Steve Bannon’s political operation to help rightwing populists triumph in next year’s European parliamentary elections is in disarray after he conceded that his campaign efforts could be illegal in most of the countries in which he planned to intervene.
The former chief strategist to Donald Trump has spent months trying to recruit European parties to his Brussels-based group, the Movement, which he promised would operate as kind of a political consultancy for like-minded parties campaigning in the bloc-wide vote in May 2019.
But the Guardian has established that Bannon would be barred or prevented from doing any meaningful work in nine of the 13 countries in which he is seeking to campaign, according to national electoral bodies and relevant ministries. Confronted with the findings, Bannon acknowledged he was taking legal advice on the matter.
“I’m not totally disagreeing with you,” he told the Guardian in Paris. “I think there is more flexibility in some areas. But there’s no chance we would ever break the law.”
Further disclosures about Bannon’s operation to foment a Trump-style populist insurgency in Europe are revealed in a Guardian documentary.
Bannon’s intervention in European politics comes amid heightened sensitivity about foreign involvement in elections. Questions have been mounting over the scale of Russia’s influence over the 2016 US presidential campaign and the UK’s referendum to leave the EU.
However, in an interview with the Guardian, Bannon rejected the comparison between his movement and meddling by foreign states. “It’s very different from Russia, or Chinese, or other people trying to have influence, because I’m a private citizen,” he said. “I’m not associated with the White House.”
A former investment banker with a reported net worth of about $50m (£40m), Bannon is personally bankrolling his European operation. He has pledged to spend millions of dollars to provide nativist and ultra-conservative European parties free access to specialised polling data, analytics, social media advice and help with candidate selection.
But officials working on electoral law and independent experts in multiple countries said this kind of assistance would be considered in-kind donations.
Professional services that have a monetary value and are provided by foreign sources are banned in France, Spain, Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary and Finland. In Germany and Austria, in-kind services must be valued and are included in the limited sums parties may take from foreign donors.
In October, Bannon told the Guardian he had already spent $1m of his money on polling he planned to provide for free to parties in seven European countries. He described it as the most significant and most expensive political polling ever undertaken in Europe, and said it would be used by political consultants with experience in data analytics to help target voters in the European elections.
By the time the elections conclude in May 2019, Bannon estimated, the project would have spent between $5m and $15m. There are no other known financial backers to his operation, although he has repeatedly referred to other unidentified donors who are “quite interested in what happens in Europe”. Asked recently if any of his donors were Russian, Bannon replied: “This will all be Europeans,” he said. “And me.”
Bannon’s project was already in turmoil after parties he was courting in Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Austria, Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany indicated they will not join his project. He now faces the challenge of persuading prospective recruits that they will not risk sanctions for receiving help from a Brussels-based group bankrolled by an American.
Bannon insisted his operation was not failing and that he had time to recruit more parties. “Some people may not ever admit they’re signed up until after the European elections,” he said. “I’m doing all the polling whether there’s a country officially in or not. I’m doing all the data analytics whether the country is in or not.”
The scale of legal challenges facing Bannon’s operation emerged six weeks ago, when his partner, the Belgian far-right politician Mischaël Modrikamen, told the Guardian his own party was forbidden under Belgium’s electoral law from receiving contributions from the Movement. “It is a bit frustrating for me,” he said. “I would have loved to have a godfather … a benefactor.”
A former corporate lawyer, Modrikamen confessed he did not know what electoral laws permitted in Germany, Italy or France, saying he was focused on recruiting parties to their operation. “For me right now I’m focusing more on getting the members,” he said. “I’m a bit frustrated because I have no time.”
In the weeks since, the Guardian conducted a review of the domestic laws in the 13 European Union countries in which Bannon and Modrikamen had signalled they wanted to operate. It revealed that parties in France, Finland, Belgium, Spain, Hungary and Czech Republic would risk sanctions for breaches of electoral law if they agreed to accept the assistance of the former Trump strategist.
Parties in Germany and Austria can only accept such small sums that his war chest would be useless. Bannon’s activities would be permitted in Denmark and Sweden, but the parties he wanted to recruit in both Scandinavian countries have declined his offers of help.
The only EU countries where Bannon has both willing partners and sufficiently lax electoral laws to allow him to boost party campaigns are the Netherlands and Italy.
Bannon has poured most of his efforts into Italy, which elected a populist coalition government this year. His efforts to recruit the anti-establishment Five Star Movement have so far been rebuffed, but he has succeeded in enlisting the interior minister, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right League, and Giorgia Meloni of the smaller party Brothers of Italy.
However, legislation being considered by the Italian parliament would prohibit foreign donations to parties in the country. Should it be passed into law as expected, Bannon’s grand European project would in effect be restricted to the Netherlands, where the anti-Islam MP Geert Wilders appears keen to cooperate.
Informed about the findings of the Guardian’s research, Modrikamen said: “There is certainly a problem, as you say, with contributions in-kind.” He added there may have been “some over-enthusiasm” in Bannon’s public declarations about turning the Movement into a nonprofit to help with campaigning in the European elections.
When the findings were relayed to Bannon, during a meeting in Paris last week, he conceded that the polling, data analytics, and help with social media he had promised far-right parties in Europe may turn out to be unlawful. “We’ve got counsel looking at the same thing,” he said. “What we’re not going to do is anything that violates elections laws in those countries.”
When it was suggested that Bannon’s European project may be restricted to providing campaign help to one Dutch MP, he replied: “It’s a start.”
He added that if lawyers advised his operation was “close” to violating laws banning foreign interference “then there’s no chance we’ll do it”.
Concerns about foreign influence on domestic elections have multiplied in recent months. In the US, the special counsel, Robert Mueller, is investigating the extent of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, including possible collusion with the Trump campaign. Mueller’s team has interviewed Bannon four times.
In the UK, the National Crime Agency is investigating the former Ukip donor Arron Banks, after the Electoral Commission said there were reasonable grounds to suspect he was “not the true source” of £8m in funding to the Leave.EU Brexit campaign.
Emails published by the Observer last weekend suggest Banks was keen to involve Bannon – a founder of Cambridge Analytica – in a scheme to raise US cash for his Brexit campaign as far back as 2015. Neither Bannon nor Banks has responded to the report.
In his final interview before the Observer’s disclosure, Bannon, who spent much of October and early November campaigning for pro-Trump Republicans in the US midterms, insisted his intervention in Europe could not be described as foreign “interference”. “I think it is very different,” he said. “I’m not doing this as a White House guy. I’m not associated with the White House, I’m not associated with the Republican party.”
Additional reporting by Kim Willsher in Paris, Josie Le Blond in Berlin, Sam Jones in Spain, Angela Giuffrida in Rome, Shaun Walker in Budapest, Christian Davies in Warsaw and Robert Tait in Prague.