The dust of the European elections had not even settled before parties on the left and right got stuck into negotiating in a bid to find common ground and create political groups in the European Parliament.
An official group in the EP receives several million euros in funds as well as staff and speaking time, among other legislative prerogatives. Parties had until midnight on Monday June 24 to gather at least 25 MEPs from at least seven different member states, the minimum requirement for forming a parliamentary group.
If for some, such as the centre-right EPP, the leftist GUE-NGL and centre-left S&D, the talks went largely smoothly, for the right-wing eurosceptic parties, the road appeared bumpier; personal ambitions had to be subdued, friendships were threatened and the balance of power between the eurosceptic blocs looks set to be altered at least for the next five years.
This is the new eurosceptic landscape:
The European Conservatives and Reformists group
By all accounts, the ECR group emerges from the 2014 European elections as the one victorious eurosceptic force. It increased its number of MEPs from 54 in the previous Parliament to 70 in the new one.
It is now the third largest political group, passing both the federalist-centrist ALDE and the Greens-EFA who had finished, respectively, in third and fourth place in 2009, when the nascent ECR reached fifth place.
No less than 12 parties have joined the ECR in the aftermath of the 2014 EP elections, a testimony to its gravitational pull; six of the new parties were elected for the first time while six parties switched from another political group to rally behind the ECR’s cause.
London MEP Syed Kamall, elected by the ECR as its leader on June 12, said after his nomination: “The ECR Group has done well from these elections. When we were formed five years ago we were dismissed, but we have worked hard to gain a strong foothold here in Brussels and in Strasbourg.” This strong position allowed the ECR to win two committee chairman seats and nine committee vice-chairman seats in the new European Parliament.
This success was possible only after the ECR welcomed several parties that, for many, remain controversial. Among those parties, the far-right Danish People Party and Finland’s True Finns.
The Financial Times covered the alliance with an article entitled “MEPs with criminal records join Tories’ eurosceptic group.” In the Guardian, Gareth Thomas, the shadow Europe minister, is quoted as saying “David Cameron must now be open with the British public about the dubious views of his new partners in Europe, and explain the decision to form an alliance with politicians whose views are rejected by many mainstream leaders across Europe. He considered these parties too extreme to ally with in 2009, so now he needs to explain what has changed.”
The two Scandinavian parties were EFD members during the previous EP, and poaching them was seen as a way of marginalising the EFD, whose de facto leader, UKIP’s Nigel Farage, is challenging David Cameron’s Conservatives in the UK. In defence of the move, ECR leader Kamall said at the time that the DPP was on a “political journey” into the mainstream. A spokesperson for the True Finns told euronews by email that the party left EFD and joined ECR to gain “influence.”
Another alliance to have courted controversy is Germany’s new anti-euro AfD party. Their seven freshmen MEPs were voted in by the group, despite alleged pressure on the ECR from Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel to do otherwise. In Germany, the AfD has been challenging Merkel’s right flank ever since its recent inception, and the very fact it was allowed to join the ECR has soured the British-German relationship further, in the context of the row over European Commission presidential candidate Jean-Claude Juncker. In an apparent effort to ease the tensions, a Conservative spokesman said Cameron was “very disappointed” by the ECR’s decision to admit AfD, made against his will, and referred to Merkel’s CDU and ally CSU as the Conservatives’ “sister party.”
In contrast, the AfD was delighted. AfD leader Bernd Lucke was 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.” The AfD deputy leader and newly-elected MEP Hans-Olaf Henkel wrote on the party’s website: “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.”
Back in April, an AfD spokesperson told euronews that “we are conservatives and no right-wing extremists (…) there will be no cooperation with right-wing extremists.” However, in the ECR, the AfD now sits with the far-right DPP and the True Finns. Contacted by euronews for a comment on the matter, the spokesperson had not answered by time of publication.
For political scientist Cas Mudde, who specialises in European populist and radical-right parties, the ECR and its broad range of allies marks them as the clear victors among eurosceptic voices. But this victory could come at a price: “The ECR is now probably the most heterogeneous group in the EP, ranging from near-Eurofederalists to near-Eurejects,” he told euronews by e-mail.
Mudde developed these ideas in an article for OpenDemocracy.net: “According to VoteWatch the ECR had a group cohesion rate of 86.7 percent in the previous EP, ranging from a low of 70.5 percent in votes on ‘regional development’ to a high of 94.8 percent in votes on ‘constitutional and inter-institutional affairs.’ A snapshot comparison showed that the DFP and PS had voted differently from the ECR in a large number of cases.” Mudde also underlines the risks of criticism in the UK, both from within and outside Cameron’s party, related to the alliance with far-right parties, which could damage Cameron’s strategy of trying to brand UKIP as a ‘far-right’ party in order to marginalise it in the 2015 general elections.
The Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group
Nigel Farage and his party, UKIP, won big in the elections. With 24 MEPs, they almost filled the quantitative quota for a group by themselves. The number of countries was a whole other problem. Due to the ECR’s influence, gathering the seven required countries proved difficult, especially as Farage rejected the idea of collaborating with France’s Marine Le Pen and her far-right allies to form a political group.
Farage scored a major political victory when Italy’s Five Star Movement voted in an online poll to join EFD instead of ECR. 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.
Several days later, Farage and his allies announced the creation of the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group from the ashes of the EFD.
Watch euronews' report on the announcement of the EFDD creation
As euronews’ correspondent in Brussels James Franey said, Nigel Farage “admitted there were differences in policy between some of its members, but said his MEPs would have a free vote.” Points of disagreements include, among other, energy policies.
The group is now comprised of the Czech Party of Free Citizens, France’s former Front National MEP Joëlle Bergeron, Italy’s Five Star Movement, the Latvian Farmers’ Union, Lithuania’s Order and Justice, the Sweden Democrats – who had historically strong ties with the defecting DPP and True Finns – and Farage’s UKIP.
“The EFD didn’t really do that much, as the groups that joined EFD, or stayed in it, at least openly stated that they would rather be non-attached than join [prospective far-right group] EAF,” Mudde told euronews by email. “The real coup has been the ECR, which significantly weakened EFD (…) [The EFDD group] is even less homogeneous now than in the last legislature.”
With 48 MEPs, the EFDD is far above the required threshold in terms of number of MEPS. It is nonetheless the smallest group in the EP. In addition, it is composed of MEPs from only seven different countries, the bare minimum. It leaves the group vulnerable to defection, poaching or blackmail.
The European Alliance for Freedom group
While the EAF was never the official name of the hypothetical group, many months of effort, confident announcements, secret talks and brash press conferences went into creating it.
But it all amounted to a failure.
On the evening of June 23, Dutch firebrand politician Geert Wilders announced he was pulling his Freedom Party out of the negotiations. “The Freedom Party wants to form a parliamentary group but not at any price.” The group’s intended cooperation with Polish right-wing party KNP – which has been accused of anti-Semitism and misogyny – was “a bridge too far.” Other parties, such as France’s Front National, who had previously open lines with the KNP, quickly shut them and denounced the Polish party.
“Mrs Le Pen has been convincing us all the time that we should only wait, and everything would be done by her and Mr Wilders with whom she had had some preliminary talks before EU elections,” a KNP spokesperson told euronews by e-mail. “On the other hand from the start there were some unpleasant comments from Mr Wilders. And all of a sudden on Sunday Mr Wilders said that he is not going to cooperate with KNP and on Monday, during the final meeting a young colleague of Mrs Le Pen informed our MEPs that due to some comments of Mr Mikke which are understood as anti-Semitic in France they are not going to cooperate with us.”
Despite pledging to continue cooperating with his prospective allies, Wilders’ decision left Italy’s Lega Nord, Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, Austria’s FPÖ, and France’s Front National hanging, two countries short of the required representation from seven member states.
“Both Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders have invested a lot in this and, in the end, fail,” explained Mudde. “Particularly Wilders has faced pushback from within the party, which now was all for nothing.”
Ludovic de Danne, EU affairs adviser to Marine Le Pen, reacted the morning after on Twitter: “No matter the treasons and the media frenzy, we shall build, with our allies, a strong and coherent political group later.” The treason he talk about, one can assume, is the rallying of former-FN MEP Joëlle Bergeron into the EFDD group. FN leader Marine Le Pen, in an interview for Le Figaro said: “ I would simply like to tell Mr Farage that ‘Ill gotten goods seldom prosper’.”
After the disappointment came what Mudde calls the “damage control”. The Front National’s vice-president, and one of its recently 25 elected MEPs, Florian Philippot told French radio Europe 1: “It is not a slap in the face. We would rather have had [a group] but we can still do it in the coming five years (…) We will do the maximum to weigh in. (…) We favour quality to the idea of having a group just for the sake of it.”
Setting up a group after the June 24 deadline is still technically possible, although it is already too late for the FN to vie for influential posts such as the vice-presidency of the parliament and committee chairs. In the meantime, Marine Le Pen and her allies will sit as non-attached MEPs.
“It will be interesting to see whether some, notably Lega Nord and Wilders’ PVV, will (re-)join EFD,” Mudde wonders.
The treachery and poaching is far from over.