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Populist Leaders Meet in Warsaw to Discuss European Union

Leader of French far-right party Rasemblement National and candidate for France's presidential elections Marine Le Pen ,right, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban ,left, pose before the meeting of Leaders of European conservative and right-wing parties, Warsaw, Dec.4, 2021.

The leaders of right-wing populist parties gathered Saturday in Warsaw to discuss how they can work together to bring change to the European Union, which they accuse of acting like a super-state that is eroding the traditions and powers of the EU's 27 member nations.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Poland's nationalist ruling party, opened the meeting, which also was attended by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, French far-right leader Marine Le Pen and the leader of Spain's Vox party, Santiago Abascal.

The event, described as a summit, follows a visit by Le Pen to Budapest in October that was part of an effort by her and Orban to consolidate the European right. Kaczynski said Saturday's meeting was intended to find common ground and to increase cooperation at the EU level, though he acknowledged it would not be easy.

As the meeting opened in a hotel, a small group of protesters outside blew whistles and yelled accusations that the leaders were extremists serving the interests of the Kremlin. The demonstrators held signs saying "Russian pact," and chanted, "Warsaw free from fascism!"

Both the Polish and Hungarian governments remain locked in a bitter standoff with the European Commission, the bloc's executive arm, which is withholding funds to both countries over democratic backsliding. Warsaw and Budapest argue that the Commission is taking a step that has never been laid out in the EU treaties, and which, therefore, defies EU law.

Wojciech Przybylski, editor in chief of Visegrad Insight, a policy journal focused on Central Europe, said there is a paradox in a "transnational meeting of nationalist parties." He thinks the event was organized so the party leaders can show their voters "they are not alone."

Both the Hungarian and Polish ruling parties, he noted, are "in deep trouble," with Orban's Fidesz party forced to leave the main grouping of conservatives at the European Parliament, and Poland's governing populists seeing a drop in popularity at home.

"This is essentially a PR stunt," Przybylski said.

The Poles' welcome of Le Pen marks a recent change of heart for Poland's governing conservatives. The ruling Law and Justice party had long refused to cooperate with the French presidential candidate due to her warm relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin — a turnoff in a country long dominated by Russian and Soviet rule.

"We have as much in common with Ms. Le Pen as with Mr. Putin," Kaczynski remarked in 2017. Two years later, he described Le Pen's party as being among several groupings in Europe that were "obviously linked to Moscow and receive its support," citing such ties as an impediment to cooperation.

But Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki met with Le Pen in Brussels in October and hosted her for a dinner in Warsaw on Friday evening.

In a tweet, Le Pen posted a photo of herself with Morawiecki and thanked him for his welcome. She said they share a wish for "a Europe of nations to give back to the peoples of Europe their freedom and their sovereignty."

Sixteen European populist parties issued a joint ideological statement in July objecting to the EU's current direction. Among the signatories were Kaczynski's Law and Justice, Orban's Fidesz, Le Pen's National Rally, Austria's Freedom Party and Spain's Vox.