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EUROPE: The Right Makes an Unsettling Advance

BRUSSELS, Jun 8 2009 (IPS) - The political centre-right has vowed it will be “business as usual” following this weekend’s elections to the European Parliament in which they retained majority, despite significant threats from the far right.

With most of the ballots analysed, the centre-right group in the European parliament, as the European People’s Party (EPP), look set to gain 263 seats compared to their nearest rivals, the Socialists, who look set to return 163 members of the European Parliament (MEPs).

But despite this centrist core, these elections have been characterised by a fracturing of the traditional vote, with more votes going to smaller parties, mostly on the right of the political spectrum. This has caused much concern in the corridors of parliament.

The upshot of this appears to be that the main, longstanding political groups in the parliament, the EPP, the Socialists and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE), will embark on a renewed platform of cooperation born out of self-preservation. They are expected to agree tactics designed at marginalising the new far right MEPs, whose politics is abhorrent to them.

“One of the key signals for this new parliament,” says Wilfried Martens, president of the EPP group, “is that it will be the first time we see these kind of extremists, populists and eurosceptics. And the big lesson for the political groups, those that built Europe, the EPP, liberals and Socialists, those stretching back over the years, is that they now have an imperative, critical task.”

That “critical task”, according to Martens, is to preserve the “stable political force”, and “shoulder the responsibility” of European politics. “Those groups,” he said, “have to get together and apply new reforms to Europe.”

But many around parliament are not convinced that the emergence of these “extremists, populists and eurosceptics” can be so easily dismissed; and some are openly opposed to what they see as unnecessary emphasis on consensus at all costs. They say that important issues brought up during the campaign cannot simply be whitewashed over.

One of the reasons the so-called mainstream political groups may be on the defensive is that there now exists the very real possibility of a new right- wing political group being formed in the next few weeks, which will certainly gain publicity and could upset any status quo that the biggest groups may wish to preserve.

For the right, the elections were mixed. The far right parties based on extreme xenophobia and fascist leanings did not do as well as expected, despite some notable gains; in Hungary Jobbik (Better Hungary, whose members dress in distinctly Nazi-style uniforms) won three seats, while in Finland, Perussoumalaiset (True Finns) gained their first MEP.

Elsewhere, the Austrian Freedom Party, members of the short-lived Independence and Democracy group (ITS) in the last Parliament, gained a significant proportion of votes, as did the British Nationalist Party (BNP), who gained their first two seats.

In contrast, however, the far right in Belgium, Italy and especially France suffered a significant drop in support.

Not that this was the extent of right-wing voting over the weekend. Several parties that are billed as “anti-immigration” but would reject the far right tag also made gains.

In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party has taken four seats, while in Denmark the Danish People’s Party are up one, as are the Greek Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS). In the UK, the eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), who made immigration one of their policy platforms, beat the ruling Labour Party into second place in the polls behind the main Conservative opposition.

The somewhat reduced expectations of the far right appear to have put a dampener on the chances of such a political alliance in the parliament emerging soon. But there remain strong indications that the creation of a right-wing, anti-immigration group is on the cards, prompted by the electoral success of the Freedom Party under leader Geert Wilders.

While Wilders himself will not be coming to Brussels as an MEP (he elected to place himself far down the party list), he retains a lot of behind-the-scenes pull within right-wing circles.

His first port of call may be the renewed UKIP, which in the past has maintained close links with the Dutch party. And despite Wilders being banned from entering the UK, staff members have privately admitted they have “no problem” with sitting in a group together. Should this alliance come to fruition, the Danes are likely to follow.

What is clear is that a large number of MEPs have this time campaigned actively on the immigration issue, and it is unlikely they will let it die out easily.

A parliament staff member working with the much-reduced Socialist group tried to put on a brave face against such a possibility. “We will see 24 hours of celebrations and anxiety,” he told IPS. “But then it will be business as usual. In reality, those that have always been in charge will be back in the driver’s seat.” Consensus-builders throughout the parliament are hoping this comes true.

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