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Ukraine’s fresh existential threat – from the polling booths of the European Parliament elections. The Telegraph

Ukraine’s fresh existential threat – from the polling booths of the European Parliament elections. The Telegraph
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Sunday, 31 March, 2024, 23:24

Ukraine is facing a fresh existential threat this summer – not from Russia, but from Europe.

A small but significant and highly vocal bloc of hard-Right parties are on the march across the Continent and are set to perform strongly in June’s European Parliament elections.

They have posted record results in Portugal and the Netherlands or are already in government in places such as Hungary, Finland and Italy. They are poised to win looming national elections in Austria and Belgium or win European elections in France and Poland.

And many of them think Europe should no longer supply weapons and aid to Ukraine.

Some even want Europe to appease Vladimir Putin, end sanctions against Russia and push Ukraine into peace talks.

‘Really, really worried’
On their own, parties such as the German Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), Hungary’s Fidesz and the Freedom Party of Austria have little geopolitical heft, but together they can wield vetoes on EU foreign policy decisions.

Some experts suggest they could form the third-largest bloc of parties in Brussels and Strasbourg, the two seats of the European Parliament.

Ukrainians have a number of reasons to feel “really, really worried”, Kira Rudik, the MP and leader of the liberal opposition Holos party, told The Telegraph.

She claimed some of the parties may have received financial backing from the Kremlin or been targeted by Moscow to undermine the narrative of unified European support for Kyiv.

‘Endless flow of American treasure’
At the top of the pro-Kremlin pack is Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister.

The long-serving conservative leader was one of the few in Europe to congratulate Putin for his recent election – despite it widely being decried as a sham. He also signed an energy deal with Moscow after the invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Even more worryingly for Kyiv and those who back it, Mr Orban has built a strong alliance with Donald Trump, the Republican presidential front-runner.

Mr Trump has threatened to halt what he calls the “endless flow of American treasure” to Ukraine if he wins the White House in November.

Some in Europe dismiss that as bravado.

Game-changing
“Donald Trump is known for his expressiveness and controversial statements, but this is his way of doing politics,” Mateusz Błaszczak, the chairman of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, told The Telegraph.

“As president, however, he has proven that he takes US commitments to both Nato and Europe seriously.”

As Ukraine’s biggest weapons donor, even with $60 billion (£47.5 billion) of military aid frozen in Congress, the end of the US’s support would be game-changing.

To replace it, Europe would have to double its current level and pace of arms assistance, the Kiel Institute in Germany said.

But Europe’s aid to Ukraine is technically even bigger – and many on the hard Right want to put a stop to it.

Not ‘one more penny’ to Ukraine
The EU as a whole has outstripped the US on aid, although only €77 billion (£66 billion) of the €144 billion (£123 billion) committed has been allocated and most of that is financial, rather than military.

Mr Orban agrees with Mr Trump. After a recent dinner with the US politician at his Mar-a-Lago residence, he declared he would not send “one more penny” to Ukraine.

He is now inspiring other European leaders to take a similar stance.

Herbert Kickl, the leader of the far-Right Freedom Party of Austria, describes Hungary as his “model”.

If he becomes chancellor in elections this autumn, he has vowed to veto EU funding for Ukraine, any moves to let Kyiv join the EU and “harmful” sanctions against Russia once in place.

Mr Kickl has been leading the polls since 2022. His party is also predicted to win in the European elections.

Eurosceptic parties set to fare well
Similarly, last weekend saw a boost for the ruling Russian-leaning camp in Slovakia, whose prime minister, Robert Fico, has questioned Ukraine’s sovereignty and called for peace with Putin.

Slovakia was the first country to send Mig fighter jets to Ukraine but, rocked by a cost-of-living crisis, elected Mr Fico as prime minister last year on a promise to end military aid to Kyiv.

His agenda may soon be bolstered by his ally Peter Pellegrini, who is competing in a presidential run-off next month after winning 37 per cent of the first-round votes last weekend.

Polls predict that Eurosceptic parties will win the European Parliament elections in nine EU member states: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Slovakia.

They are expected to score second- or third-place finishes in a further nine countries: Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Portugal, Romania, Spain and Sweden.

‘Our opponents want to destroy Europe’
The expected success of the hard Right has raised speculation that Ursula von der Leyen’s centre-Right European People’s Party could be tempted to forge a broad conservative coalition with more moderate parties to shut the Left out of power.

The European Commission president draws a direct parallel between the Euroscepticism popular on the hard Right and its support for Putin.

“We must be clear that our opponents, Putin and his friends, whether they are from the AfD, or whether it’s Marine Le Pen or [Geert] Wilders or other extremist forces… want to destroy Europe,” she said last month.

Both Ms Le Pen, the French National Rally figurehead, and Mr Wilders, the Dutch Party for Freedom leader, have officially distanced themselves from Putin in the wake of the Ukraine invasion in 2022.

Yet many believe their former pro-Moscow sympathies still linger, particularly given their calls to stop aid to Ukraine.

‘Terrible dictator’
After his shock landslide win in Dutch elections last November, Mr Wilders called Putin a “terrible dictator” but he has not changed his opposition to sending weapons to Ukraine, even as coalition talks continue.

Ms Le Pen has strongly condemned Russian aggression since the war began.

But the National Rally abstained from a recent resolution supporting a French-Ukrainian security agreement and has opposed Ukraine joining the EU and sending Kyiv long-range missiles.

A leaked report last year found the party has served as a “communication channel” for Russian power, with Ms Le Pen’s statements on the annexation of Crimea echoing “word for word the official language of Putin’s regime”.

As a result, Emmanuel Macron’s allies have branded her, and Jordan Bardella, her lead candidate in the European elections, Putin’s “foot soldiers”.

Ambiguity around Putin
The kind of ambiguity around Putin peddled by Mr Wilders and Ms Le Pen can be heard throughout Europe.

Matteo Salvini, the deputy prime minister of Italy and leader of the hard-Right League, couldn’t resist observing that “when people vote, they are always right” after the Russian president won his latest election two weeks ago – with almost 88 per cent of the vote.

Tom Van Grieken, the youthful leader of Vlaams Belang, may well be the next prime minister of Belgium.

Less than three months before Belgium’s general election, his party is at the top of the polls, while the more traditional Christian Democrats are polling at a record low. Belgium votes in the European Parliament elections on the same day in June.

Members of his party are known to have developed close ties to the Kremlin since 2010 and Mr Van Grieken once said of the Russian leader: “Putin is not black or white, but 50 shades of grey.”

Now, however, he admits he and many of his Right-wing compatriots were wrong about the Russian leader.

‘He’s an imperialist’
“Putin is a real b—--- invading another sovereign country. He really did something terrible,” he said.

“He’s not a patriot, he’s an imperialist.”

Yet Mr Van Grieken still believes Belgium and other Western nations should halt arms shipments to Ukraine in order to end the bloodshed.

The only thing stopping the situation being critical for Ukraine is the fact that those views are not echoed throughout Europe’s hard Right.

Voters for Poland’s Law and Justice party (58 per cent) and the Sweden Democrats (52 per cent) were supportive of EU backing for Ukraine, according to a European Council on Foreign Relations report this week.

Backers of Chega, now Portugal’s third-largest political force after elections this year, and Spain’s Vox were moderately in favour.

At the other end of the spectrum, supporters of Hungary’s Fidesz (88 per cent), the Freedom Party of Austria (70 per cent) and the AfD (69 per cent) believed Europe should push Kyiv towards a negotiated settlement with Putin.

‘The Left has no proper answers’
For Maximilian Krah, the lead European elections candidate for Germany’s AfD, this split is getting in the way of a major shift in European politics.

The AfD has grown in popularity despite accusations of being a neo-Nazi party, which it denies.

It is currently outperforming all three parties in Germany’s coalition government in the polls and predicted to come second behind the centre-Right Christian Democratic Union in the European elections.

Mr Krah claims that traditional conservative parties are now adopting critical views of immigration and net zero championed by parties such as his.

“The Left is losing because it has no proper answers to the challenges of our time,” he said.

“The climate voodoo destroys the welfare of the middle class and immigration destroys Europe culturally and demographically.”

‘Foreign policy is dividing us’
However, the issue of Ukraine stands in the way of a broader Right-wing coalition.

Mr Krah added: “There is one major topic that is dividing us and this is foreign policy.

“You have the very much pro-transatlantic, anti-Russian approach with the Right that would like to be in Ukraine and is preparing a war in Taiwan.

“On the other hand, you have parties like AfD, which believes that the Western dominance of the world is over, that the future will be much more shaped by the Global South, and that it’s time to rethink foreign policy. It is the only issue that divides us.”

Rise of the Right
Those on the Right hope that such differences can be put aside to form a super bloc that can advance an agenda they feel is long overdue.

“Consolidation and the formation of alliances of European conservatives are essential to stopping harmful changes in the European Union,” Mr Błaszczak, Poland’s PiS chairman, said.

Mr Bardella, the head of National Rally and lead candidate in the European elections, echoed that view.

He told The Telegraph that Europe had changed with the rise of the Right.

“We have the opportunity to create this blocking minority in the European Parliament,” he said. “The cards are completely reshuffled.”