As Europeans head for elections to the European Parliament next month, expect even more confusion in the European Union’s disjointed policy towards Russia.
EU leaders continue to voice strong condemnation of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and efforts to destabilise eastern Ukraine.
But while the official statements may be strong — and some of the EU sanctions imposed on Moscow may actually bite — the 28-nation bloc remains divided over just how tough to get with the man behind Russia’s new assertive policies challenging Europe’s post-war era: President Vladimir Putin.
The mood is most sombre in Poland and the Baltic states which know what it was like to live under Moscow’s yoke. But significantly, Germany — the EU’s largest and most influential member state — remains cautious about alienating and isolating its big neighbour.
EU governments, given their dependence on Russian oil and gas, may dither on Putin but Europe’s increasingly popular Far Right parties have no such hesitation: almost without exception, across Europe, leaders of the different extremist groups are clearly enamoured with the Russian President and, according to reports, are enthusiastically eating out of his hands.
Links between the Kremlin and Europe’s far right have been highlighted by several media reports as well as by a recent study by the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute which keeps track of the support Putin has received throughout the Ukraine crisis from European political parties.
With far right parties expected to do well in the European Parliament elections on May 25, the Kremlin connection of some of the groups’ key leaders is causing disquiet.
Though there are nuances in their attitudes, most European far right leaders and groups are not only xenophobic, racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Islam, they also share a visceral aversion to the EU, its goals and values.
Most favour the nation-state and blame EU institutions in Brussels for the Euro crisis, Europe’s high rates of unemployment and a host of other evils. They also do not like the United States or globalization and prefer protectionism to free trade.
Their simple and passionate message seems to be winning hearts and minds across Europe. Over the years, instead of rejecting the far right rhetoric by developing a lucid counter-narrative, more and more mainstream European parties have also been talking tough on immigration and some EU policies.
When it comes to Russia, Europe’s hard-talking populists — like many right-wing politicians in the US — clearly see Putin as a hero and admire his strongman image. They also like his emphasis on Christian tradition, his opposition to homosexuality and the way he has brought vital economic sectors under state control.
Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, last week said Putin was the world leader he most admired. “Compared with the kids who run foreign policy in this country, I’ve more respect for him than our lot.” Russian media have widely reported his comment that the EU has “blood on its hands” by meddling in Ukraine.
Farage is not alone. The Italian National Front last year plastered posters around Rome bearing the slogan “I’m with Putin” over a portrait of the Russian leader in military cap.
The party’s leader Adriano Tilgher posted on Facebook: “Putin has said ‘no’ to the European Union... taken a courageous position against the gay lobby and the world financial centres who wanted a war in Syria.”
Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Front National in France (and much too-frequently referred to as the “blonde bombshell” by European media) regularly visits Moscow, clearly seeing no harm in courting and being courted by the Russian leader.
She recently travelled to Moscow to meet Sergey Naryshkin, speaker of the Russian parliament’s lower house who is a target of EU sanctions.
When it comes to the crisis in Ukraine, these parties echo the Kremlin’s line that it is the EU and the West, rather than Russia, which are provoking tension and fuelling violence in the country.
Le Pen for example has blamed the EU for declaring a new “cold war on Russia”.
Dutch Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders says “shameless Europhiles with their dreams of empire” are responsible for prompting the crisis with Russia.
Several far right politicians went to observe the Crimea referendum on re-joining Russia, a vote they said was free and fair although it was denounced as illegitimate by most Western leaders.
Among those that went were politicians from far-right or populist parties in Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France and Hungary.
Most analysts say the populist parties — notoriously unable to work with one another due to internal squabbling — are unlikely to hinder the legislative work of the European Parliament.
That may or may not be the case but their anti-EU stance and love-affair with the Kremlin does not bode well for those hoping for more clarity and determination in European attitudes towards Russia.
—The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.