THERE is always a spectre hanging threateningly over Europe.

More than a century ago, Marx and Engels wrote hopefully that the spectre was communism, but the spectre now causing alarm among supporters of the European project has the banal but ill-defined name of populism.

In Britain the term has lately been attached not only to Nigel Farage but also to those Conservative MPs who advocate a no-deal Brexit, while in continental Europe it has many faces, principally those of Matteo Salvini in Italy, Viktor Orban in Hungary and Marine Le Pen in France.

To these individuals can be added other forces, Alternative for Germany (AfD), the temporarily disgraced Freedom party in Austria and smaller groups in Denmark, Finland, Belgium, Estonia and elsewhere.

The exact dimensions of this phenomenon will be clear by the end of today when the ballots boxes are opened over Europe, but polls indicate the populists may take 20-25% of the total vote and win as many as 170 seats out of 753 in the European Parliament.

That is not quite a revolution, but it would create a new far-right bloc capable of changing the stability and direction of the EU.

The new forces are described by themselves as nationalist, populist and eurosceptic and by opponents as racist or even neo-fascist, and perhaps the threat is made greater by the fact that while some of these terms have established meanings, others lack clarity. What is “eurosceptic”, and what does populist really imply?

Populism is an odd term. In itself it should have the same meaning as democracy, with the first coming from Latin and the second from Greek. The dilemma for politicians and pundits is to establish when the acceptable will of the people, which all these leaders claim to represent in the face of usurping elites, comes with an unpleasant rejection of values such as tolerance, liberality, the rule of law, as well as of more debated notions like equality, which Europe likes to believe its tradition and history embody. Is populism an appeal to the Caliban in the European consciousness?

Italy’s Matteo Salvini, leader of a grouping now known in Italy simply as the League, has emerged as the leader.

At his summons, representatives of far-right parties from all across Europe made their way last Saturday to Milan for an impressive show of strength. Their unity in diversity should not be underestimated. Some smart commentators have made much of the fact that since each stakes a claim to speak for their own nation they will make an unstable alliance, but in fact they are well co-ordinated on a transnational scale, profess a largely common ideology and have the immeasurable advantage of having identified – or manufactured – common enemies, the bureaucrats of Brussels and immigrants.

Salvini has been described by Orban as “the most important man in Europe”, and by the AfD as a future president of the EU, a paradoxical ambition for a Eurosceptic.

However, Eurosceptic is an elastic term covering a range of meanings, from the euro-hatred espoused by Farage to demands for radical reform of the institutions and a scaling back of EU powers.

Once again the reforms are made more palatable by being left imprecise. One League candidate in Rome aroused widespread disapproval even among supporters by issuing a leaflet comparing the arrival of troops of Eurosceptic deputies to the hurricane which wreaked havoc in Mozambique.

There are limits to the storm they plan to unleash. If numbers permit, as seems likely, they could create problems over legislation and the election of the new team of commissioners.

But while they may voice general sympathy for Farage and his Brexit Party, his continental counterparts have no plans to initiate Brexit-like schemes. The mess of the negotiations, the complexity of the process and the likely impoverishment in the UK forecast by every reliable commentator have served as a warning to all but the most wilfully purblind.

IN none of the far-right manifestos does the proposal to withdraw from the EU figure. It may even be that the rhetoric of opposition to the EU, however stridently advanced, can be seen as a normalisation of politics in a federal or multi-state union.

No aspiring senator from Idaho or Wyoming will invite his electors to vote for him on the grounds that he will place his trust in the good intentions and benevolent competence of insiders in Washington.

He will denounce the self-serving conceit and ignorance of a metropolitan elite whom it will be his task to shake up in the interests of his own electorate.

This is Salvini’s rhetoric. His manifesto for the 2018 Italian general election promised a referendum not on membership of the EU but on the euro, but since coming to power he has fallen silent even on that issue.

He and his party have travelled a long way over recent decades. It was established by Umberto Bossi in 1984 as the Lombard League advocating autonomy for Lombardy, widened its scope to become the Northern League which spoke contemptuously of the poorer south, before becoming bogged down in a familiar Italian mixture of corruption and incompetence.

Its fortunes were revived when Salvini was elected leader and transformed the party from a regional force to an Italy-wide “League”.

In 2018, the League stood in a loose coalition officially headed by Silvio Berlusconi, but he coolly jettisoned his allies when the opportunity arose to form a government with the 5 Star movement, a party of the left.

His new partners in government in Rome actually won more votes than the League, making it on paper the minor partner in the coalition, but while Salvini is minister for the interior and joint deputy prime minister, his is the dominant voice in Rome, as among populist parties in Europe. There is no doubting his charisma and leadership qualities.

The nature and values of the new transnational alliance became clear when Orban and Salvini met at the barbed wire fence the Hungarian government had erected to bar the Syrian refugees who had tramped across Europe. Orban spoke of safeguarding Christian Europe from foreign Islam, and while Salvini shies clear of such rhetoric, he has continually attacked asylum seekers. He has refused boat loads of migrants permission to land in Italy, and has had the camps of Romany gypsies broken up.

He has also implied that God is on his side. The Pope disagrees, and has emerged as the leading opponent of populist policies and the spread of hostility to non-Europeans, Christian or not. Seemingly, mentions of Pope Francis aroused jeers from the crowds in Piazza Duomo in Milan last week.

Although denying they have any sympathy with fascist policies, the stance of Salvini and Orban have made acceptable voices not heard in Europe since the 1930s. Some suggest that the creation of a Muslim “threat” is the equivalent of pre-war anti-Semitism. The question which the current elections may clarify is not over the survival of the EU but over its direction and nature.