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Showdown for far-right Patriots in quest for third-biggest group

If Le Pen’s MEPs join the Patriots as expected then it would fulfil Orbán’s stated goal of claiming the third-largest group, since they would overtake both ECR and Renew.
If Le Pen’s MEPs join the Patriots as expected then it would fulfil Orbán’s stated goal of claiming the third-largest group, since they would overtake both ECR and Renew. Copyright Luca Bruno/Copyright 2018 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Luca Bruno/Copyright 2018 The AP. All rights reserved
By Gerardo Fortuna
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Viktor Orbán’s bid to make his new far-right alliance the third force in the European Parliament reaches its climax this week – but whether the group will be able to wield clout in the Parliament remains moot.

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A month after the EU elections, the new far-right Patriots group is the only one remaining to be constituted.

The emergence of the new far-right alliance Patriots for Europe, founded by Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz and former Czech Premier Andrej Babiš' ANO, reshuffled the cards in the far-right pack. Heralded from a Viennese hotel last weekend with the clear intention of becoming the largest right-wing group in the European Parliament, the alliance began drawing parties from the orbit of the Identity and Democracy (ID) group, such as founder party, the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) and later last week, Portugal’s Chega.

Italy’s Lega, which dominated ID in the previous mandate, has also shown support for Orbán’s initiative, with head of delegation Paolo Borchia referring last Friday to his group's association with ID in the past tense. 

Last week, the Patriots attempted to convince Poland's Law and Justice (PiS) party's 20 MEPs to join the group, but PiS eventually decided to stay, likely using the Patriots’ offer to leverage internal positions in conservatives' ECR.

But the Patriots struck ECR from another direction, convincing the group's Spanish delegation, far-right Vox, to defect.

A few hours later, Geert Wilders from PVV announced his Dutch nationalist party would join the project, followed by the Danish People’s Party and the Flemish nationalist Vlaams Belang on Saturday – leaving Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) the only party still remaining in ID, for which the name group is now clearly redundant.

Waiting for Le Pen’s move

Ahead of Monday's constitutive meeting called by Orbán, the Patriots can count on ten MEPs from Hungary’s Fidesz, seven from Babiš’ ANO, six from Austria’s FPÖ, two from Portugal’s Chega, six from Spain’s Vox, six from the Dutch PVV, one from the Danish People’s Party and three from Belgium's Flemish nationist Vlaams Belang - a total of 41 MEPs.

Once the eight MEPs from Lega are added to the tally the Patriots could reach 49 MEPs. That seems all but certain after Lega's frequent expressions of support for Orbán’s initiative over the past week: Lega also hailed Vox’s move to the Patriots as “a very important sign” in an official note on Friday.

This would be enough to institute a group - which requires 23 MEPs from seven national delegations' criteria - but the Patriots also want to bag Le Pen’s 30 MEPs, the largest national delegation in the European Parliament, to complete Orbán’s grander plan for the far right.

Until today, RN's "battle of their life" in the French elections has kept them away from group negotiations, an ID source told Euronews. But communication channels are open, the source said, and Le Pen views Orbán’s initiative positively.

RN leader Jordan Bardella did not mention the Patriots’ initiative explicitly during his speech in the aftermath of French elections on Sunday evening but said their MEPs will be joining "a large group that will have an influence on the balance of power in Europe, rejecting the flood of migrants, punitive ecology, and confiscation of our sovereignty."

That Rassemblement National will ask to join is considered a given since their MEPs will be homeless in the Parliament after the disintegration of ID, and remaining non-affiliated would leave the party out of pocket on expenses and influence.

If Le Pen’s MEPs join the Patriots as expected, then it would fulfil Orbán’s stated goal of claiming the third-largest group since they would overtake both ECR (on 78 MEPs) and the liberal Renew Europe (76 MEPs), with the latter falling from third-largest to the fifth-largest group in the space of a fortnight.

“We’re sure that, being the third-largest group, we send a clear signal to the federalist extremists and defend a Europe of national states,” said former ID Spitzenkandidat and Danish MEP Anders Vistisen, who announced his intention to join the Patriots on Saturday.

On Sunday, Vistisen told Danish daily Berlingske he will be appointed chief whip of the new group at today’s constitutive meeting.

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Exclusion from top jobs

Ursula von der Leyen has stated that she'll not engage with any far-right group in negotiations next week to secure her bid for re-appointment as Commission chief.

Regardless of size, the Patriots are not expected to gain any positions of clout, such as committee chairs or vice-presidents in the European Parliament, as a result of a so-called cordon sanitaire, which sees the centrist and left-wing forces of the parliament freeze far-right groups from internal power sharing.

The Patriots also missed an important internal deadline last Thursday. The Parliament’s outgoing President Roberta Metsola explained ahead of the EU summit last month that those groups constituted by 4 July would then start to negotiate among themselves on positions of influence.

Although groups can be constituted at any time, whether the Patriots will be able to take their divvy of the parliament's top jobs as a result of missing last week's deadline remains to be seen. A parliament source noted however that the deadline is only procedural and that “a late submission would only make a sleepless night for those preparing the assignments' sheets.”

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Even when far-right groups are assigned top posts in early power-sharing talks, however, such appointments have failed to garner necessary confirmation votes later in the parliament, with the cordon sanitaire snaring the parties at this final stage.

If the far-right group, which accounts for 11% of seats of the whole hemicycle, is kept out of the job division, this will benefit the other groups – particularly the three largest – which would then be over-represented in the Parliament’s top jobs.

The Ultra Far-Right

The Patriots' prospects for growth beyond National Rally are very limited. The other potential candidate to join, Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), is still at odds with Le Pen’s party.

Comments from AfD lead candidate Maximilian Krah downplaying Nazism sparked Le Pen's wrath, leading to the expulsion of the party, already marred by multiple scandals from her parliamentary group ahead of the EU elections.

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A source in the ID group told Euronews that “there are close to zero chances that AfD will join the Patriots,” while other parties’ sources confirmed that talks had at least been attempted.

AfD’s large delegation of 15 MEPs could potentially attempt to create another ultra-far-right group, supporting the Patriots’ cause externally. Group sources have told Euronews that talks have taken place between AfD and MEP Ivan David, a Czech member of ID deterred from joining the Patriots due to the membership within the group of rival party, Babis’ ANO.

The two parties would need another seven MEPs from five countries to form a parliamentary group, and they can fish in the non-affiliate pot to do so.

A party source familiar with far-right suggested AfD could aim for Spain’s The Party is Over (three MEPs), Greece's far-right patriotic movement Niki (one MEP), Hungary’s Our Homeland Movement (one MEP), Latvia’s First Party (one MEP), SOS Romania (two MEPs), and Bulgaria’s Revival (three MEPs) – all of which remain unclaimed by other groups.

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Both the Patriots and any hypothetical ultra-right group led by AfD could continue to seek new members from within the conservative ECR group, as happened with Vox, in the next week, the source added.

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