Rishi Sunak is clearly short on friends these days. Reinforcing ties with countries that newly-minted Lord Cameron calls Britain’s “friends, neighbours and partners” seems laudable, but is a right-wing political festival in Rome, organised by Giorgia Meloni’s hardline Brothers of Italy party, really the diplomatic place to start?
Five years ago the headline guests at the ‘Atreju’ festival were Steve Bannon, the ‘brains’ behind Donald Trump, and everybody’s favourite right-wing troublemaker, Nigel Farage. In 2019, Hungary’s Victor Orbán took centre stage at the conference.
These are all figures that are considered to lurk on the hard-right of European and international politics. Not exactly your respectable, mainstream politicians. So, what does it tell us that the prime minister of the United Kingdom is now prepared to follow in their footsteps?
Sunak takes the platform
Speaking at the festival, Sunak used the platform to warn that “enemies” were “deliberately driving people to our shores to try and destabilise our society” and called for changes to the international framework on asylum rules. His comments have duly drawn criticism from opposition MPs, with Alistair Carmichael, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson stating:
“Infighting within the Conservative party is now generating a bidding war to see who can make the most toxic contribution to the debate … instead of posturing, Rishi Sunak would do better to focus on tackling the asylum backlog that is leaving people in limbo and costing the taxpayers billions.”
Sunak is rubbing shoulders with Elon Musk, who has brought the social media platform X (formerly Twitter) into disrepute since he bought it out, and the leader of Spain’s hard-right VOX party, Santiago Abascal.
Who are VOX?
VOX has emerged as the main far-right party in Spain over the past few years, its popularity boosted by a backlash against Catalan independence, and a socially conservative reaction to progressive policies including women’s, gay and trans rights.
Abascal is facing calls for a police investigation following remarks in which he claimed a time would come when the Spanish people would want to see current prime minister Pedro Sánchez “strung up by his feet”. He was recently one of the instigators of mass demonstrations that spilled over into riots, protesting against Sánchez’s coalition deal with Catalan nationalist parties. At those protests, Abascal was spotted in the company of US polemicist and conspiracy theorist, Tucker Carlson, who remarkably managed to be sacked by Fox News for being too extreme, even for them.
Last week, Pedro Sánchez spoke at the European Parliament to review the Spanish presidency, which ends this month. A VOX MEP intervened to say:
“Mr Sánchez, you will go down in history. Generations of Spaniards will study in history books your narcissistic, manipulative, uncaring and morally unscrupulous conduct. Millions of Spaniards live on the poverty line, and you decided to fleece the middle classes by raising taxes and distributing European funds to public bodies to weave your web of personal favours. Millions of Europeans are unsafe on the streets, but you decided to surrender our borders to the arrival of mass immigration.” (my translation)
By the company you keep, shall you be known
Sunak’s flirting with the European hard-right has not gone unnoticed in the foreign media, and European leaders, including Spain’s new prime minister, will also surely be taking note.
When he appeared before the Lords European Affairs Committee, Cameron said he hoped that “a lot of the heat and anger has come out of the relationship [with Europe]” and he is keen to start talking with EU countries about easing certain rules and restrictions. It is difficult to see how his prime minister’s schmoozing with hard-right eurosceptic populists like Meloni and Abascal will help that process.