Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen and other far-right Eurosceptics are campaigning to get their ‘European Alliance for Freedom’ group off the ground in the next EU Parliament. But major differences remain, which could cause the group to collapse in the long term, Marley Morris says.
Marley Morris is researcher at Counterpoint UK, a think tank that monitors populism across EU member states. He spoke to EurActiv’s Laurens Cerulus.
Several populist and Eurosceptic parties have announced they will form a group in the next European Parliament. What are the issues that they will push for in the next Parliament?
The two key issues are the EU and immigration, and in particular the free movement of people. I think that it’s the fundamental core that drives these parties.
They are all Eurosceptics to some degree. But some parties haven’t prioritised this in the past years. Lega Nord, for example, has changed over time: it used to be pro-EU, as a counterbalance to its regionalism.
Overall, these parties involved in the new alliance have made efforts to confirm they have a coherent platform to stand on. It comes down to a critique of what they consider mass immigration, and what they consider EU bureaucracy, EU totalitarianism and dictatorship.
That is the essence of what holds them together, I think.
What are the main issues dividing the parties, then?
First of all, they could very well form a group, while acknowledging they disagree on lots of things. That is what the Europe for Freedom and Democracy (EFD) group is currently doing: the EFD has very low cohesion levels and disagree on lots of things.
One of the issues they are divided on is economic issues. The FN is pretty protectionist, the PVV tends to be more liberal and in favour of free trade.
Other differences include social issues, for instance gay rights. Wilders has positioned himself as promoter of gay rights, particularly in opposition to what he considers as Islamic traditions in conflict with Dutch values. Other parties, like the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), have a much more traditionalist view of the family and oppose same-sex marriage in their manifestos, for example.
On Islam we’ve seen some differences as well. Wilders takes a strong position on Islam, saying Islam is a fascist ideology. Marine Le Pen makes an effort to talk about Islam in terms of French secularism.
Another thing that is worth noticing is the direction in which these parties are going. Le Pen has made efforts to de-demonise the party. On the other hand, the PVV has started out as more moderate but has gotten more extreme. At this point, they kind of meet in the middle but they have different game plans.
The greatest threat of their cooperation, I believe, is if one of the parties makes a comment on Islam or immigration that is attacked in the press, other members could be politically pressured to kick them out of the group. That’s when there is a potential for collapse.
The UK Independence Party of Nigel Farage has clarified it does not want to be part of the group. What issues inspire him to denounce the other right-wing parties?
Farage has said he won’t work with Le Pen because he thinks there are still anti-Semitic elements within the FN. He has said he admires Le Pen and supports her de-demonisation approach. But he clearly has problems with the party as it stands.
With the PVV he has been a little bit more unclear. But, given the PVV has affirmed to work with Le Pen, Farage seems to have ruled out working with the whole group.
Are the Sweden Democrats still on the fence on whether they will join? They stand out amongst all the suggested group members.
Well, they haven’t officially confirmed whether they would join. They’ve been ambiguous about it. There are signs that they will, but they will wait until after the elections.
There are big overlaps and the party also has extremist past. But, like Le Pen and the FN, they have gone through a rebranding effort.
The difference is that the situation in Sweden makes it difficult for them to present themselves as being more respectable. And by joining the group, it could face significant stigmatisation by the mainstream media and other parties.
The Sweden Democrats also have a close relationship with the Danish People’s Party, which is a more moderate party that currently works with UKIP. This Danish party has said that if the Swedes join the new group, they will cut off all ties. So for the Sweden Democrats, there is a reputational risk involved.
Will these political tensions emerge when the European Alliance for Freedom discusses its common programme after the elections?
Wilders, Le Pen and the others have made clear statements that they want to form an ‘Iron Pact’. They have made clear efforts that they want to really stick together. I think that – if they manage to form the group – they will focus on the things they agree on. That will be enough to hold them together for now.
Now, there may be disagreements down the line which could cause the party to collapse. But as an initial platform, they have enough to start with.
The rules on forming a European political party have recently been reformed, which includes banning parties that do not “respect EU values”. Will the European Alliance for Freedom pass this test?
I think that they will not breach those values. It is pretty vaguely worded, so they can probably get around it. These parties talk about things like freedom and justice; they use these values in their everyday language, in their manifestos.
I don’t think that they should be caught out. I think that would be an absolute uproar if you try to stop the political party from forming. That would be a complete disaster. And on top of that, they do subscribe to those kinds of values, and I believe they’ll be able to circumvent the ones they could be in risk of breaching.
There is a difference between them, and parties like Golden Dawn, who have made clear anti-Semitic remarks. If they tried to form a party, you could make a particular case for it. Jobbik too. But for the parties involved in the new group, I think not.