The new European Parliament was in session for the first time on Tuesday, 1 July. There was a record number of Eurosceptic MEPs, making a controversial return after their victory in May’s EU elections. EurActiv France reports from Strasbourg.
The Eurosceptics stood out from the crowd for the European Parliament's first session in Strasbourg. 751 MEPs from 28 member states sat for the reconstitution session and, despite the surge of Euroscepticism in the wake of the EU elections, it was the Socialists' Martin Schulz who was re-elected as President of the Parliament.
Among the 52 non-affiliated Eurosceptic MEPs, almost half belong to the National Front (FN), France's far right party. Marine Le Pen, its president, failed to form a parliamentary group, which means less visibility and money.
During the vote by secret ballot on Tuesday (1 July), 409 MEPs backed Martin Schulz to become President for a second term. Sajjad Karim, the British euro-reformist member of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, came second with 101 votes. His party has just 70 MEPs, which means he won favour from other European groups.
Forsaking the European anthem
MEPs from the Europe of Freedom and Democracy Party (EFD), Nigel Farage Eurosceptic group, deliberately stood up and turned their backs during the EU’s unofficial anthem, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. The group, made up of UKIP and Beppe Grillo’s party, saw their numbers jump from 31 to 48 MEPs after successful EU elections.
MEPs from the National Front chose to remain seated during the EU anthem. Both provocations had the desired effect, and pro-European MEPs reacted angrily.
"It is totally disrespectful," said Gilles Pargneaux, French Socialist MEP. "Marine Le Pen stayed seated and UKIP members stood up and turned their backs."
The National Front is now France’s number one party in Europe, having increased its number of seats from 3 to 24. Despite this victory, Marine Le Pen's influence will be limited because she failed to form a parliamentary party. She also saw her delegation lose an MEP when Joelle Bergeron left to join Farage's EFD group.
Although the number of Eurosceptic MEPs increased, there are still not enough to systematically block EU legislation. "Radicals and extremists in the European Parliament cannot form a majority," said Manfred Weber, German president of the European People's Party (EPP).
"There is a crushing majority of pro-Europeans in the European Parliament," said Martin Schulz during a press conference following his re-election as president of the Parliament. He went on to say that the Parliament will have to legislate with a larger majority. The Socialists (S&D), the right (EPP) and the Liberals (ALDE) will have to work closely together.
But the influence of Eurosceptic parties should not be underestimated. "I fear that the FN members will evolve from observers to contributors in the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee," said Sylvie Guillaume, who was elected European Parliament vice-president on Tuesday.
"Marine Le Pen likes saying that if you do not like France, leave it. Well I want to tell her: if you don't like the European Parliament, leave it!" said Socialist MEP Édouard Martin. He also warned: if there is no real economic and social progress, it will be difficult to stop the rise of the National Front. This can be applied to all Eurosceptic parties, as they continue to gather momentum.