BRUSSELS — It was a colleague from Agence France-Presse who set us thinking a few days ago, by retweeting an interview that Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, gave to Le Monde two years ago. "No debate or dialogue is possible with the far right," the former prime minister of Luxembourg explained back in May 2016 from his office on the 13th floor of the Berlaymont building, the Commission's imposing Brussels headquarters.
At the time, the EU was already trembling. The Austrians were about to elect their president and, after the first round, the candidate for the far-right party FPÖ was neck-and-neck with Alexander van der Bellen, supported by the Greens. After the initial ballot was canceled, the latter was elected in December 2016.
"With the prospect of seeing the hard-line right and right-wing extremism win, I feel obliged to say that I do not like them," said Juncker, who came up through the ranks of the Christian Democratic establishment. "We should not try to keep up with populists, who often ask good questions but give bad answers. (...) I am not tempted to give in to these base reflexes. I won't get dirty doing this."
These remarks have aged quite a bit with the extreme, Europhobic and xenophobic Italian right, allied to the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), at the gates of power in Italy. As it takes over leadership in Italy, who then, in Brussels, will be in a position to snub the government of a founding country of the Union? Nobody.
People demonstrating against the reelection of Viktor Orban in Budapest, Hungary on April 21 — Photo: Attila Volgyi
When the exception becomes commonplace and threatens the heart of Europe, Brussels leaders have no choice but to see, negotiate and compromise with these "new barbarians", as the Financial Times recently called them. Otherwise, there is the risk of feeding even more into the accusations of denying democracy that have been directed at them for years.
For since May 2016, the far-right, shamelessly exploiting the migrant crisis, has made many other breakthroughs, and the anti-Brussels sentiment has not ebbed. In Austria, the FPÖ finally imposed itself within a coalition government with the traditional right. In Germany, the young AfD party has entered the Bundestag. In Poland, the conservative, reactionary PiS government remains popular in the opinion polls despite its power struggle with Brussels, the Commission demanding that Warsaw amend its legislation weakening the independence of the judiciary. And in Hungary, Viktor Orban was triumphantly re-elected Prime Minister in April, on a fiercely anti-immigrant platform.
Encircled, the Commission has proposed the opening of an unprecedented procedure against Poland (Article 7 of the European Treaty, in case of systematic violation of the rule of law), but it's now seeking an honorable compromise. The European People's Party (EPP, gathering the Union's traditional right-wing parties), the first pan-European political party, that of the same Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, continues to tolerate the excesses of Viktor Orban, also a member of the EPP.
And the first reactions to the prospect of a League/M5S coalition government suggest that the rest of the Europeans would, in the same way, have agreed to discuss with this team of extremes. Pierre Moscovici, the European Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, told French public radio on Monday: "We must stop thinking that, in Brussels, we impose this or that democratic choice." Even the German Finance Minister, Olaf Scholz, had said two days before that he was ready to "respond to the extended hand" of the incoming Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, after a pro-European statement by the latter.
European policy has already begun to become contaminated.
Perhaps some were maneuvering to soften the extremes in the hope that the financial markets would quickly do their work and convince the 100% anti-establishment Italian government to fall into line with the Union's budgetary rules? The German Commissioner Gunther Oettinger set Twitter on fire on Tuesday after saying that "markets, government bonds, and Italy's economy could be so drastically impacted that they serve as a signal to voters not to vote for populist on the right and left."
In any case, there was no longer any question of quarantining the extremes, as was the case with Austria, when, in 2000, the FPÖ had participated for the first time in a coalition government. Especially since one month from now, Vienna and its right/far-right coalition government will take over the rotating presidency of the Union for the following six months. To be sure, the very young Conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz reasserted his commitments to the EU as soon as he took office. But three key sovereign ministries — the Interior, Defense and Foreign Affairs — are in the hands of the FPÖ.
European policy has already begun to become contaminated. On the migration front, it has even "Orbanized" itself, working, as it has been, for two years on the "Fortress Europe" recommended by the Hungarian Prime Minister: Closure of borders for economic migrants, legal entry reserved for political refugees only.
And yet on the economic front, unfortunately, Brussels hasn't given any sign that it is ready to ease off. Or, to paraphrase Juncker: to provide the right answers to the right questions of extremes, to turn Italian voters away from the misleading siren songs of the populist far-right.
Hampered by its enormous debt, Italy urgently needs gestures of solidarity from other European countries. But Brussels, and especially Berlin, have so far failed to take the measure of these expectations or to follow up on Emmanuel Macron's idea of a genuine eurozone budget.
See more from Opinion / Analysis here