WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Attempts by former White House adviser Steve Bannon to export President Donald Trump’s brand of populism to Europe are on the rocks, according to several of his current and former political partners in Italy and Belgium.
After Bannon was charged with fraud for his role in an effort to raise money to help build Trump’s wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, two people working with him said an effort to found an academy for right-wing Roman Catholic activists in Italy faces a criminal inquiry by the Rome criminal court and a project aimed at ending the European Union has closed up shop.
After helping guide Trump to his 2016 election victory, Bannon served for seven months as the White House chief strategist. He briefly returned to his former employer, the right-wing Breitbart News, but later stepped down.
Then he turned his sights on Europe, where he has both tried to establish what his Italian partner calls an “academy for the Judeo-Christian West” at an Italian monastery and to promote right-wing parties skeptical about the European Union.
Bannon and his spokeswoman did not respond to multiple requests for comments about his activities in Europe.
As adviser to Trump, Bannon helped articulate the “America First” right-wing populism and fierce opposition to immigration that have been hallmarks of the president’s time in office.
He was arrested on a yacht last month and pleaded not guilty to charges of defrauding hundreds of thousands of donors to the $25 million “We Build the Wall” campaign. Bannon has dismissed the charges as politically motivated.
One of the main post-Trump causes Bannon promoted has been the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, which supports conservative Catholic causes and is based in an 800-year old monastery south of Rome.
Along with Bannon, the institute has been trying to set up a two-track program: an “academy for the Judeo-Christian West” with a Bannon-designed curriculum and the Cardinal Martino Academy, which will promote Catholic social teachings, said Benjamin Harnwell, a former British Conservative party activist who leads the institute and works with the former Trump aide.
Harnwell told Reuters he has recently had to delay his plans to further develop the institute after Italian authorities tried to evict him from the monastery.
In October, Italy’s Culture Ministry revoked the institute’s permission to use the monastery, saying Harnwell’s organization did not meet the requirements to manage it and had lied when applying to use the building.
The Culture Ministry press office said Harnwell’s organization had not managed a cultural site for at least five years, a condition for those applying to use the building.
In making its application, the institute said that it had operated an abbey in central Italy since 2015. However state television RAI said in a documentary that the abbey was an inaccessible ruin closed to the public. In announcing its intention to revoke the permission, the ministry also cited violations of various contractual obligations including a failure to pay concession fees and do maintenance work.
Harnwell’s institute appealed to a local administrative court, which blocked the eviction order, effectively allowing the organization to keep managing the monastery. A ministry spokesman said it has now asked the State Council, Italy’s top administrative court, to review the local court decision.
In a separate action, Italy’s Court of Auditors said the institute did not pay rent of around 200,000 euros ($236,340) for 2018 and 2019. Harnwell did not directly address this accusation in responding to questions from Reuters but said Italian authorities were trying to undermine the institute because of politics.
In text message exchanges with Reuters, Harnwell said the institute “never participated fraudulently in the tender as alleged,” and argued that “the Ministry for Culture annulled its lease out of political considerations.”
He confirmed Italian media reports that prosecutors in Rome are also conducting an ongoing probe of the institute. Harnwell argued that the “criminal court is proceeding with its own case to discuss precisely the same material that we’ve just been cleared of by the administrative court.”
Reuters was unable to confirm any specifics of the probe.
The prosecutor’s office declined to comment in response to questions by Reuters about any probes into the group.
THE ‘MOVEMENT’ STOPS
Separately, a Brussels-based Bannon-backed project aimed at undermining the European Union shut up shop last year, said Mischael Modrikamen, the Belgian lawyer who teamed up with Bannon to promote the anti-EU “The Movement.”
Bannon and his associates’ principal objective was to marshal anti-EU sympathizers and parties to put forward candidates for 2019 European Parliament elections.
Populist candidates from France, Italy and Britain did well, but their counterparts in Germany, Austria, Denmark and Spain did not. And Bannon’s “Movement” found little support from right-wing leaders.
Some key right-wing parties and leaders publicly distanced themselves from Bannon, with France’s Marine LePen declaring last year he “was playing no role in our campaign.”
Modrikamen told Reuters in a phone interview this week that he had withdrawn from politics in June 2019 and that there was “no Movement any more.”
A European Commission spokesman declined to comment on the group.
Despite the European projects’ problems, both Modrikamen and Harnwell expressed support to Reuters for Bannon and said they wished him well in facing the U.S. fraud charges.
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(Reporting By Mark Hosenball in Washington, additional reporting by Angelo Amante and Philip Pullella in Rome; Editing by Scott Malone and Alistair Bell)