The next EU Parliament will host a new Eurosceptic group on the right. EURACTIV explores if it will endure, and how it might fall apart.
As the EU elections start next Thursday, the biggest concern is the rise of Eurosceptics. Whether from the extreme right or left, anti-EU parties could gain between 20% and 25% of seats in the next EU Parliament, observes have estimated.
In November, French extreme-right leader Marine Le Pen and Dutch populist Geert Wilders clarified their plans for a new group if they secure their victories. Things are looking good for the Eurosceptic alliance dubbed ‘European Alliance for Freedom’ (EAF): Polls indicate that the future faction could get more than 40 seats.
The Dutch Freedom Party (PVV), French Front national (FN), Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) and Belgian Flemish Interest (VB) will be part of it. The Italian Lega Nord and the Sweden Democrats are likely to join the new EAF alliance. The Slovak National Party (SNS) is expected to be the group’s seventh member, needed to make the threshold to form a faction.
Once these parties confirm their alliance, the group has to table a working programme in which they outline the basis of their parliamentary cooperation. The common positions of these right-wing, populist parties are clear. But there are clear pitfalls that could threaten the concordance in the alliance, too.
Two things they will agree on
1. ‘Scrap the EU’. The common goal is clear: “We want to liberate our countries from the ‘monster’ that is Brussels,” Wilders said in November. The parties have the same dislike of the EU level and the same adherence to strict national sovereignty.
According to researcher Marley Morris of the UK-based think tank Counterpoint, they are joined in a critique on “EU bureaucracy, EU totalitarianism and EU dictatorship”.
2. Immigration. The PVV rallies against domestic Moroccans. The FN against the Roma. The Belgians in the VB and the Austrian FPÖ: all are strict in their stance on migration. They want as little as possible, fiercely defending a closed door policy.
One member of the Sweden Democrats, Marie Stendsby said in December that she hoped asylum seekers on hunger strike would “starve to death”.
The parties are likely to stand firmly united in votes that consider the free movement of persons in the EU bloc, or the Turkish accession dossier, as a consequence.
Four things they could clash on
As every party has its own history and political sensitivities, things could get tense in the long run, once they face dividing issues in the EU Parliament.
1. Economy. The parties show a difference stance on how to get their national economies rolling. “The FN wants to restore France’s economic and social fortunes by imposing protectionist measures,” a Martens Centre study of populism reads. When Wilders, however, started his political career, he was known as a classic liberal MP. The FPÖ, meanwhile, is rather ambiguous in its stance, and flip-flops between social conservatism and libertarianism in its votes.
2. Gay rights. Again, Dutch leader Wilders is the odd man out. In his crusade against Islam, he has defended gay rights as a Dutch value. Not so much for the French, Austrian, Italian or other members of the future coalition. They all take a more traditionalist, conservative stance on this value issue.
3. Israel. The Dutch PVV stands out in its approach to Israeli relations. Geert Wilders is a fierce supporter of Israel, and has travelled to the country several times. The Austrian FPÖ and French FN in particular have a history of anti-Semitism, which caused the Jewish community in the Netherlands to slam Wilders for teaming up.
4. Dialing it up or toning it down. Marine Le Pen has tried to clean up the image of her extreme-right party in France, after her father’s frequent clashes with media on anti-Semitism and xenophobia. The Sweden Democrats, too, have managed to project an image of decency, which allows them to work together with other parties.
Wilders, on the other hand, has toughened his rhetoric in the last few years and pulled his support from a Dutch minority cabinet which his PVV supported in 2010-2012. Within the Belgian VB, too, the radical wing has taken over again after a failed attempt to clean up their image some years back.
The parties are going in different directions, Morris argued. “At this point, they kind of meet in the middle, but they have different game plans.”
Efforts to sanitise the FN as a center-right party are contradicted by its own behavior, though. Just last month, the FN said it would prevent schools from offering special halal and kosher lunches to pupils with non-Christian backgrounds in 11 towns where it gained executive power in local elections last spring.
Will the alliance endure?
The Dutch broadcaster NOS commissioned a report by VoteWatch earlier this month. It looked at how the MEPs of the future group voted in 2009-2014, and showed that the parties rougly agreed in 50% of the votes. This is far below the cohesion rate of mainstream parties (around 90%).
But that doesn’t necessarily prohibit them from forming a group. The EFD, the other far-right group in the EU Parliament, has a cohesion rate of 48.59%.
Still, the leaders of the future European Alliance group have made clear statements that they want an ‘Iron Pact’. According to Morris, “They will focus on the things they agree on. That will be enough to hold them together for now.”
In January 2007, a group in the European Parliament called ‘Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty’ (ITS) was set up. It included Alessandra Mussolini, the granddaughter of the former Italian fascist dictator. After offensive remarks by Mussolini concerning Eastern Europeans, the Romanian member party dropped out and the group ceased to exist in November 2007 – the end of a ten-month stint.
It sums up the issues that the new European Alliance for Freedom could face as well. “The greatest threat,” Morris said, “is if one of the parties makes a comment on Islam or immigration that is attacked in the press. The other members could feel pressure to kick them out of the group.”
The Dutch PVV just recently faced an internal crisis when its leaders nudged an audience to shout they wanted “less, less” Moroccans in the Netherlands. The Austrian FPÖ leader, too, was investigated for anti-Semitism after posting a cartoon on his Facebook page in 2012. Just two events of turbulent party histories, which show a slip-up is always around the corner.