Bannon says he is working to build a continent-wide organization called The Movement supporting anti-immigration, nationalist and populist causes. “We’re open for business,” Bannon said last summer. “We’re a populist, nationalist NGO, and we’re global.”
Bannon thought his bid to offer help in the run-up to 2019 European Union elections would mesh well with a range of anti-establishment parties. “I think we will get them all onboard,” he told the Guardian newspaper. But not all are willing to take him up on the offer. He also found that election laws in many of his target countries ban or sharply limit financial and organizational contributions from outside the nation.
Parties in just four EU countries could be part of The Movement – Italy, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands – because foreign organizations are barred from contributing to political parties in France, Belgium, Spain, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Finland.
Germany and Austria allow contributions from foreign sources, but caps the amount at a few thousand euros. Restrictions also apply in Belgium, where Bannon’s foundation was registered in January 2017 by Mischaël Modrikamen, leader of a far-right party.
Partly because he can, and possibly because of his professed devout Catholicism, Bannon appears to have fixed his focus on Italy in particular, where he also shares many values with firebrand leader Matteo Salvini.
He has set up operations at the Trisulti charterhouse near the village of Collepardo in central Italy, a former Carthusian monastery now leased to the Dignitatis Humanae Institute (DHI), a group close to conservative US Catholic Cardinal Leo Burke.
The institute itself is led by Benjamin Harnwell, a former Conservative Party member of the UK Parliament and a man very close to Bannon. Its aim is to host an international training school for the new right. “They have enormous financial resources of often obscure origin,” says Nicola Fratoianni, member of a recent protest against the use of Trisulti as a base for Bannon and the DHI.
Surrounded by imposing walls, the beautiful abbey of Trisulti is a former Benedictine religious complex visited since the year 1000. Today the spiritual site is no longer home to monks after it was taken over by the DHI and prepares to become an academy under the aegis of Bannon.
The ancient setting for reflection could be suited to Bannon’s form of thought that contends there is a “deep state” of secretive technocrats running the US and a clique of bureaucrats steering the EU. Like some sort of ascetic theoretician, he seems prone to the mysterious and arcane.
Alessandro Rico, a journalist at Italy’s Panorama magazine, defines the Trisulli charterhouse as an incubator of European populism. Locating The Movement in a mountain monastery an hour and a half from Rome “is the sign that populists want to work on building a true political culture”, he says.
“The ascetic atmosphere that reigns over that piece of the Apennine Mountains is the ideal place where they can praise the values that Bannon will transmit to students and political representatives, the same ones who will have to fight every day in parliament to prevail,” says Rico. “It is the revenge of ‘non-negotiable principles’ defended by Cardinal Burke and the conservative wing of the church in clear opposition to Pope Francis, although Harnwell has repeatedly denied the institution is a frond born to contrast the pope.”
Rico says “Bannon has a bigger plan for Europe. He admires its history, its traditions, its complexity, and does not think he can manifest that with a scientifically calibrated electoral campaign. He hopes to shake up the elite through the European 2019 elections and re-found the ruling class.”
The development is disturbing enough to residents of Collepardo that several hundred staged a protest in late December. “No to a training center for a global network of religious fundamentalism, of the regressive and fascist right,” they shouted. “Stop Bannon and free Europe.”
And they are not they only one expressing alarm. Antonio Tajani, president of the European Parliament, passed on his message to Bannon during an Italian political conference: “Dear Mr. Bannon, go home,” he said. “If you want to be a tourist, be a tourist. It’s better for you to keep quiet.”
At the same event, another European Parliament leader, Antonio Lopez-Isturiz, called Bannon “a dangerous extremist” and a “disgraced ideologue” now advocating “cheap nationalism” in Europe.
But it is not likely he will be going home any time soon. For Bannon, Rome is “the center of the political universe”, says Rico. “His meetings with Salvini and his frequent visits to the capital are known. But to take Rome and Europe he must start from the margin. From silence. From reflection. From training.”