Mar 19, 2014 | 15:59 GMT

6 mins read

European Nationalist Parties Respond to the Ukraine Crisis

European Nationalist Parties Respond to the Ukraine Crisis

The European Union has responded to the Ukraine crisis by applying some sanctions on Russia, but some European nationalist parties look at the efforts of Russians in Crimea and see a struggle for self-determination not so different from their own. These parties are not necessarily pro-Russian, but they view good relations with Moscow as a counterweight to the European Union at a time when the union is politically fragmented and Russia is becoming more assertive.

Some of these parties are also developing ties with one another ahead of European Parliament elections in May. Political and ideological differences will limit their ability to form a cohesive bloc in the EU Parliament, but their rising popularity will force mainstream parties to adopt some of their views and to make some compromises at the EU level.

Some of Europe's main nationalist parties have received the Crimean referendum positively. While Brussels denied the legitimacy of the vote, the foreign affairs spokesman of the Danish People's Party said the decision to join Russia should be respected, and Bulgaria's Ataka party urged Sofia to recognize the result. In early March, the leader of France's National Front, Marine Le Pen, expressed concern about the unelected government in Ukraine, which she accused of being illegitimate and of having "extremist" members.

This pattern goes back since before the events in Crimea. In January, the leader of Slovakia's far-right People Party-Our Slovakia, Marian Kotleba, sent a letter to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich urging him not to give in to the Maidan protesters. Even before that, in May of last year, the leader of Hungary's Jobbik party, Gabor Vona, visited Moscow and met with several lawmakers.

Seeking Balance

Most of these parties look at closer ties with Russia as a way to counter the European Union and United States. A key element of the European nationalist parties' agenda is their criticism of Brussels. Some call for a freezing or reversal of the process of continental integration, while others want the complete abolishment of the union. Closer Russian ties also serve to counter U.S. influence, a desirable effect for the parties that believe their countries should leave NATO.

Since none of these parties are in power, their pro-Russian gestures are mostly rhetorical and have little effect on their countries' foreign policy. Nationalist parties have seen their popularity climb during the European crisis, however, so Russia is interested in developing closer relations with them. According to the Hungarian think tank Political Capital, Moscow provides professional and organizational assistance to some of the parties, including access to networks and political expertise. Russia's goal is not only to develop stronger bilateral ties but also for the nationalist parties to network with one another.

Despite these initiatives, the European nationalist parties for the most part are not simply pro-Russian. In fact, several of the parties declined an invitation from a nongovernmental organization close to the Kremlin to send observers to the Crimean referendum. But at a time when the eurozone crisis is leading to deeper political fragmentation in Europe and Russia is becoming more assertive, the nationalist groups believe their governments should keep their options open and develop more balanced foreign policies. For some parties, deeper economic and political links with Russia — though not total alignment — are a strategic necessity in the current environment.

Before the Ukraine crisis, some nationalist parties were also developing ties with the Ukrainian far right. In March 2013, a member of Ukraine's Svoboda party participated in a conference organized by the right-wing Party of the Swedes in Stockholm, where a member of Germany's National Democratic Party was a speaker. Svoboda and the National Democratic Party then met in Germany in May 2013 to discuss closer cooperation.

Now that the crisis has emerged between Russia and Ukraine, however, many of the nationalist groups have had to pull back. For example, the National Democratic Party is internally split because supporting Russia means undermining the Ukrainian nationalists. The party has been silent on Russia's moves in Crimea, and its Bavarian regional faction recently criticized the West for its sanctions against Russia. In its program for the European Parliament elections, the National Democratic Party applauds Russian President Vladimir Putin for opposing multiculturalism in Russia and calls for stronger economic collaboration with Moscow.

Larger nationalist parties such as France's National Front have also recently reduced their ties with Svoboda as they try to clean up their image and become more acceptable for a broader voting base. The Ukrainian nationalist party is now mostly reliant on smaller, more extremist parties for international cooperation.

Moving the Mainstream

Meanwhile, the European nationalist parties are seeking closer ties with each other. In recent months the National Front and the Dutch Party of Freedom agreed to join forces after the EU Parliament elections. Smaller parties, such as Italy's Northern League, Belgium's Flemish Interest and the Sweden Democrats, could join them.

Since most of the parties are expected to perform well in the vote, they will be able to form a relatively large group in the EU Parliament, yet they are far from homogenous. While most of them have a negative view of the European Union, there is little else that they agree on. Some even think that campaigning alongside foreign (and controversial) parties could hurt them domestically. Some Euroskeptical parties, such as the U.K. Independence Party, have also already said they will not join any coalitions with the nationalists. Finally, some of the parties are considered too extreme, including Hungary's Jobbik and Greece's Golden Dawn, and will be excluded from any coalition.

As a result, the nationalists will have strong representation but probably will not be cohesive enough to take full control. However, mainstream groups on the center-left and center-right will still be forced to form an alliance to prevent the Euroskeptics from blocking legislation. This will make an already complex decision-making process at the EU level even more cumbersome.

The growing popularity of nationalist parties will also have domestic repercussions. As Euroskepticism becomes more popular, moderate parties are having to adopt elements of the nationalists' agenda. The recent increase in anti-EU rhetoric from London is explained in part by the rise of the U.K. Independence Party in opinion polls. Similarly, anti-immigration attitudes in the French government and opposition come largely in response to the rise of the National Front.

The nationalist parties have much less of an effect on their governments' relations with Russia. Trade, energy and political obstacles still factor heavily into EU countries' ties with Moscow. Before the Ukraine crisis, however, some Central European countries were reconsidering their strategic position within the Continent. To various degrees, countries such as Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia were seriously assessing the benefits of closer economic and political ties with Russia.

Moving closer to Russia does not mean breaking away from the European Union and NATO, but the changing geopolitical environment is making Russian relations no longer taboo in these former communist countries. Events in Ukraine will probably cool relations between these countries and Moscow in the short term, but growing competition between Russia and the West over Central Europe will define the coming years. European nationalist parties will play a role in this competition.

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