said. “You cannot have Orbán and Salvini and Le Pen and so on sitting on the same bench.”

That is, however, what Bannon has tried to do. He’s attempted to transcend national divisions by framing the cause of European populist parties not simply as one against their respective establishment parties, but as one against globalism more broadly.

“The objective of building transnational alliances historically has been much easier on the left than it has on the right,” Matthew Goodwin, a politics professor at the University of Kent and a co-author of National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, told me. He noted that while left-wing movements have been able to unify around broad principles such as class solidarity and resource distribution, right-wing movements have been much more insular. “They’re just not built to campaign above the nation-state.”

Perhaps Bannon’s end goal isn’t to influence the future of right-wing populism in Europe, though— but to just be perceived as doing so.

“The mere fact that you are writing an article about him, I think, is part of his personal strategy,” Eric Maurice, the director of the Brussels office of the Robert Schuman Foundation, a Paris-based European think tank, told me, “of trying to look like someone who is everywhere, pulling the strings, working on a master plan to put the far right … in power.”