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How Europe’s Populists Can Win by Losing

The European Parliament elections this May have been described as a make-or-break moment for the future of the European project – and for good reason. With plans to form a populist united front, Euroskeptic parties need only capture one-third of parliamentary seats to bring EU governance to a crawl.

BERLIN – Will the European Parliament elections this May result in a political revolution? Populist and nationalist parties certainly hope so. They are promising not just to overturn the Brussels establishment, but also to end the free movement of people, lift sanctions against Russia, abandon NATO, eschew future trade deals, reverse policies to combat climate change, and abolish gay marriage.

Many of these ideas have long been included in Euroskeptic fringe parties’ election programs. But a major survey of the EU’s 27 national political theaters, led by Susi Dennison and Pawel Zerka of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), that will be published next week, shows that voters could be more responsive to such proposals this year than in the past.

In the past, European elections have been predominantly national, low-turnout, and low-stakes affairs. But those days are over. The campaign season has already become a transnational, pan-European event. While the American populist agitator Steve Bannon is attempting to build a coalition of right-wing nationalist governments, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini have forged a populist alliance that marries the anti-austerity left with the anti-migration right. Orbán and Salvini’s goal is to capture EU institutions and reverse European integration from within. They envision nothing less than a re-founding of the West on illiberal values.

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