It’s not just Ukraine: Putin’s friends in Europe are gaining strength


Marine Le Pen, leader of France's far-right National Front, waves at supporters during the party's May Day rally in Paris. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)

Later this month, Europeans go to the polls to elect new members to the E.U. parliament in Brussels. The polls (once again) mark something of a referendum for the future of the European project, with a host of populist and anti-E.U. factions on both sides of the political spectrum likely to pick up seats. The Economist anticipates that as much a third of the 751-seat parliament could be made up of Euroskeptics, eager to stymie further moves toward integration.

The populist, Euroskeptic surge, while worrying news for Europe's establishment, is bound to have at least one major world leader smiling: Russian President Vladimir Putin.

As the crisis in Ukraine intensified and the United States and the European Union applied sanctions on Moscow, quite a few of Europe's leading far-right and Euroskeptic politicians have come to Putin's defense. On an official visit to Russia in April, Marine Le Pen, leader of France's anti-immigrant, far-right National Front, decried the West's declaration of a "Cold War" on Russia. She also visited Crimea last year and recently said that Ukraine's restive eastern regions ought to be allowed more autonomy from Kiev.

Le Pen's support for Putin is hardly unique among European politicians of her ideological bent. Heinz-Christian Strache, from Austria's far-right Freedom Party, condemned European policy last month, urging Brussels "to stop playing the stooge of the U.S. in the encirclement of Russia." Geert Wilders, a notorious Islamophobe and leader of the Dutch Freedom Party, pinned the tensions on "shameless Europhiles with their dreams of empire." Far-right, ultra-nationalist politicians from Belgium to Italy to a host of E.U. countries in the former Soviet world, including Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria and others, have joined the chorus defending Russia. Even Nigel Farage, whose U.K. Independence Party has surged in popularity in Britain and presents a real threat to Prime Minister David Cameron's conservative base, has spoken admiringly of Putin's political prowess.

During the Cold War, it was Europe's hard left that fell under scrutiny for its supposed allegiance to the Kremlin. Now, in the age of Putin, Russia's strongman has become an ideological foil for the far-right. Putin and Russian officials may rage against the crypto-Nazi, fascist forces underlying Moscow's opponents in Kiev, but there are many reasons why Putin would be attractive to Le Pen and her bloc: his opposition to homosexuality, his championing of a form of ethnic nationalism, his Christian piety, his at times overt and at times implicit hostility to the American-authored liberal world order.

That desire to challenge a U.S.-led "West" does not just animate the European far right, of course. From Greece to Germany, the crucible of the European project, many in the left have expressed ambivalence over tough action in Ukraine. Forty-nine percent of people polled in Germany want their government to take a "middle position" in the crisis. Clemens Wergin, foreign editor of German newspaper group Die Welt, sums up what's happening:

This anti-Westernism is coming from both sides of the political spectrum. There is the part of the left that is instinctively anti-American and takes the side of whatever international actor happens to challenge the status quo and the leading Western power.

Then there is Europe’s populist right, which agrees with Russia’s propaganda that Europe has become too gay, too tolerant, too permissive in its morals and too un-Christian, and which welcomes an authoritarian leader challenging Europe’s fuzzy multilateralism.

In Germany, you can find this current best represented by the new anti-euro Alternative für Deutschland Party. They take up a conservative strain of German thinking dating back to the 19th century, which harbors a resentment toward Western civilization and romanticizes a Russia seemingly uncorrupted by Western values and free-market capitalism.

What this means for the E.U. — battered in recent years by debt crises and national publics  increasingly skeptical of the bureaucrats in Brussels — is still unclear. Europe's centrist establishment still reflexively offers more integration, "more Europe" as a solution to the continent's troubles. But an ascendant Euroskeptic far right will make collective deliberation and action even more difficult. Putin's hand, meanwhile, will only be strengthened.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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