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Steve Bannon flounders in Europe’s illiberal heartland

Prague, Czech Republic – Steve Bannon, the chief architect of ‘America First’, came to Central Europe hoping to find the promised land. Instead, he came face to face with his own contradictions.

“He asked me for an audience, got 30 minutes, and after 30 minutes I told him that I absolutely disagree with his views and I ended the audience”. The words chosen by Czech President Miloš Zeman to describe his September meeting with Steve Bannon could hardly be pithier. The brief, unannounced audience only came to light when presidential spokesman Jiří Ovčáček tweeted pictures of the two men – along with Czech-born German AfD politician Petr Bystron – all smiles like long lost finally-reunited old friends.

The pictures, as probably intended, quickly spread and sparked outrage on social media. “[Steve Bannon’s] tentacles are reaching everywhere”, one Twitter user lamented. What failed to make the headlines, however, is how quickly the smiles withered away. “We broke up in a cold atmosphere”, Zeman told reporters the next day, citing disagreements with Bannon’s protectionism and hard-line stance on China.

Steve Bannon’s ‘Movement’ hits European roadblock

When news broke about the former White House chief strategist’s plans to extend his “Trumpian revolution” to Europe, panic ensued. “Don’t be fooled by Bannon’s split with Trump. He’s leading a Trumpian onslaught to undermine European democracy itself”, wrote Natalie Nougayrède in The Guardian, highlighting the “eager potential audience” his “Gramsci-style culture war against elites and his exhortations to be very aggressive about confronting Brussels” can find in Central Europe.

Since then, Bannon has been touring EU capitals to spread the “national populist revolt” and promote his ‘Movement’ – which, incidentally, isn’t really his, and was founded by Belgian lawyer Mischaël Modrikamen back in 2016. The goal is simple: unite, coordinate and connect Europe’s populist and anti-establishment parties ahead of next year’s elections to bring down the “Davos party” and give back the power to “the little guy”.

The truthfulness of Bannon’s most recent populist endeavor has been questioned right from the start. Anne Applebaum called it “a phony anti-European funding vehicle” largely designed to “revive the career of the former Trump aide” and “seeking to pump up the careers of some other out-of-office politicians”, like soon-to-be unemployed Brexiter-in-chief Nigel Farage.

This concern, shared by several far-right politicians like Gerolf Annemans of Belgium’s Vlaams Belang party, is only heightened by the fact that many of them – including Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Italy’s Matteo Salvini – are working on their own transnational alliances and have no real need for an outsider, whoever that may be.

The ‘Movement’ might say “more about [Steve Bannon] than about Europe”. It is our responsibility not to add grist to the mill of his self-image as a Machiavellian visionary and philanthropic Bond villain who, after single-handedly taking down the Washington establishment, has set his revengeful eyes on Brussels bureaucrats to free oppressed European nations and empower aspiring autocrats. A lot has been said about the hollowness of his theoretical background. But even if one decided to adhere to his grand apocalyptic vision, his political thought is deeply anchored in American politics, and lacks any European bearing.

Apart from Salvini’s highly-publicized support and a carefully-trimmed bromance with Orbán, his ‘Movement’ cannot boast of many tangible accomplishments. “Have his partners, especially in Eastern Europe, lost interest?”, questioned Franck Hofmann in Deutsche Welle. Even ideologically like-minded and potential European partners are keeping their distance: “If he phoned me up and said he’d like to have a coffee and a chat I’d say ‘fine that’s great,’ but I have no agenda to do anything with Steve Bannon”, UKIP leader Gerard Batten said.

“We’re not in America. The interests of the anti-establishment parties in Europe are quite divergent”, Germany’s AfD co-chairman Alexander Gauland added. Which is why Bannon has been going to great lengths to hail Italy, currently ruled by a far-right, left-wing populist coalition, as “the center of the political universe”.

“Bannon is American and has no place in a European political party”, Jérôme Rivière, member of the French National Rally, argued. Although it should come as no surprise that this argument came from a Frenchman – often the most enthusiastic parties to American bashing – contempt for, if not outright animosity towards the U.S. runs deep throughout the bloc since Trump’s election, with two notable exceptions: Poland and Slovakia are the only EU countries where approval of U.S. leadership has increased last year. Which begs the question: could Central Europe really be Bannon’s promised land?

Populist revolution 101: know your audience

By all accounts, it certainly does appear like the ideal breeding-ground for his Eurosceptic, nationalistic and anti-immigration platform. At least at first sight. For what transpires the most from Bannon’s attempts to sell Trumpism to Central Europeans is his fundamental ignorance of the realities of the region.

His fallout with Czech President Miloš Zeman was no mere diplomatic faux-pas, but the tell-tale sign of irreconcilable differences. “While Bannon hits many of the right ideological notes, he’s also preaching economic blasphemy”, wrote Tim Gosling after Steve Bannon spoke at a conference in Prague last May. “The economic nationalism of America First and the weakening of NATO unity are serious and tangible threats” for the Visegrad Four countries. Although the shift to the right in Central Europe is irrefutable, it is mainly “driven by political opportunism”, and thus indifferent to Bannon’s blinkered ideological vision, unless it directly aligns with their interests. Which it doesn’t.

As Tim Gosling astutely pointed out, Bannon’s criticism of the “unfair competition using underpaid labor in other countries” was met with a “stunned silence” in the audience. What may have worked in the U.S. to criticize alleged unfair trade practices from Mexico or China, can in no way apply to Central European countries. Quite the contrary. After Bannon appeared at the “Future of Europe” conference in Budapest earlier this year, Hungarian pro-government media were also quick to express their disappointment and frustration over his positions, including his criticism of China and Iran, two pillars of Orbán’s foreign policy.

‘Trumpism’ in Central Europe: a security risk and economic threat

To post-communist countries for which joining NATO has been the cornerstone of their “return to the West” policy since the 1990’s, he crudely proclaims that “Russia isn’t in your top five threats”, before lecturing them on their insufficient defense spending and urging them to “act like an ally, not a protectorate”. He appears as the errand-boy of a U.S. President whose attacks against NATO and questioning of its mutual defense mechanism have sent chills from the Baltic to the Adriatic.

Condescendingly, he tells those countries what they should really look out for: instability in the Middle-East, which could bring waves of migrants to their doorstep. First, the Visegrad Group isn’t the coveted dream destination of refugees risking their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Second, ageing Central European societies need foreign workers. Third, despite rising xenophobia and growing anti-immigration sentiment, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles and Hungarians know that, while terrorism and immigration might be one of the greatest challenges currently facing the EU, they pose no direct threat to their own country.

To countries jealously eyeing Chinese investments, he singles out Beijing as the greatest adversary. To countries whose prosperity mostly relies on free trade and exports, he sells the ‘America First’ policy, in which the EU and Germany, by far the V4’s biggest trading partner, are lambasted as the biggest foes; a policy where tariffs on car imports could be slapped anytime, and thus threaten 60% of Slovakia’s exports to the U.S. and nearly 100.000 jobs in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Bannon’s “economic nationalism” could mean one of two things: literally, it would entail reinstating trade barriers, the end of the EU as a free-trade area and economic suicide for Central European countries. In a more imaginative – and V4-friendly interpretation – it could translate as “European nationalism”, in other words accelerating the bloc’s economic convergence process and strengthening its trade policy toward third countries, including China… and the U.S. A vicious circle indeed.

One of Bannon’s alleged ambitions is to tear down “crony capitalism”. While this may enthuse many Czechs, Slovaks, Poles and Hungarians, weary of decades of never-ending corruption scandals at the highest level, one can only wonder how public officials and business titans – assuming they’re not one and the same person – might react to such an agenda in Central European capitals.

Leave the onslaught to us, Europeans say

Steve Bannon portrays himself as the man who will help set EU nations free of Brussels’ diktats and unsolicited intrusions in domestic affairs. But as history shows – and Central Europeans might know this better than anyone – self-proclaimed liberators may more often than not turn out to be oppressors in disguise. He comes as the man who took down the U.S.’ political establishment but conveys a narrow-minded Washington perspective, utterly unaware of European particularities. But neither architect of the European far-right’s awakening nor mastermind of the EU’s downfall, he might simply be a pawn in their own domestic endgames and the poster boy of dynamics that elude him.

There’s another explanation for the shortcomings of Bannon’s self-marketing strategy: his rhetoric simply cannot be adapted; ‘America First’, as the name clearly suggests, cannot be exported nor molded into a specific local context: it can only be achieved at the expense of other nations, EU included.

There is little doubt that Steve Bannon will be able to find European partners eager the join his populist revolt. His influence might however be much more limited than anticipated. Despite discarding Bannon’s pan-European views, Jérôme Rivière conceded that his ‘Movement’ might be “a good non-partisan toolbox”. “Good”? That’s a matter of perspective. “Non-partisan”? Not sure where he got that idea.

A toolbox it is then, providing ideological backing, political credentials and, in some cases, advisory, polling and logistical support, but nothing more. Not a very catchy slogan for an organization aspiring to bring down the globalized elite, drive global change and upend the international world order.

Although Europe’s anti-establishment movements are keeping Bannon at arm’s length for a wide range of reasons, it all boils down to one simple observation: No one can undermine the EU as cunningly, inconspicuously and effectively as Europeans themselves.

A statement which I, albeit woefully and sullenly, can only agree with.