Europe heads to the polls: right-wing networks form along family policy issues

Right-wing populists are trying to restructure Europe. The common starting point is family policy.

The European elections were long regarded as second-class elections of little political significance. 2019 has seen this image has been transformed: Party systems across Europe have changed; populist and radical right-wing parties have found their way into parliaments and their share of the popular vote has grown. The formation of new right-wing groups and networks is probably one of the most significant factors influencing culture, politics and society today and in the recent past. The sociologist and cultural scientist, Andreas Reckwitz, distinguishes between four forms of this cultural essentialism and cultural communitarianism: ethnic communities, cultural nationalism, fundamentalism, and right-wing populism. In late modernity, these groups, according to Reckwitz, found themselves in a cultural class struggle with the new middle class, which had emerged primarily through the expansion of education and represented left-wing liberal values. Reckwitz added that at the heart of the debate would be the valorization of culture – what is and is not of importance when it comes to the diverse range of cultural goods on offer? And, above all, who determines what is valuable and what is not?

In many places, the question of who has the status as opinion leaders is the subject of negotiation and contention: whether in terms of organic, local and vegan food, as part of the fair-trade economy, whether sustainable innovation management and post-growth approaches, or in terms of identity politics between gender debates, LGTBQ+ and post-colonial approaches to concepts such as People of Colour and Critical Whiteness. From a policymaking perspective, family policy in particular is heavily shaped and impacted by cultural essentials* and the cultural communitarians*. One such example is the World Congress of Families [WCF] – an American evangelical network founded in 1997 that sees itself as a bulwark against same-sex marriage, pornography and abortion.

World Congress of Family: global pro-family movement in Verona

The network operates globally and seeks to influence the legislative bodies in various countries. To date, congresses have taken place in Prague, Geneva, Mexico City, Warsaw, Amsterdam, Madrid, Sydney, Salt Lake City, Tbilisi, Budapest and Chisinau/Kishinev, among other cities. Even though the 2014 conference scheduled to take place in Moscow was cancelled, the influence exerted by the network in Russia is clearly in line with the Southern Poverty Law Center [SPLC]. By way of example, the SPLC lists Yelena Mizulina as a member of the WCF Moscow planning committee, a Russian member of parliament who was, not least of all, instrumental in the Duma passing Russia’s so-called “gay propaganda” law in 2013, which, ‘for the purpose of protecting children’, makes it a crime to propagate non-traditional sexual relations. Another person cited as a member of the same planning committee by the SPLC is Vladimir Yakunin, CEO of Russia’s state-run railway company. Mizulina and Yakunin are both part of the WCF network, and also on the USA’s sanctions lists, which were adopted in the course of the Ukraine conflict.

The XIII Congress that took place in March, was the most important global event involving religious right-wing groups and individuals as well as conservative antifeminists*, the global spearhead for advocates* of "traditional marriage and family". The invited guests range from politicians* from France’s Rassemblement National, as the Front National is now called, to Orbáns Fidesz party, and the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani. The fact that the World Congress for Families has been being held under the patronage of the Italian government is no coincidence two months before the European elections in May. Matteo Salvini, the country’s Interior Minister and Federal Secretary of Lega, wants to create a European alliance "Lega de Legas" in order to unite all EU-sceptical, national-conservative and right-wing populist movements in Europe and close the EU’s borders. It is a declaration of war on the existing order within the Union. Matteo Salvini’s and Luigi DiMaio’s plans for Europe take a two-pronged approach: strengthen MEPs in the right-wing camp in the European Parliament, the European National Front group, and unite a new anti-gender movement comprising right-wing populists* and Christian fundamentalists* and make it the largest group in the EP. Recent frictions between the Italian and French governments are probably not insignificant for this recents developments.The European elections are thus deepening into a challenge to the EU's political system. The informal grand coalition between the Christian Democratic conservative EPP and the Social Democrats (S&D), which traditionally dominates the EU, must, for the first time, fear for its majority in the EP. For the 2019 European elections, the previously fragmented EU-critical camp has set itself the goal of forming a large right-wing populist group totaling up to a third of all MEPs. With Brexit looming, the 19 British MEPs will disappear and the second pillar of the EFDD, the 14 MEPs of the Five Star Movement, hope to grow their share of seats in the EP, giving them greater freedom to act.

Re-traditionalisation of family policy

In Italy, this desired majority was, for the most part, obtained at the Italian parliamentary elections held in March 2018. Since June 2018, the right-wing extremist and EU-critical Lega, led by Matteo Salvini, has formed a government coalition with the populist Five Star Movement. The coalition’s agenda includes a restrictive immigration and asylum policy, the strengthening of "traditional moral" values through legislation (e.g. constitutional protection of traditional marriage and family ideas) as well as a Christian identity policy, seeking to restrict abortion rights.

This anti-feminist declaration of war is already being translated into Italy’s national family policy by the country’s right-wing conservative and arch-catholic Family Minister and former MEP, Lorenzo Fontana. Shortly after being sworn in, he stated in a newspaper interview that, in his opinion, "rainbow families" did not exist under Italian law, even though a civil partnership act was signed into law in Italy in 2016. His Lega party blames elites, ideologies and the forces of the globalized economy for the destruction of the family and the nation. At the very core of the governing coalition’s agenda is the construction of an appropriate gender order, the defence of the traditional family as the basic unit of society, and the preservation of patriotic values. The World Congress for Families in Verona, a Catholic city with a right-wing conservative mayor and member of the Forza Italia party, Federico Sboarina, and a recurring conference venue for the radical right-wing, neo-fascist Forza Nouva, is now intended to become the backdrop for a closing of the ranks between the right-wing extremist Lega and Christian fundamentalist groups. As an avowed anti-abortionist and critic of same-sex partnerships and LSBTIQ rights, Fontana does not see the gathering of Christian fundamentalists* at the World Family Congress in Verona as disturbing but as an opportunity for the right-wing populists to strengthen their alliances with Christian fundamentalists*/traditionalists*. To establish new platforms for the propagation of their anti-Europe campaign "The Europeanists against the True Europeans”. The aim of the Congress is to use the so-called 'protection of life' to bind Christian fundamentalist groups to the invited parties in order to mobilize a broad constituency of supporters and voters for the European elections. In an interview given to the newspaper Corriere della Sera, Fontana stated that the aim was to prepare "common manifesto points for the EU elections". Fontana is also responsible for the party's alliances with the Russian government, with right-wing extremist or neo-fascist groups in Europe, and with the European parties forming the "Movement for a Europe of Nations and Freedom".

A collective movement would even have a chance of forming the largest group in the European Parliament. Strengthening Eurosceptic parties would have a significant impact on policy-making in the EU over the next five years. For the time being, no agreement is in place at the supranational level between anti-European and nationalist parties to establish a united movement in the EP, as has been advocated by former Trump adviser, Steve Bannon, and Matteo Salvini, Federal Secretary of Italy’s Lega party. That being said, any strengthening of their role in the formulation of the national policies of individual member states could potentially lead to an even tighter closing of the ranks among populist parties, making the EP more complex, complicate voting and decision-making processes and thus result in further tensions and disputes in an increasingly divided EU. It remains to be seen, however, whether and in what constellation the right-wing and right-wing populist parties across the EU-sceptical spectrum will band together in the EP and be represented as empowered actors.