Fears of a eurosceptic takeover of the next European Parliament have risen considerably since French extreme-right politician Marine Le Pen paid a visit to The Hague to meet her Dutch populist counterpart, Geert Wilders.
Le Pen and Wilders announced their plans to form a group of nationalist parties who defend a 'common political agenda'. The French Front national (FN), the Dutch Freedom Party (PVV), the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), the Flemish Vlaams Belang (VB), the Swedish Democrats and the Italian Lega Nord are almost certain to join forces.
On 14 November, party representatives discussed their coalition plans in Vienna, Austria. “PVV did not attend,” a source present at the meeting told EurActiv, but “many others did and were interested in our plans".
“We discussed a draft text of issues we want to address, like immigration and asylum, or the Turkish membership negotiations with the EU,” the source added, calling it a rough sketch of what will most certainly become the new, extreme-right group after the elections on 22-25 May 2014.
A political group in the EU Parliament must reach a minimum threshold of 25 MEP seats, and must include parliamentarians of at least seven EU countries.
The extreme-right parties are confident they will get the seats to form their new group, with the six parties mentioned as the basis of their cooperation. The French FN on its own could deliver a significant part of the needed seats. And smaller parties from other countries have been approached, which would easily lock up the threshold of seven countries.
EFD group threatened
But while the pieces of the puzzle are falling in place for the new, eurosceptic group, this might endanger the other far-right parliamentary group: Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD).
At the moment, the EFD consists of 32 members representing voters from 11 EU countries. But that includes Lega Nord’s MEPs, who will leave the group, a move that will cost EFD a handful of seats, depending on the election results.
Other MEPs are certain to leave Parliament, like the Belgian independent Frank Vanhecke. This would mean that the EFD will not only lose seats but also crucial representation across EU member states.
EFD will have to look for alternatives to secure a new firm base, says Yves Bertoncini of the Paris-based think tank Notre Europe: “They will have to gather MEPs from different member states, and will likely try to attract some from other political families. But it will be challenging, for sure.”
The EDF could be reduced to a strong UKIP, with others like the Finns Party (formerly True Finns), the Polish Solidarity party and mostly single MEPs to complete their ranks.
Marley Morris, who has analysed right-wing populism at the UK-based organisation Counterpoint, argues that “EFD’s difficulty after the EU elections will be to work together: there are plenty of disagreements on EU issues between the member parties – much more so than the parties involved in the new coalition. If EFD has to reach out to fringe MEPs in order to form a group, they will be even more fragmented.”
A group in the European Parliament has benefits such as a guarantee of seats in the parliamentary committees, a certain amount of speaking time in the plenary sessions or a monthly allowance to hire staff.
“But to form a group, MEPs have to present a political programme to which they all agree,” Bertoncini explains. And agreeing on issues is more difficult for the far-right than for any other party or group, research has shown.
This is, among others, illustrated by the group ‘Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty’, that was set up in January 2007. The group united FN, FPÖ and the Belgian VB with the Italian party of Alessandra Mussolini – granddaughter of the former fascist Italian dictator – and other fringe extremists. But the group collapsed that same year because of continuous friction between its members.
Analysts dispute influence of eurosceptics
Analysts’ estimations of the number of eurosceptic MEPs after May 2014’s elections range from 90 up to one-quarter of all seats, corresponding to 190 seats.
But even if the next EU Parliament includes two far-right groups, this doesn’t guarantee them influence in EU affairs, many say.
Data from the transparency organisation VoteWatch, in a publication by Counterpoint, shows that far-right MEPs have less impact on EU legislation because they show up less often for roll-call votes and end up most often in the losing corner when coalitions are built to reach a majority.
In a recent study, Notre Europe estimates that “the likely rise in the share of ‘populist’ MEPs will make a grand coalition even more likely”, and that the number of seats of populists (both left-wing and right-wing) will matter even less compared to the “actual power” they have on the workings of the EU Parliament.
Paul Taggart of the University of Essex adds that he is “always struck by the diversity of the positions the eurosceptics have, even if they’re frustrated with the same institutions. Eurosceptics on a European level are not the sum of their parts, really".