Populist leaders meet in Warsaw to discuss European Union

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The French far-right party leader Marine Le Pen attends a press conference with reporters in Warsaw, Poland, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021. The leaders of right-wing populist parties met to discuss how they can work together to bring change to the European Union, which they accuse of acting like a super-state that is eroding the traditions and powers of the EU's 27 member nations. (AP Photo)

WARSAW – The leaders of right-wing populist parties gathered Saturday in Warsaw to discuss how they can work together to bring change to the European Union, which they accuse of acting like a super-state that is eroding the traditions and powers of the EU's 27 member nations.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Poland’s nationalist ruling party, opened the meeting, which also was attended by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, French far-right leader Marine Le Pen and the leader of Spain's Vox party, Santiago Abascal.

The event, described as a summit, follows a visit by Le Pen to Budapest in October that was part of an effort by her and Orban to consolidate the European right. Kaczynski said Saturday's meeting was intended to find common ground and to increase cooperation at the EU level, though he acknowledged it would not be easy.

The populist parties have been exploring the possibility of forming an alliance in the European Parliament. According to Hungarian news agency MTI, Orban expressed hope the meeting would mark a significant step toward that goal.

Both the Polish and Hungarian governments remain locked in a bitter standoff with the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, which is withholding funds to both countries over democratic backsliding. Warsaw and Budapest argue the commission is taking a step that never was laid out in any EU treaties and which therefore defies EU law.

Wojciech Przybylski, editor in chief of Visegrad Insight, a policy journal focused on Central Europe, said there is a paradox in a “transnational meeting of nationalist parties.” He thinks the event was organized so the party leaders can show their voters “they are not alone.”

Both the Hungarian and Polish ruling parties, he noted, are “in deep trouble," with Orban’s Fidesz party forced to leave the main grouping of conservatives at the European Parliament, and Poland’s governing populists seeing a drop in popularity at home.

“This is essentially a PR stunt," Przybylski said.

The Poles' welcome of Le Pen marks a recent change of heart for Poland’s governing conservatives. The ruling Law and Justice party had long refused to cooperate with the French presidential candidate due to her warm relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin — a turnoff in a country long dominated by Russian and Soviet rule.

“We have as much in common with Ms. Le Pen as with Mr. Putin," Kaczynski remarked in 2017.

But Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki met with Le Pen in Brussels in October and hosted her for a dinner in Warsaw on Friday evening.

In a tweet, Le Pen posted a photo of herself with Morawiecki and thanked him for his welcome. She said they share a wish for "a Europe of nations to give back to the peoples of Europe their freedom and their sovereignty.”

As Saturday's meeting opened in a hotel, a small group of protesters outside blew whistles and yelled accusations that the leaders were extremists serving the interests of the Kremlin. The demonstrators held signs saying “Russian pact,” and chanted, “Warsaw free from fascism!”

A Law and Justice spokesman, Radoslaw Fogiel, acknowledged that the parties don’t agree on everything. He argued that the most pro-Russia project in Europe, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, is not the work of Le Pen but of outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, according to remarks quoted by TVN24.

Sixteen European populist parties issued a joint ideological statement in July objecting to the EU’s current direction. Among the signatories were Kaczynski’s Law and Justice, Orban’s Fidesz, Le Pen’s National Rally, Austria’s Freedom Party and Spain’s Vox.