Originally Published in the EU Observer
Divisions on how to handle Russia's "neo-imperial appetite", among other factors, are set to block Italian far-right deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini's ambitions to spearhead a new European Parliament (EP) league, Jan Zahradil, a leading Czech MEP and candidate for European Commission president has said.
Britain's departure from the EU will also shift the balance of power toward the more Russia-friendly France and Germany, stoking tension with central European and Baltic countries, the Czech politician told EUobserver in an interview.
Zahradil, the co-leader of the anti-federalist European Conservatives and Reformists Group(ECR) and its top candidate to be president of the next European Commission, spoke out in an interview with EUobserver, amid Salvini's bid to pull the ECR into a new alliance with eurosceptic and far-right MEPs after the EP election in May.
Salvini launched his new group, to be called the European Alliance for People and Nations (EAPN), at a congress in Milan on Monday (8 April).
He has also invited Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party and Hungary's ruling Fidesz party to join, in what would make the EAPN a force to be reckoned with.
But for Zahradil, who spent the past five years together with PiS in the ECR, Salvini's pro-Russian politics makes him an unlikely bedfellow for the Russia-wary Poles.
"Salvini ... is trying to put himself at the centre of gravity and says: 'I will be the one who will build this broad bloc of anti-EU [MEPs] or euro-realists or whatever kind of forces. No, that is not the case," Zahradil said.
There is no reason for ECR members to join the EAPN due to simple maths, he noted.
"This is complete nonsense. Why should we go for that?", he said.
"We're the third largest group [in the EP], and I'm pretty sure that even without the 18 Brits ... we can easily get 74 [MEPs] once again," he said, referring to the likely - but still to be decided - post-Brexit departure of the ECR's British Conservative party members.
"Why should we dilute our well-established brand under some unknown banner with those guys [the EAPN]?", he added.
Salvini could instead apply to join the ECR, if he toned down his far-right rhetoric to fit in with the group's less radical manifesto, Zahradil suggested.
But PiS, which is expected to be the largest ECR delegation after May, with 20-or-so MEPs, would be unlikely to get into bed with Russian president Vladimir Putin's biggest fan in Europe.
"Our Polish friends might have some problems with some foreign policy positions of Mr Salvini, particularly vis-a-vis Russia," the Czech MEP noted.
Many former Soviet and communist EU states shared Poland's wariness, he added.
"As someone who comes from central Europe, I'm much more concerned about Russia than about China because China isn't threatening us," he said.
"Russia still lives under the shadow of that historic humiliation which was the break-up of the Soviet Union. They never recovered ... mentally, psychologically," he added.
"They still believe they can recover their old influence," he said.
Orban and Kaczynski?
Salvini's invitation for Hungarian leader Viktor Orban to leave the centre-right EPP group and join the EAPN is also likely to fail, Zahradil predicted.
If Orban was to quit the EPP, Zahradil said, he would be more likely to turn to the ECR, despite being more friendly toward Putin than the PiS party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
"There's a very close relation between Hungary and Poland, between Orban and Kaczynski," Zahradil said.
"So, if Orban, one day, decides to leave, or if the EPP, one day, decides really to get rid of him, I think that there'll be an immediate phone call to Warsaw and some negotiations," the Czech MEP added.
His calculations come amid wider shifts in the EP.
Polls indicate that the EPP and the centre-left Socialist & Democrats (S&D) group will haemorrhage votes, putting an end to their old EP monopoly.
French president Emmanuel Macron's new centrist EP group could also poach MEPs from the EPP, the S&D, and the liberal Alde groups, further upsetting the status quo and giving the ECR more leverage.
At the same time, Britain's exit from the EU, whether it happens sooner or later, will change the broader political landscape in Europe, Zahradil said.
"Brexit's going to happen. I don't believe that it's stoppable," he told this website.
"It changes the equilibrium - the power balance - in Europe, in favour of Germany and France", he said.
The question of how to handle the Russian threat has already shaped internal EU politics, he explained.
"Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia are so scared of Russia ... that they take the European Union as a security guarantee. So they're much more subservient to whatever comes from Brussels," Zahradil said.
The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia are less frightened, he noted, and more willing to stand up to the EU mainstream on issues such as migrant-sharing or to Macron's ideas on deeper integration on fiscal policy and foreign and defence policy, he added.
Brexit strengthens Franco-German 'axis'
But they are also "nervous" that Britain's departure will leave France and Germany free to pursue closer Russia relations, he said.
"When the UK is out [of the EU], their strong anti-Russian element will disappear from the European Union. Germany, France, and Italy ... will always be more willing to appease Russia, and that's something that makes us [in central Europe] uncomfortable," he said.
Zahradil highlighted Germany's plan to build a new gas pipeline with Russia, called Nord Stream 2, as a sign of its intentions despite Berlin's support for EU sanctions on Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine.
"The Poles see [Nord Stream 2] as a betrayal of their security interests and ... Germany doesn't care," he said.
"When we see a kind of rapprochement between Germany and Russia, it reminds us of the bad old days," he added.
"If Germany pursues its interests and seeks some long-term, let's say some kind of appeasement or consensus with Russia, it might be over the head of Central and Eastern Europe and those countries, such as Poland and the Baltics and us [the Czechs] are more nervous about this than for instance France or Italy," he said.
That, in turn, gives ECR's central European members bigger fish to fry than Salvini's EP ambitions, the Czech politician told this website.
"We should work to create some new alliances in Europe with like-minded countries, with like-minded political forces to counter this new centre of gravity, or centre of power, in the middle of Europe, created by the Franco-German axis," he said.