MEP Albrecht: ‘Right-wing populists have become more professional’

Jan Philipp Albrecht [European Parliament]

Right-wing populist parties are gaining influence in Europe, but they remain uncoordinated says Green MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht, who spoke to EURACTIV Germany in an interview.

Jan Philipp Albrecht has been a Member of the European Parliament since 2009 and hails from the German party Alliance ’90/The Greens. He is vice-chair of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) and a substitute on the Committee for Internal Market and Consumer Protection (IMCO).

Albrecht published a booklet in 2012 titled, Europe on the Far Right: Right-wing extremists and right-wing populists in the European Parliament. The third, most recent version Europe on the Far Right: The radical right in the European Parliament after the 2014 European Elections will be presented to the public on 11 June, in Hamburg. The author of the brochure is Tobias Peter.

Albrecht spoke with EURACTIV Germany’s Dario Sarmadi.

The European Elections last year resulted in a shift towards the political right in Europe. How has work in the European Parliament changed since then?

Awareness for the stronger right-wing populists increased considerably in the European elections. They enjoyed success in France, the United Kingdom and in Sweden. In the meantime, these countries now have established right-wing populist and radical right forces.

But this has not changed our work in the Parliament much. Right-wing forces have still not managed to form their own political group. So far, they have been acting in a relatively uncoordinated manner.

How do radical right MEPs conduct politics in the European Parliament? What is the most impending danger?

Take the Danish People’s Party under Morten Messerschmidt as an example. It sits together with parties like the British Tories in the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) political group, which split-off from the European People’s Party (EPP). So influential right-wing extremists are sitting in the middle of the political spectrum and have influence on Europe’s conservative policy.

What do you see as the main causes of the increased strength of the right in Europe?

Right-wing forces have found a scapegoat in the EU, particularly with regard to unsavory issues like the monetary and financial crisis. Instead of criticising a certain policy in Europe, the right is shooting down Brussels as an actor. Meanwhile, European heads of state and government are fueling this situation because they themselves cannot manage to make consistent, progressive and European policy. Because voters do not see a better alternative, they vote for populist and extremist parties.

In your brochure, you list all radical right-wing parties according to country. Is there a qualitative rating? Which MEPs are particularly dangerous for Europe’s cohesion?

We do not lump all the radical right MEPs into one. But a large portion of them has ties to the violent milieu and is often anti-Semitic. Furthermore, the Austrian FPÖ, the Belgian Vlaams Belang and the Front National have been able to network at a European level and to found a common party with the European Alliance for Freedom. In this way, national right-wing forces can work at a European level and pocket EU subsidies. That is a new and dangerous quality of European right-wing extremism.

Is there a trend towards a stronger network among those in the radical right, also in the Parliament?

There is always the danger that the radical right groups in the European Parliament could form a proportionately large political group. So far, we have been lucky, and something like that has not happened due to significant contradictions among them. Because Polish ultra conservatives on the radical right, for example, who campaigned against any form of equality between women and men could not accept the liberal right-wing populist policies of Geert Wilders. But that can change quickly.

Where do you see such a threat?

The right is learning from its mistakes. In 2007, Italian representative Alessandra Mussolini founded the radical right political group “Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty”. But it fell apart after a few months, because Mussolini made some derogatory remarks concerning immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania. Nine representatives came from precisely these countries. Right-wing forces will not allow a faux pas of that kind to happen again. Marine Le Pen made a similar move when she suspended her father for anti-Semitic remarks. This decision demonstrates the constant professionalisation of the right-wing parties in Europe in their attempt to conceal misanthropic positions.

How should the EU react to this right-wing trend?

The democratic parties must speak out against the misanthropic positions of these parties and develop alternative ideas. Migration policy is one such opportunity. We have to make it clear that asylum is a human right and the radical right and racist slogans are not a solution. But so far it has been missed by the big parties throughout Europe – partially because they are simply afraid of the extremists and populists.

What are the big parties afraid of?

When right-wing populist groups celebrate election victories the big parties worry about losing more votes and influence in the future. Instead of publicly positioning themselves against the flawed and inhuman policies of these parties, they chase after their own slogans and issues. Today we have to carefully sweep up the shards that are the result of this misconduct – in the Netherlands with Geert Wilders’ PVV, for example, or in Austria with Heinz-Christian Strache’s FPÖ and in France with Marine Le Pen’s Front National. In these countries, the radical right has benefited from the fact that the big parties have joined in stirring up prejudices and racism.

Hungary is a similar case, where Viktor Orbán has been shifting further and further right due to pressure from the radical Jobbik Party. Why is the approval from Hungarian citizens still so high? And why has the patience of the European Commission, the majority of the European Parliament or the heads of government not run out by now?

At this point, one must say that the approval of Orbán’s policies is no longer based on a democratic opinion-forming process. With a two-thirds majority, Orbán was able to change the constitution to the extent that plurality and fair opinion-formation are practically impossible in the country. That should alarm the EU, especially the European People’s Party, the party family of Orbán’s own Fidesz Party.

And at the moment ,the important players in the EPP are German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Exactly. It is absurd that, years after the constitutional amendments, Merkel and Juncker have still not made sure that Hungary loses its voting power – at least until the government in Budapest adjusts its policies to fit the EU’s values. With this fearful behaviour, Merkel and Juncker are opening a Pandora’s Box. Apparently neither one of them knows what a disservice they are doing to European unity and the interests of the member states.

British Prime Minister David Cameron is also being pressured by a right-wing populist party, the Eurosceptic UKIP. Should the EU approach the UK regarding reforms, such as in limiting immigration law?

UKIP’s original position was to set fire to London’s sovereignty opposite Brussels. Now, after bad results in the parliamentary elections, the UKIP will radicalise. It is highly likely to become a proponent of right-wing extremist policies in the future.

That has little to do with Cameron’s dispute with the other EU heads of state and government. There, it is more about the question of what role the UK plays in the EU. I think it is incorrect to conduct horse-trading over the competences in the EU. Now, all those involved should seriously discuss which EU is needed for the future. Only then can they consider which less relevant issues can be regulated differently at a regional and national level.

But Cameron does not have a debate like this in mind.

Right. Cameron wants to move important competences back to London. The EU should not give up this fight for lost, but should pick it up. At the cost of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, if necessary. The further development of the EU is too important for that. I am certain that a majority of Brits also want to take such a step forward and that a majority will vote to stay in the EU.

And if not?

Then that is just how it would be. Then the EU without the UK would remain an important instrument of decision-making for all other Europeans. But it is a mystery to me, how the Brits would get through an exit from the EU. I cannot imagine that they would still be able to maintain their global influence in economics and politics.

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