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EUROPE: Far Right Comes Nearer

BRUSSELS, Jun 3 2009 (IPS) - As European Union citizens prepare to go to the polls to elect representatives to the European Parliament this weekend (Jun. 4-7), in Brussels there continues to be much speculation about the political make-up of the next five-year parliament.

With Europe in the midst of an economic crisis – with all the attendant social problems that creates – there are genuine fears that a nationalist, anti-EU backlash will prompt disillusioned voters to plump for far right parties; a prospect filled with obvious problems at both EU and member state level.

For those of a more optimistic bent, current dissatisfaction with the EU does not automatically favour the far right. Smaller, left of centre parties, particularly the Greens, are also hoping to benefit from those seeking an alternative to the mainstream, dominant political voices.

But however one views things, one thing looks certain: the next parliamentary term will throw up some unexpected personalities and unusual alliances.

Indeed, speculation about how the next five years will play out, and new permutations in the Parliament, continues to be the most popular political parlour game in Brussels right now: Who will get elected? What exactly does this mean for the very future of the European project?

The European Parliament is a strange beast. Not afforded the same legislative powers as the Commission (the EU’s executive, law-generating body), nor equipped with the political weight of the Council (which represents EU governments), it is nonetheless the only EU institution with directly elected officials, and as such gives its members (MEPs) a certain amount of democratic legitimacy.

Cynics and Eurosceptics, on the other hand, dismiss the Parliament as a “talking shop”, an ineffectual chamber divested of any real power; and it is this very attitude which may come to infiltrate proceedings after the ballot boxes have closed this Sunday.

Electoral victory is one thing; consolidating power within the Parliament is an altogether more difficult task. Lacking the traditional government-opposition structure of national parliaments, the European Parliament is instead divided into political groups of like minded parties and MEPs, the largest of which in the outgoing parliament was the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP- ED), followed by its main rival, the Socialists.

Other groups were the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE), the Greens, and other centre-right and left wing groups. In order for a political group to exist – or a new one to be formed – it must have at least 25 members from seven member states.

Normally, the make-up of political groups is seen around Parliament as a dull, matter-of-fact process. However, two developments have meant that there is above average interest in how the groups will turn out after this election.

The first is the British Conservatives’ determination to withdraw from the EPP and form a breakaway centre-right group; the other is how the new far right MEPs who are expected to be elected will be accommodated in the Parliament’s political structure.

While the EPP is expected to retain a superior position after the election, the loss of the Conservatives will nonetheless be a hard blow for the group, in numerical terms if nothing else.

Conservative leader David Cameron has continuously stressed his desire for a split from the EPP; one of his first acts in Europe after becoming leader was to send his shadow foreign secretary, William Hague, to impress upon his MEPs the need to jump ship.

To this day, a split remains in the party’s European representatives, with those to the right pushing for defection from the EPP, and the more liberal wing arguing for remaining in the group, speaking of a loss of influence should they depart.

The split in the party is mirrored in the attitudes expressed by Conservative members working in the European Parliament. One such member, an advocate of staying in the EPP, told IPS that Cameron was guilty of playing the most basic of political tactics: “give the right what they want in Europe, and move the party to the centre at home”, alluding to the fact that Cameron is currently trying to compete for electoral gain in the UK’s fertile middle ground. “If they leave, I’ll be surprised.”

That view is not shared by those on the right, who advocate the tactics put forward by the so-called H-Bloc wing of the party – the Eurosceptic, libertarian Conservatives. They know how power in the European Parliament is realistically distributed; through stealthy infiltration of committees and secretariats, rather than through the more high-profile chairmanship positions within committees or delegations.

But, with the right-wing backlash against the EU expected to return a significant minority of MEPs, this internecine spat suddenly acquires more significance. If Cameron is to realise his goal of the Conservatives being at the centre of a new political group, then he needs to do deals with some unlikely people. He has already suggested that the Polish Law and Justice Party and the Czech ODS (Civic Democrats) would be allies, but beyond that, it is up for negotiation.

Enter Geert Wilders. Wilders, a Dutch politician, is the darling of the domestic right in the Netherlands. Should he get elected, and it seems likely, there are strong rumours that he might wish to start, in the words of one Parliament official, a “soft right-group to scupper any possible far right group.”

If he does so, then this poses a huge problem for Cameron. Wilders has been banned from entering Britain on account of producing a film considered Islamophobic. Cameron, therefore, is restricted from doing any sort of deal with Wilders, which brings them into a conflict over who is in the best position to spearhead a new group. Cameron looks to be in front right now, but Wilders has more European allies. The race is on.

Both men, though, are facing a rearguard action from the far right. In the UK, France, Italy, Hungary, Romania, Austria and Belgium, extreme right-of- centre parties are set to gain European seats. Should their numbers add up, a political group is certainly in the offing, recalling a short-lived group that briefly existed in the last parliamentary term.

This group, the ITS (‘Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty’) that fell apart after nationalist sentiment proved too hard to accommodate, was viewed as something of a joke by many, but it would be a mistake to dismiss the lessons of the past. One Parliament official told IPS that the reason for the premature demise of the ITS was that, in Bruno Gollinisch they lacked a disciplined leader.

“Don’t be surprised if Roberto Fiore emerges as a candidate to lead a new group,” was the official’s blunt assessment. Fiore succeeded Alassandra Mussolini as MEP, as member of the Forza Nuova, an Italian far right party. He has strong links to Austria’s far right Freedom Party, Vlaams Belang in Belgium and the British National Party (whose leader, Nick Griffin, met Fiore in London in April last year).

Wilders clearly sees a way of undermining any far right group in Europe by appealing to a part of its constituency. If he succeeds, then those remaining will have to languish in the non-attached members group, devoid of any real power, and cast off from political perks such as committee chairmanships and report authorships.

It certainly looks as if the right will emerge stronger after the weekend. The question is, can the so-called soft right coalesce to stop the far right gaining the sort of power and influence they crave in the European Parliament?

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