By Alastair Macdonald
Steve Bannon's new campaign to undermine the European Union aims not only to build support in the EU parliament in elections next May but to forge a bloc of eurosceptic governments to influence EU leaders' summits.
The founder of a Brussels-based group known as The Movement, which U.S. President Donald Trump's former strategist has chosen as a platform, told Reuters he not only hoped for a big vote in the European Parliament but could also see six or seven leaders, notably from Italy and central Europe, joining forces to sway the European Council of 27 national governments.
Speaking at the suburban mansion home that is also his law office and headquarters of his Belgian populist People's Party, Mischael Modrikamen said the Movement would channel Bannon's campaigning expertise and financing from U.S. donors to help like-minded nationalist, anti-immigration groups across Europe.
But he insisted it would shun parties he classed as racist or anti-Semitic, such as Greece's Golden Dawn or Hungary's Jobbik -- seeking rather to draw in bigger groups on the right such as governing parties in Hungary, Italy, Poland and Austria.
Citing "core values" of national sovereignty, curbing immigration and fighting radical Islam, he said he believed "eurocritical" forces accounting for a quarter or more of the EU legislature could put aside other differences to work on a common agenda, even while remaining in different party groups.
"We don't want extremism of any nature whatsoever, be they fascists, racists, ethnocentrists, Nazi, anti-Semites or whatever," said Mondrikamen, who is a prominent member of Belgium's Jewish community and an advocate for small investors.
He acknowledged that some like-minded movements had extremist roots in the last century but said that others, such as the fast-rising Sweden Democrats, had abandoned racist and neo-Nazi ideas.
Alongside a bigger and more focused force in the European Parliament, the weakest EU political institution, Modrikamen said the project could rally a blocking minority at EU summits, where national leaders exercise ultimate power in the Union.
"Imagine that, before Council, six or seven members which are also leaders and president or prime minister of their country agree on this, and say 'We agree on this common position'.
"This would be a real gamechanger for the future of Europe."
He cited Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a vocal critic of the EU, especially over refugee policies, as well as the governments of Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic among eurosceptics, along with new coalitions in Italy and Austria.
"The objective of the Movement is obviously to try to unify the eurosceptic parties, the grassroots movements that are flourishing all over Europe and to make also the link with what's going on in the States around President Trump."
He said he had no direct contact with the White House. Trump fired Bannon last year.
Modrikamen dismissed suggestions that eurosceptic groups have taken funding from Russia as President Vladimir Putin sees a benefit in weakening the European Union.
But he acknowledged that he had visited the Russian parliament in 2015. He called for an end to sanctions against Moscow - imposed for its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and for its support of pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. And he said Europeans and the United States should be working on common ground with Russia, notably in combating violent Islamist movements.
A snapshot by Reuters of national opinion polls suggests that, despite Nigel Farage's UK Independence Party leaving due to Brexit in March, parties grouped around Marine Le Pen's French National Rally and Italy's two new ruling movements, 5-Star and the League, could increase their share of seats in the European Parliament to over 15 percent from nearly 11 percent.
Adding eurosceptics from, say, Germany, Poland and Hungary might lift that share to over 20 percent, polling data suggests -- though much will depend on post-election alliances next year.
(Additional reporting by Megan Dollar; Editing by Kevin Liffey)