Populist leaders like Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini are frequently portrayed as dedicated to the destruction of the European Union.
With harsh words for Brussels and displays of affection for illiberal leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump, they are perceived as being entirely focused on clawing back power for national governments at the expense of European integration.
The truth is more troubling.
Salvini and his ideological allies may have used nationalist rhetoric to mobilize their base while they were in opposition, but they’ve also proven to be pragmatic, willing to cut deals with their ideological enemies at home or abroad if it benefits their voters.
In government, far-right populists are less likely to want to bring down the EU to their — and everybody else’s — disadvantage than to try to work the EU system to their advantage, harnessing it to their agenda…
Youth networks such as the Identitarian Movement have evolved a political language that emphasizes the defense of concepts of European identity that are based on an authoritarian worldview. Rather than seeking to dismantle the EU, such movements are looking at how it can be reshaped to make it capable of projecting strength internally and externally against ideological opponents or emerging geopolitical rivals.
For all their disagreements over south Tyrol, Salvini and Strache have thrown their weight behind collective European border control initiatives overseen by Frontex. The connected expansion of military and policing operations across North Africa and the Sahel designed to choke off the African migration routes to Europe has increasingly attracted the support of European right-wing populists who share a penchant for military solutions to social problems.
Rather than dismantle the EU, far-right populists could help accelerate the militarization of the EU in order to project collective power into states along the EU’s borders in a quasi-imperial fashion.