The Eurosceptic ECR group in the European Parliament, which counts British Conservative MEPs among its members, voted on Thursday to accept Germany’s anti-euro Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party into the bloc.
The tally of the secret ballot was not released, Reuters reports, but members said it was 29 votes for, 26 against. Two members of Cameron’s Conservatives defied his call to vote against the AfD, sources said; had they obeyed, the German party would have been rejected, according to the news agency.
This move is set to incense Angela Merkel, as the AfD and its seven MEPS represent something of a new thorn in the German chancellor’s right side.
In addition Merkel’s CDU is, together with its Bavarian ally the CSU, the main force in the centre-right pro-European EPP group in the European Parliament, a group the British Conservatives left after the 2009 European elections to create the ECR. Now, with 63 MEPs, including the AfD’s seven and one newly admitted Bulgarian MEP, the moderate Eurosceptic group is the third largest group in the EP, ahead of the pro-European centrist ALDE and the Greens.
The AfD joining the ECR will also add to the tensions between Merkel and the British Prime Minister and Conservative leader David Cameron, after their row about the possible appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as the next European Commission president.
The vice-chairman of the CDU, Armin Laschet, has said the AfD had exposed its true nature by joining the ECR group. “It is working with anti-German Polish nationalists in a group that is in favour of Turkish membership of the EU (…) This is AfD’s first breach of its word to its voters.” Another senior CDU official, Thomas Strobl, said it would certainly not make cooperation between the EPP and the ECR group in the European Parliament easier, according to the news agency.
In an apparent effort to ease the tensions, a Conservative spokesman said Cameron was “very disappointed” by the decision, made against his will, and referred to Merkel’s CDU and ally CSU as the Conservatives’ “sister party.”
"Victory" to join "comrade-in-arms"
The AfD wasted no time in celebrating the decision. AfD leader Bernd Lucke is quoted by Reuters as saying: “Our successful admission is a victory against those who put huge pressure on members of the (ECR) group because they wanted to prevent, for domestic political reasons, the AfD from being recognised and strengthened”
He was not the only one expressing delight over the decision. “I am happy to have found in the ECR comrades-in-arms who share the same value and objectives,” AfD deputy leader and newly-elected MEP Hans-Olaf Henkel wrote on the party’s website. “And I am impressed that the British MEPs intervened in favour of the AfD despite the enormous pressure by their party’s leadership in London and the meddling of chancellor Merkel on the vote.”
Although the AfD is not opposed to the European Union, according to Reuters, it has suggested weaker members should leave the single currency and it disagrees with Merkel’s broader European policy. It also opposes a planned free-trade agreement between the EU and United States, which the EPP – and David Cameron – support in majority.
There are still questions over just how moderate the ECR can remain: back in April, an AfD spokesperson told euronews in a e-mail that “we are conservatives and no right-wing extremists (…) there will be no cooperation with right-wing extremists.” Yet, the AfD MEPs now sit with two MEPs, one from the Danish People’s Party and one from Finland’s True Finns, with “criminal convictions for inciting ethnic tension” according to the Financial Times.
Contacted by euronews numerous times for a comment on the matter, the AfD had not answered by time of publication.
Farage's EFD threatened despite Grillo's support
Last week the Danish People’s Party and Finland’s True Finns party also joined the ECR, leaving Nigel Farage’s Europe of Freedom and Democracy group.
This move came as a surprise to many observers and prompted criticism of David Cameron . It also threatens the survival of Nigel Farage’s EFD group in the European Parliament.
These defections are only partially offset, in number of MEPs if not in number of states needed (7), by the rallying on Thursday evening of Italy’s 5-Star Movement and its 17 MEPs to Farage’s UKIP within the EFD.
The news was a relief for Farage, who continues to struggle to form a political group in the European Parliament.
Shortly after the results were published, 5-Star’s leader comedian Beppe Grillo, who met with Farage in the beginning of June, tweeted a photograph of Farage grinning over a pint of beer raised in an apparent toast, Reuters reports.
According to results posted on a blog run by Grillo, 78.1 percent of the group’s voters chose UKIP, while 11.9 percent abstained. Only ten percent of 5-Star, which burst onto Italy’s political scene for the first time last year, opted for the ECR, Reuters reported.
Despite finding himself hard-pressed to find partners in the European parliament, Nigel Farage has in the past repeatedly rejected the idea of collaborating with France’s Marine Le Pen and her far-right allies to form a political group.
Le Pen’s prospective group is itself striving to gather MEPs from seven different countries, a prerequisite when it comes to forming a political group. After being announced as an ally of Le Pen, Lithuania’s Order and Justice party denied leaving their current EFD group. “The news according to which we have changed or are about to change groups in the European parliament is totally wrong,” an adviser to party leader and former president Rolandas Paksas told the AFP.