Far-right ‘counter-summit’ claims ‘Europe will wake up in 2017’

France's National Front leader Marine Le Pen and Netherlands' Party for Freedom (PVV) leader Geert Wilders take a selfie with their fellow far-right leaders at a "counter-summit". [Wolfgang Rattay/ Reuters]

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen urged European voters to follow the example of Americans and the British and “wake up” in 2017, at a meeting of far-right leaders aiming to oust established parties in elections this year.

At a meeting billed as a “counter-summit”, Le Pen (Front National) told several hundred supporters in the German city of Koblenz on Saturday (21 January) that the British vote last year to leave the European Union would set off a “domino effect”.

One day after Donald Trump was inaugurated as the United States’ 45th president, Le Pen said his speech included “accents in common” with the message on reclaiming national sovereignty proclaimed by the far-right leaders meeting in Koblenz.

“2016 was the year the Anglo-Saxon world woke up. I am sure 2017 will be the year the people of continental Europe wake up,” she said to loud applause.

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Populist parties are on the rise across Europe. Unemployment and austerity, the arrival of record numbers of refugees and militant attacks in France, Belgium and Germany have left voters disillusioned with conventional parties.

Le Pen, who is seen by pollsters as highly likely to make a two-person runoff vote for the French presidency in May, has marked out Europe as a major plank in her programme.

“The key factor that is going to set in course all the dominos of Europe is Brexit,” Le Pen said. “A sovereign people chose… to decide its destiny itself.”

On Trump, she added: “His position on Europe is clear: he does not support a system of oppression of peoples.”

In a joint interview with the Times of London and German newspaper Bild published on 16 January, Trump said the EU had become “a vehicle for Germany” and predicted that more EU member states would vote to leave the bloc, as the United Kingdom did last June.

On Sunday (22 January), German Foreign Minister and soon-to-be President Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned that the Bundesrepublik it should expect “turbulent times” under Trump’s presidency but managed to find some hope in the situation.

“I know, we must prepare ourselves for turbulent times, unpredictability and uncertainty,” Steinmeier said. “But I am convinced that we will find in Washington attentive listeners, who know that even big countries need partners in this world.”

Former European Parliament President Martin Schulz is hotly tipped to succeed Steinmeier and be tasked with ushering in a new type of Berlin-Washington relationship.

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Le Pen said if elected she would ask the EU to return sovereign powers to France and hold a referendum on the outcome of negotiations she expected to follow. If the EU rejected her demands, she said: “I will suggest to the French people: exit!”

But political analyst Timo Lochocki of the German Marshall Fund said the gathering was mainly “just good PR” as the parties had little to gain from strengthening ties.

“This is largely to increase media attention,” he told AFP.

“The reasons why people vote for these parties are purely national and are independent from any alleged cross-national cooperation between the far-right.”

“Free Fatherlands”

The far-right leaders met under the slogan “Freedom for Europe” with the aim of strengthening ties between their parties, whose nationalist tendencies have hampered close collaboration in the past.

“Together with the parties represented here, we want a subsidiary Europe of free Fatherlands,” said Frauke Petry, co-leader of Germany’s anti-immigration Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

Petry meanwhile came under fire for taking part in the meeting at all, with some prominent members questioning whether the party should be cosying up to Le Pen, and in doing so, lurching further to the right.

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The AfD started out as an anti-euro party but has since gained ground by railing against Merkel’s liberal refugee policy, which has brought over a million asylum seekers to the country since 2015.

Petry used her speech to again lash out at the record influx, slamming the establishment’s calls for tolerance “while hundreds of thousands, millions, of mostly illiterate young men from a far and partly violent culture invade our continent”.

The AfD is polling at between 11-15%, ahead of a general election in September, boosting its chances of becoming the first hardline rightist party to enter Germany’s parliament since 1945.

Several leading German media were barred from the Koblenz meeting, which was organised by the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF), the smallest group in the European Parliament.

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Also at the meeting were Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch far-right Freedom Party (PVV), who was last month convicted of discrimination against Moroccans, and Matteo Salvini of the Northern League, who wants to take Italy out of the euro.

In the Netherlands, Wilders is leading in all major polls before national parliamentary elections on 15 March. Hailing Trump’s election, Wilders told the meeting: “Yesterday, a free America, today Koblenz, and tomorrow a new Europe.”

“The genie will not go back into the bottle,” he added.

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Sigmar Gabriel, the leader of Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD), a junior partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition, joined a protest outside the venue. Police said the demonstration was peaceful and about 5,000 people took part.

They displayed cardboard cutouts of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini, and some protesters carried signs that read “If you sleep through democracy, you wake up in a dictatorship”.

More than 1,000 police officers were deployed to keep the protests peaceful.

Controversy

Merkel (CDU) has ruled out meeting Le Pen ahead of the French polls, with her spokesman saying the French far-right politician’s policies have nothing in common with the German government’s.

Le Pen hit back at the perceived snub on Twitter.

“I am going to Germany to meet its future, the AfD, not its past, the CDU,” she wrote, referring to Merkel’s conservative party.

The Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) is a circle of far-right parties which formed a political group in the European Parliament.

The small group, which comprises 40 EU lawmakers from nine nations in the 751-member European Parliament, was created by French far-right leader Marine Le Pen in June 2015. It comprises the following parties:

  • France: The National Front

Established in 1972, the National Front (FN) has been led since 2011 by Marine Le Pen, who took over from her firebrand father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

The party triggered shockwaves when it leapfrogged the two main parties into first place in 2014 European elections, garnering 24.85 percent of the vote and 24 of the country's 74 seats.

Hoping to capitalise on economic gloom, as well as fears over migration and jihadist attacks, Le Pen is gearing up to contest the French presidential election.

Current polls predict she will qualify for a second-round run-off in May but ultimately lose to conservative rival Francois Fillon.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has been ostracised by his daughter, made it into the 2002 presidential run-off election against Jacques Chirac.

Chirac won the vote after other parties including the Socialists urged their supporters to rally behind him, to keep Le Pen out of the Elysée Palace.

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  • Netherlands: Freedom Party

The anti-Islam Freedom Party (PVV) of Geert Wilders, the FN's main ally in the ENF, holds 12 seats in the lower house of parliament, and four of the country's 26 seats in the European Parliament.

Surveys show the PVV might emerge as the largest party in the Dutch parliament after March 15 elections, although not with an outright majority.

Wilders has among other things vowed to confiscate Korans, close mosques and Islamic schools, shut the borders and ban migrants from Islamic countries.

  • Austria: FPÖ

The Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) was founded by former Nazis in 1956, but had a mixed membership and only veered emphatically to the far right in the 1980s.

Its entry into government in 2000 shocked the rest of Europe and led to EU sanctions against Austria.

The eurosceptic and anti-immigrant party, led by Heinz-Christian Strache, currently has 38 deputies in the 183-seat national parliament and four out of 18 seats in the European assembly.

The FPÖ's Norbert Hofer failed to become the EU's first far-right head of state after losing a runoff on December 4, 2016, but nonetheless reaped 46.2% of the vote – the FPÖ's best result to date.

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  • Italy: Northern League

The Northern League is a "regionalist" party seeking independence of regions north of the Po river, an area it calls "Padania".

The party, which has transformed into an anti-euro and anti-immigrant party since young Matteo Salvini took the reins in early 2014, secured 18 parliamentary seats in 2013 general elections and has five seats out of 73 in the European Parliament.

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  • Belgium: Vlaams Belang

The Flemish party Vlaams Belang (VB) advocates the secession of Dutch-speaking Flanders from the rest of Belgium.

However it has been in decline and has had just three of the 150 seats in parliament since legislative and federal elections in June 2014. It has been sidelined by the nationalist New Flemish Alliance.

VB has just one out of 21 seats in the European Parliament.

  • Poland: KNP

The small europhobe Polish Congress of the New Right (KNP) won four of the country's 51 seats in the 2014 European elections, of which two have joined the ENF.

  • Germany: AfD

Alternative for Germany (AfD) is not a member of the ENF, but one of its two Euro MPs, Marcus Pretzell, has joined the group in a personal capacity.

The party opposes Chancellor Angela Merkel's liberal refugee policy and it has enjoyed a surge in support in state elections over the past year.

Ahead of general elections which are likely to be held in September the party is polling at around 15%, providing a major headache to Merkel.

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Germany's right-wing populist AfD (Alternative for Germany) plans to adopt an anti-Islamic manifesto at a weekend party congress, emboldened by the rise of European anti-migrant groups like Austria's Freedom Party.

Other European Parliament deputies have also joined the ENF: Janice Atkinson, formerly of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), Romania's Laurentiu Rebega, an independent and Italy's Marco Zanni of the populist Five Star movement.

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