Friday, 15 November 2013

International nationalists

The far right has a poor history of working together in international forums. An alliance brokered by Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen is seeking to reverse that trend.

"There is nothing harder to set up than a nationalists' international," wrote political scientists Michael Minkenberg and Pascal Perrineau when they analysed the performance of the radical right in the 2004 European Parliament elections. The latest attempt to disprove that truism was launched last week by Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s Front National (FN), and Geert Wilders, the Dutch maverick anti-Islam campaigner.

At a press conference held at the Dutch parliament in The Hague this week, Le Pen and Wilders announced a pact to work together to build an alliance in the next European Parliament to slay “the monster in Brussels” and wreck the Parliament from within. Given the patchy – to say the least – record of populist and nationalist groups’ attempts to join forces at European level, it was hardly surprising that scepticism dominated the initial reaction.

In the last Parliament, far-right groups briefly forged an alliance under the “Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty” group banner. But that pact fell apart after Romanian and Italian nationalists rowed over Alessandra Mussolini calling Romanians “habitual lawbreakers”. Perhaps it is not surprising that nationalists whose principal policy platform is being anti-foreigner have trouble co-operating with “foreigners”.

More loosely eurosceptic groupings hardly have a better record: since 1994, the failures include range from Europe of the Nations to Europe of Democracies and Diversities to Independence/Democracy, most of whom found they had little in common beyond a vague hostility to the European Union project. The Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD) group in the current Parliament is dominated by the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and is seen by critics both as ineffectual and as a personal vehicle for UKIP’s “dictatorial” leader Nigel Farage.

So can Le Pen and Wilders break the mould? Certainly polls suggest that the electoral wind is in their sails. Come next May’s European Parliament elections, Le Pen’s Front National may even end up with the largest number of French seats, while Wilders’s Freedom Party (PVV), after setbacks last year, is now leading the Dutch polls. No one is suggesting that die-hard eurosceptics could win a majority in the Parliament, but qualifying as a caucus, for which they need 25 MEPs from at least seven countries, could easily be within their reach. Their influence would then depend on how they used the increased profile and responsibility that status would give them.

Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Liberal ALDE group, has predicted that, in the next legislature, party differences may be irrelevant, with the Parliament instead divided between eurosceptics and federalists. The difficulty for Wilders and Le Pen will be finding a way to unite with other potential members of their caucus, even if they can paper over their own differences. These were brushed aside at their press conference. In any marriage there are disagreements, Le Pen said.

But some of those differences are stark. Wilders, from the libertarian Dutch right, is strongly pro-Israel and pro-gay, criticising Holland’s Muslim immigrants for anti-Semitism and homophobia and accusing them of failing to adapt to the ‘tolerant’ society in Holland. The FN, on the other hand, has strongly anti-Semitic currents within its ranks, though Le Pen has been at pains to present a more moderate public face than her father, Jean-Marie, who founded the party. The FN is also closely linked to the Catholic Church and opposed to gay rights: it marched against France’s legalisation of gay marriage earlier this year.

Of possible allies, UKIP’s Nigel Farage, fearful of being tarred by an extremist brush and perhaps of diluting his own influence, has already ruled out any pact with Wilders and le Pen. Neither have they yet managed to woo the Sweden Democrats, Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, Italy’s Northern League or Austria’s Freedom Party. But with the rising tide of euro-scepticism sweeping across the EU in the wake of the financial crisis and four years of austerity, the real prospect of gaining serious influence could yet tempt such groups.

Loyal separatists

Ironically, some of the most potentially powerful minority groups are in fact pro-EU. Secessionists such as the Scottish National Party and the Esquerra Republicana in Catalonia are expected to make big gains in next year’s elections. Rather than break up the EU, their ambition is to join it as independent nations. The Parliament’s separatist contingent European Free Alliance (EFA), which now consists of just seven members, could become much larger in the next Parliament and finally afford to break away from the Greens to form their own group.

Their arguments are explicitly federalist, as deployed last Wednesday (13 November) when the EFA group hosted an event in the European Parliament on “the right to decide”. The speakers, from Scotland, Wales, Catalonia, Flanders and the Basque Country, were heavily pro-integration.

This is perhaps unsurprising given that their economic argument for independence relies on the EU framework. If a future Parliament is divided along the federalist-eurosceptic lines as Verhofstadt predicts, then the separatists will sit comfortably in the federalist camp. But the nationalists will continue to object to being part of a supranational confederation. Their allegiance is to the nation, not to Europe. Whether Le Pen and Wilders can forge an alliance to make real political capital out of that allegiance remains a moot point.

1 comment:

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