‘A catastrophe is coming to the European Union and Europe today.‘
Those were the words of Geert Wilders, leader of Dutch populist party Partij voor de Vrijheid, at a press conference in the European Parliament on 15 June 2015, but Wilders’ and my interpretation of this line could not be more opposed. While he was alluding to the increasing influx of refugees and migrants, I am referring to the rise of the right-wing populist parties in France, Poland or the UK. The upswing of the Populist Right is by no means a phenomenon confined to a few individual countries in Europe that has occurred in recent months. Rather, it has been a continuous trend over the last years, which has affected all of Europe. The formation of Marine Le Pen's political group ‘Europe of Nations and Freedom’ (ENF) in the European Parliament in the summer of 2015 has been glaring proof of this.
On 15 June, Marine Le Pen, together with Geert Wilders (who, by the way, is not a Member of the European Parliament) and MEPs from five other parties, announced the creation of their new far-right political group. The announcement came more than one year after the 2014 European elections which had turned into a massive victory for right-wing political parties across Europe. Although both Le Pen and Wilders had already prematurely proclaimed the formation of a new anti-European group in the European Parliament (EP) in May 2014, nothing had happened; until a year later.
While the formation of this new right-wing group might have come unexpected for some, insiders were not surprised by the news. Terry Reintke, MEP of The Greens/European Free Alliance (EFA), was by no means shocked; to her, this was foreseeable. Right-wing parties cooperate more and more on the European level and, already in 2014, they were very close to establishing a group in the EP, Reintke argues. Also Edouard Gaudot, advisor to The Greens/EFA, stresses that it was bound to happen at some point. What came as a surprise to Gaudot, however, was to see who ENF convinced to join the group in order to complete the jigsaw puzzle. So who plays a role in this newly created political group?
Composition of ENF
ENF, presided by Marine Le Pen (Front National) and Marcel De Graaff (Partij voor de Vrijheid), comprises a total of 38 MEPs from eight Member States: France (Front National), Italy (Lega Nord), the Netherlands (Partij voor de Vrijheid), Austria (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs), Poland (Kongres Nowej Prawicy), Belgium (Vlaams Belang), UK and Romania (both unaffiliated). According to EP rules, a political group must consist of at least 25 MEPs from seven Member States in order to be granted group status. While it had never been a serious problem for ENF to gather the minimum of 25 MEPs (Front National alone contributes 20 deputies), the group struggled significantly to collate representatives from seven different nationalities. In the end, it was the former member of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) renegade, Janice Atkinson, who enabled the group to clear the hurdle. Although Atkinson was expelled from UKIP earlier this year over false expenses claims, she had remained a full member of the UKIP-backed EFDD group until this summer when she decided to join Le Pen's ENF. For many this move looks like a slight form of revenge against Nigel Farage's UKIP and the entire EFDD. EFDD leader, Farage, who openly refused to join an alliance with Le Pen arguing that Front National was too extreme, had also managed to recruit the Front National dissident, Joëlle Bergeron, for the creation of EFDD in 2014.
For Jean Lambert, the British MEP of The Greens/EFA, it is particularly upsetting that the last piece needed to complete the jigsaw puzzle came, once again, from the UK. It is already the second time that a (former) UKIP member has ended up being the one to enable the forming of a far-right political group in the EP, Lambert explains. In 2007, it was Ashley Mote, also a former UKIP MEP, who allowed the far-right political group ‘Identity, Tradition and Sovereignty’ (ITS) to come into being. The group broke up in November of the same year.
All for one, one for all?
In the press conference announcing the group's formation, Le Pen proclaimed proudly that her group is ‘strong, coherent and ambitious’ and will be a ‘political strike force that will go far beyond our previous situation.’ Despite Le Pen's belief in the group's strength, it is far from certain that ENF will actually become a lasting and united actor in the EP. Although ENF now counts eight different nationalities (one above the minimum required), the group's composition remains fragile. Lambert emphasises that having only one representative from a specific Member State certainly makes you vulnerable. In the case of ENF, this aspect appears particularly salient given that three of the eight Member States included in the group (Belgium, Romania and UK) are represented by only one MEP. In this context, the group's stability is, without a doubt, exposed to many internal as well as external influences. A first crucial test could already be the ongoing fraud investigation against Atkinson and its possible consequences.
In terms of homogeneity, Harald Vilimsky, vice-chair of ENF, was proud to claim that the group is no partnership of convenience, but a partnership of friends. So can we expect ENF to act as a homogenous player in the EP? Insiders do not think so. In contrast to Vilimsky, Reintke beliefs that ENF does not represent a group of united representatives, but should rather be seen as a marriage of convenience between individuals that are hoping for financial and parliamentary advantages from being in a political group. Even Wilders himself was much clearer on the point that the group will be disagreeing in many regards by stating that ‘the differences in our group are no weakness, but [they are] our strength.’ Whether or not fundamental policy differences can, in fact, turn out to be a strength instead of a weakness remains to be seen.
The assumption that ENF is a rather heterogeneous construct should, however, not be seen as an indicator for a future collapse of the group. Gaudot stresses that new right-wing political movements are generally based on two pillars: Islamophobia and Europhobia. In most other policy areas, such groups tend to be very diverse. A closer look at the various member parties reveals that this paradigm applies to ENF as well. As for the two key pillars, Wilders declared that the group will fight mass immigration and the Islamisation of Europe, while Atkinson explained that they are uniting these eight nations against the 'European Super State'. Yet, in terms of economic policy, for example, the Dutch PVV takes a neo-liberal standpoint, while the Polish KNP can be perceived as rather neutral-liberal and Le Pen's FN as protectionist. A similar discrepancy can be observed when it comes to environmental agendas. Here, the Italian Lega Nord follows a very environmentalist and anti-nuclear agenda, whereas FN and KNP are in favour of nuclear energy. Furthermore, with regards to the parties' electorate, the picture is similar. While PVV pursues a liberal social policy supporting women and LGBTI rights, the Austrian FPÖ and Lega Nord should be considered much more traditionalist. However, in spite of these fundamental cleavages in a variety of policy areas, Gaudot claims that the group will stand as long as their common animosity towards Islam and the EU trumps the rest.
Effect on the Europhobe movement in the EP
Although the group is definitely fragile and far from being internally coherent, there are strong incentives for all ENF members to keep the group together. Having a political group does not only guarantee a significant amount of additional financial benefits, but also an increased degree of political influence in the EP. More concretely, ENF will be entitled to up to €17.5 million of EU funding for the remaining legislative period and it will have more access to information and leverage on decision-making through appointing shadow rapporteurs for committees and through participating in the parliament's Conference of Presidents. It will be interesting to see what this will do to the entire Europhobe movement in the EP.
ENF members are, by far, not the only Europhobe parties in the EP neither does ENF constitute the only Europhobe political group. Assuming that Europhobes are defined as truly opposed to the principle of European integration, a study highlights that there is a number of 16 Europhobe parties from 13 Member States in the EP holding a share of roughly 11% of the seats. Up to this point, however, this mainly right-wing movement has remained highly fragmented which has prevented its members from truly influencing EU policy in any serious way.
The predictions as to how ENF will influence the movement differ. Some see ENF as much more coherent in their Europhobe perspective compared to other anti-European groups, such as EFFD or ECR. In this respect, the creation of ENF will have a reinforcing character for the movement as a whole. Others, by contrast, count on the detrimental consequences of the ongoing power struggles amongst the various political groups. According to Lambert, the creation of ENF will force some of the anti-European parties to reconsider their positioning as well as language in order to differentiate themselves from one another. Given the heterogeneous nature of all of these groups, this will not be easily done. Although Le Pen and Farage would have the chance to form a ‘grand coalition’ of the Populist Right in the EP, it is very unlikely that this is going to happen. At this point, it seems that they will not be able to overcome their divisions in the near future. So yes, we should expect that the existence of ENF will lead to a more articulated and consistent anti-European voice in the EP, Gaudot remarks, but it is unlikely that it will be enough to quickly unify the entire movement. However, Emmanuel Kujawski, assistant to Karima Delli, MEP of The Greens/EFA, points out that right-wing populists have proven their capability to adapt to new environments in the past. He warns not to count on time to take care of the movement, because time, he says, is their best ally.
How to react?
The question then arises what is to be done by other parties to effectively counter the emerging right-wing front in the EP? Interestingly, we have been witnessing two quite opposite phenomena. On the one hand, numerous mainstream parties have, on the national level, adjusted their policy positions (e.g. immigration policy) to the demands of right-wing parties in an attempt to win (back) voters. On the other hand, a 'cordon sanitaire' has been built around the extreme right in the daily work of the EP. As we have seen in recent national elections, neither tactics has proven successful as a means to fight the growing popularity of right-wing parties in Europe. Consequently, a change of thinking might be necessary.
Although the rise and influence of right-wing populist parties should be challenged in as many ways as possible, one has to accept that their representatives in the EP are democratically elected and, hence, got to have a share of the parliamentary work.
Kujawski emphasises that the cordon sanitaire has made us lose a lot of time both in the fight against the extreme right and the promotion of Green values. In spite of the intention to counter the radical right, something else is done. The extreme right tries to present itself as the true alternative, victimised by the ruling parties of an exclusive system, to a stagnating and unsatisfactory status quo. By systematically excluding right-wing parties from parliamentary work, the cordon sanitaire is unintentionally giving in to the radical right's narrative of victimisation, Gaudot stresses. Especially small political groups such as the Greens should not be part of a game that categorically excludes a certain parliamentary minority. Most importantly, however, shunning the extreme right does not counter it, but feeds it.
The true response, then, should be to not position oneself according to or against the Populist Right, but to focus on one's own political work. For Lambert, it is key that the Greens are very clear and vocal on their own agenda for people to see that there is, actually, an alternative and it is not the extreme right. Gaudot believes that if political answers happen to overlap with those of right-wing parties in certain policy areas (such as social policy, anti-corruption or TTIP), we should still not be shy of our own ideas. Of course, it feels strange to be in the same boat with these groups, he says, but, if it is the case, it is merely for the same questions, not for the same conclusions.
All this is not to say that parties should not confront ENF and other right-wing parties. Of course, racist language and hate speech must be challenged and banned in the EP. And of course, lies, false facts and all sorts of dubious argumentative links need to be communicated and dismantled. However, one should not allow their arguments and agenda to fully dominate that of the others. In this regard, Lambert underlines that challenging right-wing conceptions does not exclusively need to be done by face-to-face challenges. Putting across strong and well-articulated ideas of your own constitutes a way of challenging others' ideas too, she stresses.
Engaging ENF in terms of parliamentary work might even prove to be a strong weapon in the fight against it. Having more parliamentary influence, ENF will no longer be able to refer to its political impotence when arguing what it would do if only it could. Reintke agrees that this leaves the group open to attack, but remains in doubt as to whether all members of ENF will now start engaging in parliamentary decision making. Other groups, like EFDD, have shown that the group status in itself is no guarantee for engagement in parliamentary work; while Cinque Stella does actively participate in the workings of the EP, UKIP has remained inactive nonetheless, Reintke points out.
Furthermore, there is a chance that the entanglement in parliamentary work will, in fact, mainstream ENF. Although Lambert cautions that this is of political concern in itself, it could make these parties lose its appeal. Gaudot believes that a movement of the radical right which plans to play by the rules of parliamentary democracy can have two destinies. It can either become a party that, once in power, manages to eliminate all other democratic forces around it ensuring that it stays in power; just like the NSDAP. Or it becomes, similarly to the Italian neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI), which Gianfranco Fini in 1995 transformed into the National Alliance (AN), so much entangled in the parliamentary 'game' that it will eventually melt together with less populist forces. Which of the scenarios will prevail depends to a large extent on other parties' behaviour. We should be confident that a scenario, similar to the path of the MSI, will prevail if the remaining parties show enough resistance. If, however, the radical right is not taken seriously, if it is shunned, then we could be risking a different scenario.
In conclusion, the creation of ENF can be expected to give a more articulated voice to the Populist Right in the EP, but it does not trigger an abrupt change in the balance of power within the Parliament. For this to happen, ENF alone is too small a group and it seems that the individual parties of the larger Europhobe scene are too nationalist to be truly united on the European level. It will, however, not be sufficient to count on the internal controversies of the movement to effectively counter it. For actually grasping the roots of the Populist Right's rise in Europe, it is essential not to play by their rules, but to have them play by the rules of parliamentary democracy. Here, other parties, such as the Greens, are required to come out as true pro-European forces. Only if we can revive the spirit of a positive and dynamic Europe, which delivers a message of political responsibility, we will be able to prevent another, perhaps even greater success of right-wing parties in the next European elections in 2019.
For this article, the author conducted interviews with Jean Lambert, Member of the European Parliament Greens-EFA, UK; Terry Reintke, Member of the European Parliament Greens-EFA, Germany; Edouard Gaudot, advisor to the Greens-EFA, France; and Emmanuel Kujawski, assistant to Karima Delli, Member of the European Parliament Greens-EFA, France.