Written by Gabriele Bertani
Over 200 days into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine an important rift is emerging among some of the most important far-right parties of the European Union. On the one hand, some radical right-wing parties are harsh critics of Putin’s war, or at least they are quietly supporting the adoption of sanctions against Moscow, and the economic, military, and humanitarian assistance funnelled by the West to Kyiv. On the other hand, other parties on the extreme right of the political spectrum are questioning the impact of sanctions against Russia, calling for a rethink of the penalties, or slowing the process of adopting new ones. The split involves parties in government and opposition, from Western and Eastern Europe, and could impair future cooperation between them at the European and national level.
Historically, many European far-right parties have been ideologically and politically close to Putin’s regime (Futàk-Campbell, 2020). After the war in Ukraine began on February 24, virtually all of them condemned it (Taylor, 2022), though in subsequent months, some continued to maintain a hard position against Putin’s deeds, while others blunted their criticism. One of the fiercest critics of Putin among the far-right parties has been Law and Justice (PiS), Poland’s governing party, which has been historically opposed to Russia due to the long history of conflicts between the two nations (Kalan, 2018). Hence, the Polish government has been at the forefront of the efforts to impose harsher sanctions on Putin since the invasion started. Moreover, Poland has become a precious logistical hub to provide Ukraine with humanitarian assistance and weapons needed to fend off Russia’s aggression, while sheltering millions of refugees fleeing neighbouring Ukraine (Cienski, 2022).
Law and Justice’s hard stance against Russia is nothing new. Indeed, Poland in recent years has often voiced concerns about Russia’s aggressive behaviours, while calling for NATO allies to position more troops in Poland (Al Jazeera, 2020). Since 2017, Poland has been home to one of the four NATO rotational, multinational, battalion-size battlegroups that are based in Eastern Europe to deter Russia from attacking NATO countries close to its border. In 2018, Warsaw also proposed to then US President Donald Trump to establish a permanent US military presence in Poland which would have been stationed in a new ‘Fort Trump’ (Sheftalovich, 2018). Following the Russian attack on Ukraine, NATO allies decided at the Madrid 2022 summit to strengthen the existing battlegroups and create four new ones (NATO, 2022).
Yet, there are other parties that have historically been cosy with Putin but have performed a u-turn following the invasion of Ukraine and are now supporting sanctions against Russia and military assistance to Ukraine. One of them is Brothers of Italy, the leading party in Italy’s recent general election. Giorgia Meloni, the party’s leader, celebrated the Russian president’s election in 2018 (Roberts & Leali, 2022). However, more recently she has been supporting the pro-Western line of the Italian government led by Mario Draghi, despite being in opposition at the time, in an attempt to present her party as more moderate and credible to international observers (Roberts & Leali, 2022).
Another far-right party which has expressed fierce support for Ukraine is the Spanish Vox party. After the war began, the party supported the shipment of weapons to Ukraine by the Spanish government, while coming up in favour of hosting Ukrainian refugees (Europapress, 2022). Finally, the Sweden Democrats, the Swedish far-right party that came second in Sweden’s general elections in September, have abandoned their historical opposition to NATO in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (Reuters, 2022) and since 2019, as part of the efforts to present itself as more mainstream, have one of the most assertive voting records on Russia in the European parliament (VoteWatch Europe, 2022).
Soft on Russia
Conversely, there are other European far-right parties that, after having formally condemned the aggression by Russia in the first months of the invasion, are now pursuing more ambiguous policies, such as questioning the real impact of Western sanctions against Russia or disrupting the approval of new ones. Chief among them is Fidesz, the party of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban. At the onset of the war, Orban condemned Putin and backed the first rounds of EU’s sanctions against Russia. However, unlike many other European countries, Hungary has not supported Ukraine with weapons, not even allowing for the transit of weapon supplies for Ukraine sent from other countries within its borders. Moreover, Budapest blocked the EU’s sixth sanctions package for around a month until it obtained exemptions for itself on the ban of Russian oil (Rankin, 2022), while in the spring, Orban quarrelled with Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian President, who criticised the Hungarian government for its lukewarm support of Ukraine (Bayer, 2022).
More recently, at the end of August, Hungary signed a deal for more gas supplies from Russia, on which it is already highly dependent, despite Russia being engaged in a war on EU energy and economy, according to the words of the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen (Preussen, 2022). A week later, Hungary tried to remove three Russian oligarchs from a list of individuals sanctioned by the EU since the outbreak of the war which had to be approved for renewal by September 15. In the end, Hungary backtracked on the request but the move shows the difficulties the EU will incur if, in the future, it tries to approve new sanction packages (Moens & Barigazzi, 2022).
Another party with an equivocal stance on the question is the Italian League, led by Matteo Salvini, which in 2017 signed a cooperation agreement with Putin’s party, United Russia (The Russia Times, 2017). While the party condemned Russia’s invasion, in spring Salvini criticised the delivery of weapons to Kyiv, arguing in favour of diplomacy to resolve the war (ANSA, 2022). Moreover, he spoke out against Sweden and Finland’s request to join NATO, arguing that the move would only inflame tensions with Moscow, though in the end, the League’s MPs voted in favour of the countries’ request when the ratification bill passed through Italian parliament (Grassano, 2022). More recently Salvini questioned the effectiveness of Western sanctions against Russia, saying that the penalties are not working and harm Italy more than Russia (Roberts, 2022), a position similar to the one expressed by Putin himself (Euractiv, 2022).
The French Rassemblement National and the German Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) have a similarly ambivalent stance. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Rassemblement National, is a long-time admirer of Putin and in her defense programme for the 2022 French presidential election, Russia was mentioned as an important future partner on some essential topics, like European security and the struggle against terrorism. She also supports withdrawing France from NATO’s military command structure, from which France had already withdrawn between 1966 and 2009 under both mainstream centre-right and centre-left governments. Moreover, Le Pen has criticised the EU’s sanctions and has opposed sending heavy weaponry to Ukraine because this would make France a co-belligerent (Sandford, 2022). Similarly, the AfD, despite being internally divided over how critical to be towards Russia (Deutsche Welle, 2022), has criticised the European sanctions and the deliveries of arms by the German government, calling instead for a broad-based diplomatic initiative to end the war (AfD Kompakt, 2022).
Future cooperation in jeopardy?
The differences among these parties can be partially traced back via their memberships to two different groups at the European Parliament, with the four parties’ critical of Putin being members of the European Conservative and Reformist (ECR) group, while the others, with the exception of Fidesz, are members of the Identity and Democracy (ID) group. ECR was founded in June 2009 in the wake of the 2009 European Parliament elections by the British Conservative Party with the Polish Law and Justice and others. The Conservative Party worked to form this group after having left the European People’s Party (EPP) group because it was too pro-Europe while the Tories were opposed to further European integration. Thus, the ECR has its roots in a soft euroscepticism, while being historically in favour of NATO and strong transatlantic ties. ID was founded following the 2019 European Parliament elections by several hard Eurosceptics, far-right parties including the League, AfD, and the Rassemblement National. Fidesz, for its part, was a member of the EPP until 2021, when it left the group just before being suspended over disagreements about the state of the rule of law in Hungary (Brzozowski & Makszimov, 2021), and now its MEPs are among the non-attached members.
This rift between European far-right parties could have serious consequences for future cooperation among them, both at the European and national level. First, the divergent stances adopted by Fidesz and the PiS party threaten to undermine the alliance between Budapest and Warsaw (Przybylski, 2022). So far, Hungary and Poland have backed each other in their respective tussles with Brussels over rule of law matters, as the two governments are ideologically close on several domestic policies. Yet, for Poland, the Hungarian stance is a delusion that could prevent future cooperation, given that Russia is seen by Poland as the greatest threat to its national security (Przybylski, 2022). Indeed, in late March, Poland, together with Slovakia and the Czech Republic, called off a planned meeting of defence ministers of the Visegrad 4 countries, a group composed of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, to express disappointment over the Hungarian position on the war (Jack, 2022). Similarly, a few days later, PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski harshly criticised Orban for his inability to condemn Russia for war atrocities committed in Ukraine (Scislowska, 2022). Secondly, the difference on the subject between the two Italian far-right parties, the Brothers of Italy and the League, could upset cooperation between them at the domestic level in Italy, where they are members of the same right-wing coalition that triumphed at the recent election. Hence, this topic could spark controversies in the new Italian government they formed recently.
Finally, the lack of consensus on what kind of position to adopt toward Russia could prevent the European far-right parties from further cooperation in the European Parliament. Indeed, at least since Fidesz has left the EPP, there have been several talks about plans and attempts to unite European far-right parties in a common group in the European Parliament to increase their relevance in the chamber, effectively merging the ECR and ID groups. Far-right leaders met several times in recent years to adopt a joint declaration bashing the EU and promising increased cooperation in Strasbourg (De La Baume, 2021). Yet, with the distrust due to divergences on the level of assertiveness to adopt towards Russia growing among some of the most important far-right parties of the bloc, such as between Fidesz and PiS, it is difficult to envisage the creation of this alliance in the foreseeable future.
Hence, the European far-right, despite being often united in its opposition against the EU institutions, is starkly divided on a topic crucial for the security of the whole EU. This split, partly traceable to far-right parties’ membership in different European Parliament groups, could have important ramifications on their ability to cooperate in the next years, both at the domestic and European level. Regarding the former, this could spell trouble for the stability of the right-wing coalition that governs Italy. On the latter, it could foresee a weakening of the Hungarian-Poland alliance and less-than-expected cooperation at the European Parliament between far-right parties.