Europe’s most prominent rightwing politicians came together in a rare show of unity in the German city of Koblenz, predicting that the same forces unleashed by US President Donald Trump would sweep them to power throughout western Europe in an insurrectionary “patriotic spring”.
Speaking just hours after Mr Trump was inaugurated in Washington, party leaders said Europe was about to experience the same kind of political earthquake that had rocked the US at last November’s election and the UK when voters chose Brexit.
“We are experiencing the end of one world and the birth of a new one, full of hope,” National Front leader Marine Le Pen told ecstatic crowds gathered in Koblenz’s main conference centre. “2016 was a year when the Anglo-Saxon world awoke, and 2017 I’m sure is the year when the European continent will also awake.”
“Yesterday a new America, today Koblenz and tomorrow a new Europe,” said Geert Wilders, head of the Party of Freedom (PVV). “The patriots are winning. The time for change has come.”
The meeting highlighted the new confidence of a far-right movement that has capitalised on growing public disenchantment with the EU, anger at the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees into Europe over the past two years and fears about security after a spate of attacks by Islamist terrorists. .
Elections in France, the Netherlands and Germany this year are expected to show increasing support for populist parties. Ms Le Pen is predicted to reach the second round of France’s presidential election, Mr Wilders’ PVV should emerge as the largest party in the Dutch parliament after polls on March 15, and the Alternative for Germany (AFD) is forecast to win seats in the Bundestag this September for the first time since it was founded in 2013.
Most of the audience in Koblenz was made up of local AFD delegates, who gave Ms Le Pen, Mr Wilders and their party leader Frauke Petry a rapturous reception. Many of them broke into chants of “Merkel must go” whenever Angela Merkel — whose liberal refugee policy has made a hate figure on the right — was mentioned.
But Koblenz also saw a counterdemonstration organised by a coalition of unions, political parties and church organisations. “You are not welcome here with your ideology,” Dietmar Muscheid, a local union leader said, referring to the delegates gathered in Koblenz’s main conference centre.
“All these parties are bad for their individual countries, but when they come together on a European level they’re even more dangerous,” said Reinhard Bach, a museum worker who had come to protest the rightwingers’ gathering.
The politicians converging on Koblenz are united by their desire to ditch the euro, restore national control of borders and retrieve powers from Brussels, and such public appearances project to their supporters that they are part of a wider movement that is gaining ever more momentum, both in Europe and the US. Saturday’s meeting reverberated with fiery attacks on free trade, open borders and EU institutions, as well as warnings about the dangers of radical Islam and Trump-esque denunciations of political correctness.
“We all want to revive the idea that existed for decades of a Europe of fatherlands, where we practice politics together but are not subject to the dictates of Brussels and Strasburg,” said Ms Petry.
Delegates welcomed the idea of a coalition of “patriotic” forces. “We want to signal that we’re not “evil nationalists” and can work other European parties,” said Andreas Lichert, a local delegate from Hessen in central Germany, speaking on the fringes of the meeting. “We need a change of course in the EU and to achieve that we need allies.
However, many are sceptical they can really form a lasting alliance. Elmar Brok, chairman of the EU Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said leaders like Le Pen and Wilders “have nothing in common but their nationalism and hatred of Europe and liberal democracy”. He said if they ever succeeded in destroying Europe, “they’ll be back at each others’ throats again”.
Indeed the meeting in Koblenz has already proved to be a bone of contention in the AFD. It was organised by Marcus Pretzell, Ms Petry’s husband, in his capacity as a member of Europe of Nations and Freedom, the main rightwing grouping in the European Parliament. But senior figures in the AFD distanced themselves from the event. Georg Pazderski, the party’s boss in Berlin, said the Koblenz congress “sends the wrong domestic political signal”.
AFD leaders have in the past been critical of the National Front, saying its economic policy is too “socialist”. But such objections have become less significant over the past two years as the AFD responded to the refugee crisis by shifting decisively to the right, adopting a strongly anti-immigration, anti-Islam agenda and playing down its economically liberal principles.
Still, experts say the parties will struggle to overcome their differences. “They’re trying to convey the idea that this is their time, that they will achieve what the Brits and Americans did last year,” says Kai Arzheimer, a politics professor at the University of Mainz. “But each of these parties is really mostly focused on its national interests. There really isn’t much cross-border solidarity between them.”