BRUSSELS — For weeks, Europe’s far-right populists have been dashing across the Continent, joining arms and presenting themselves as a united front that will batter the political establishment and score a big breakthrough in this week’s elections for the European Parliament.
Their latest group hug came in Milan on Saturday evening, where Italy’s firebrand, Matteo Salvini, preened with France’s far right icon, Marine Le Pen, and nearly a dozen other populist leaders. They bashed the European Union, migrants and Islam and promised the dawn of a new, nationalist era.
But it was telling what they did not talk about: the scandal that erupted this weekend in Austria, which led to the collapse of the nation’s coalition government after the far-right vice chancellor was caught on a video promising favors to a woman claiming to be a Russian investor.
The scandal has rocked Austria. The vice chancellor, a leader of the far-right Freedom Party, quickly resigned, and new elections have been called for September. But it is also rippling across Europe, only days before the European parliamentary elections, as a reminder that Russia has deep ties to many other populist parties, too.
“What’s strange,” said Tom Tugendhat, a Conservative Party lawmaker in Britain, “is how many of these nationalist movements seem to be in favor of Russia, not their own country.”
It is too soon to know whether the Austria scandal will influence the European Parliament elections, which begin on Thursday and end on Sunday. The elections are critical in shaping the course of the European Union for the next five years, especially as mainstream leaders have struggled to win back alienated voters.
Indeed, the vote has set up a stark contrast: Even as the populists are playing to anger and nationalism, mainstream leaders are trying to sell their apathetic voters on maintaining the course. President Emmanuel Macron of France, who embodies the European establishment, argues that “more Europe” is needed, not less.
“This election is between the builders and the breakers,” said Marietje Schaake, a liberal Dutch legislator. “Will people come out to vote because they know what’s at stake?”
Many far-right populists regard the elections as a barometer of just how angry and alienated Europe really is, and as their best chance in years to expand their power in Brussels, the seat of the European Union. Populists are not expected to win the biggest number of the Parliament’s 751 seats, let alone a majority, but analysts predict a major electoral breakthrough that is certain to disrupt European politics.
“For the first time, we’ll see meaningful populist representation at the European level,” said Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe for the Eurasia Group, “so there is at least a risk of a populist insurgency trying to take over or paralyze institutions from within, with implications for Europe’s capacity to act.”
Before this weekend, Russia had not been a major issue in the elections, if one at all. But the close ties between Austria’s Freedom Party with Russia are hardly an anomaly.
Mr. Salvini, the leader of the populist League in Italy, has long been outspoken in his praise of President Vladimir V. Putin and once wore a Putin T-shirt at a meeting of the European Parliament. Ms. Le Pen is strongly pro-Russia and her far-right party once received loans from a Russian state bank.
For years, Mr. Putin has cultivated ties to extremist parties in Europe as allies in his effort to encourage political fragmentation in the European Union. Many of the Continent’s mainstream parties have regarded Mr. Putin with either wariness or outright distrust, while many populist leaders have called for closer ties to Russia.
Russia is clearly interested in the outcome of the European Parliament elections. European Union investigators, advocacy groups and academics say websites and social media accounts linked to Russia are spreading huge amounts on online disinformation intended to discredit the mainstream parties in the run-up to this week’s races.
Agata Gostynska-Jakubowska, a senior research fellow with the Center for European Reform in Brussels, said the Austria scandal is timely ammunition for those who warn that many populist parties are deeply compromised by their ties to Mr. Putin.
“It emboldens those who question the populists’ good intentions and who call for greater transparency in the way these parties have been funded and investigations into their links to Russia,” she said.
European politics have been fragmenting since the financial crisis of 2008, and populist anger deepened after an influx of migrants from Africa and the Middle East, reviving some of the Continent’s oldest and ugliest impulses.
Anti-Semitism is rising. Anti-elite and anti-immigrant sentiments remain acute. Nationalist and identitarian movements are gaining clout, while once-marginalized neo-fascist parties have become more vocal.
Yet if the populists once vowed to shatter the European Union, they have softened their agenda to match public attitudes. Polls in member states, minus Britain, show that voters, if unhappy with their current circumstances, want to change the bloc rather than destroy it. That is why leaders like Mr. Salvini and Ms. Le Pen talk about altering the European Union from within.
Invoking hot-button issues like migration, terrorism and Islamophobia, far-right and far-left populists place blame on remote bureaucrats in Brussels and call for devolving more power to national governments. They hope the election will both gum up Brussels and give them extra leverage in domestic politics, which is what many of them care most about.
On the campaign trail, the populists have dominated news media attention.
Mr. Salvini, Italy’s powerful deputy prime minister, is campaigning so often that critics say he is almost never at work. A bevy of photographers documented his meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban along the Serbia-Hungary border, as the two men hoisted themselves up into a watchtower to stare across the empty frontier with binoculars — the way American officials like to stare at North Korea from Panmunjom.
“To defend the borders and the safety of our children,” Mr. Salvini tweeted, as he urged a vote for his party.
Even if the different populist groups do win a sizable number of seats, analysts question whether they will coalesce into a powerful coalition, given matters of ego and ideological differences. Mr. Salvini has been trying to present himself as the natural leader — even as others disagree — and recently announced an alliance of populist, far-right, anti-immigration, euroskeptic parties called “Toward a Europe of Common Sense.”
At Saturday’s rally in Milan, Mr. Salvini and the populist leaders from other countries took the microphone to rally the crowd. Ms. Le Pen earned cheers when she began to speak and promised the crowd that they “are living in a historic moment and you can tell your grandchildren, ‘I was there.’ ”
But she spoke in French, and many others spoke in English, causing one supporter to shout, “Enough with all this English! We want Italian!”
Austria did not come up at the Milan rally. In the past, Ms. Le Pen has praised the Austrian Freedom Party and its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache (the vice chancellor who resigned hours before the rally).
Asked about Austria before the rally, Ms. Le Pen called Mr. Strache’s troubles a domestic matter and questioned the timing of how the video surfaced a “few days before the election.” She said that the populist movement remained united “in our conception of cooperation in Europe, our shared desire to protect our citizens, our common refusal to see our country being subjected to the submergence of migration.”
Opinion polls suggest that populist parties could win up to 180 seats in European Parliament, enough to create serious delays and difficulties. Ms. Schaake, the Dutch legislator, said that “the real story is fragmentation and what will happen in the center.” The populists will not agree on everything, she said.
“But they can make a mess.”
In addition to passing or rejecting laws, European lawmakers have new powers that could allow populists to block trade deals, approve the bloc’s budget and play an important role in determining who will replace the European Union’s most powerful leaders.
Voters, meanwhile, are unpredictable. Any registered voter in the 28 member states can vote. But turnout is usually low in European races, which gives advantages to motivated, more narrowly focused populist parties. A study of the electorate by the European Council on Foreign Relations found Europe’s voters more volatile than polarized.
Immigration, the main topic for many populists, ranked only third among European voter concerns, behind Islamic radicalism, much of it homegrown, and the national economy.
“Swathes of voters,” said Mark Leonard, the council’s director, “are moving fluidly between parties of the right and left.”
Indeed, if many voters are attracted to the populists, the study showed that many others are terrified of them, and the growing nationalist sentiment.