Stephen K. Bannon has already been ousted from his job as White House chief strategist, frozen out by the far-right media organization he helped lead into the spotlight and publicly lambasted by his former boss, President Trump. Now the would-be far-right leader is being told once again that he’s not welcome — this time, in Europe.
Over the weekend, reports emerged that Alexander Gauland, co-chairman of Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD), had bluntly dismissed Bannon’s plans to coordinate a pan-European alliance of right-wing groups.
“We’re not in America,” Gauland told Der Westen, a news website in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. “The interests of the anti-establishment parties in Europe are quite divergent.” The German politician also reportedly declared that Bannon “will not succeed in forging an alliance of the like-minded for the European elections.”
In July, Bannon unveiled plans to create a Brussels-based think tank called the Movement to support populist groups across Europe ahead of 2019 elections for the European Parliament. He told the Daily Beast that his goal is to form a far-right “supergroup” within the chamber.
While this proposal has received some support from populist leaders — including Gauland’s AfD co-chair, Alice Weidel, who described Bannon’s project as “ambitious and exciting” in July — the overall reception to the foundation has been chilly.
“Bannon is American and has no place in a European political party,” Jérôme Rivière, the international spokesman for the French far-right party National Rally, told Politico. “We reject any supranational entity and are not participating in the creation of anything with Bannon.”
AfD spokesman Jörg Meuthen has also distanced the party from Bannon, stating in July that the AfD has “no need for coaching from outside the EU.”
On Tuesday, AfD spokesman Michael Pfalzgraf wrote in an email to The Washington Post that while “we cannot rule out that individual representatives of our party had and have had contact with Steve Bannon – these representatives have then spoken neither for the AfD-board nor for the entire party.” Pfalzgraf added that “there are no plans for cooperation with Steve Bannon on the part of the AfD Federal Association."
Cynthia Miller-Idriss, an American University professor who studies far-right culture in Germany, said some European leaders are wary of associating themselves too closely with Bannon in part because he represents a particularly extreme brand of right-wing politics that could make it harder for European parties to win new supporters.
The AfD, for example, is slowly gaining ground against German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party — the far-right party hit a high of 17 percent in a recent poll — and is looking for more ways to attract mainstream voters. According to Miller-Idriss, rejecting a figure like Bannon is, on some level, an attempt by the AfD to establish itself as distinct from — and more legitimate than — “the really extreme right.”
“The AfD is trying to position themselves as anti-Islamist and anti-immigration, but they want these things to be seen as normal, mainstream efforts,” she added.
Many populist leaders in Europe have also bristled at the idea of being led by an American, experts said — particularly by one who doesn’t seem to understand cultural differences among right-wing parties.
“European movements are local and parochial in a way that don’t lend themselves to what Mr. Bannon seems to be envisaging, and there may be a feeling that [Bannon] isn’t aware of these differences in European culture,” said Constanze Stelzenmüller, an expert on German, European and transatlantic foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.
Christopher Way, a Cornell University expert on European government, agreed.
“Part of why Bannon’s project won’t succeed is a failure to recognize the diversity of European right-wing populist parties. Getting them on the same page is like herding cats," Way said. “I don’t see any reason he should succeed when they haven’t managed to coalesce themselves.”
This article has been updated with comments from the AfD.