Theodoros Benakis

Reflecting on the far-right in the next European Parliament

Flickr/European Parliament/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Marine Le Pen will not run for the European Parliament and will probably leave the leadership of the far-right Group to Matteo Salvini.

The contacts that Italy’s far-right leader and deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini recently had with the ruling parties of Poland and Hungary gave rise to speculations regarding a huge far-right and conservative alliance in the next European Parliament.

The rejection of such an alliance came last week from the Hungarian state secretary Szabolcs Takacs, who declared that there are common views between Viktor Orban and Salvini regarding the danger immigration represents for Europe, but there is no other political affinity.

A similar take came from the conservative PiS in Poland.

In fact, although Orban’s actions and policies in Hungary overcome in many aspects those of Salvini in Italy, the Hungarian Prime Minister understands that his interests should be kept inside the safe waters of a large European family, in his case the European People’s Party (EPP). Orban’s government is accused of high levels of corruption related to EU funds. The leader of Fidesz is more interested in staying close to the EU coffers than in participating in a risky alliance with Salvini’s friends.

In what concerns Poland, PiS may be considered ‘ultra’ in its expression of nationalist and old fashion conservative views, but it is not a far-right party. It understands perfectly the pro-Putin role the far-right plays in Europe.

But the fact that Fidesz and PiS will not partner in Salvini’s plans does not mean the political environment in the next parliamentary session will be peaceful.

Who is far-right?

It would be a mistake to discuss the European far-right only discussing the few political parties that take part in the Europe of Nations and Freedom Group (ENF), the National Rally in France, the League in Italy, the Austrian Freedom Party of Austria and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, to mention the most important of them.

Other parties that have a typical far-right rhetoric and policy do not belong to the ENF Group since this is considered too toxic for the image they want to build in their countries. They prefer to hide inside other political Groups.

Who would deny that the Alternative for Germany (AfD) is a far-right party? The many cases related to hate speech and attempts against democracy in Germany are proof of this. But AfD does not belong to the ENF since it prefers the foggy political environment of the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Group (EFDD).

The Sweden Democrats (SD), the Danish People’s Party (DF) and the Finns party (PerusS) in Sweden, Denmark and Finland, respectively, are members of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR). But all of them advocate xenophobia and Islamophobia.

The Sweden Democrats which celebrated some successful electoral battles in recent Swedish history, are accused of ‘white supremacist’ traditions and have roots in Swedish neo-Nazism. They want to abolish the Sami Parliament and they are openly hostile to minorities of any kind. The Simon Wiesenthal Center considers the party anti-Semitic. And it is no surprise because since 2010 as many as 30% of the party’s municipal representatives had to resign after they were caught expressing racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic sentiments. The SD strongly criticises the existence of a “homosexual lobby” in Sweden (their party paper hosts articles against LGBT activities and describing homosexuality as “perversion”). It is also against the Muslim community and radically opposes immigration.

On 26 January 2016, the Danish parliament debated a law enabling Danish authorities to confiscate valuable items from refugees, infamously known as the ‘jewellery law’, under the pressure of the Danish People’s Party. The party wants to move further by checking whether asylum seekers have money in foreign bank accounts. DF wants to abolish the blasphemy clause and ‘hate speech’ clause in the Danish criminal code, in order to use freely racist and anti-Muslim rhetoric in his daily political propaganda.

On the other side of the Scandinavian world, many MPs of the Finns (its previous title was the True Finns) have made racist public statements. On 8 June 2012, Jussi Halla-aho, now leader of the party and MEP, was found guilty by the Supreme Court for disturbing religious worship and provoking ethnic agitation for his statements about Muhammad. Among other cases in October 2013, an MP invited a neo-Nazi activist as his guest to the parliament and did not react when his guest made several Nazi salutes.

Another example is the Bulgarian IMRO-Bulgarian National Movement. Its leader and Minister of Defence Krasimir Karakachanov repeatedly made racist comments against the Roma. Although nothing distinguishes the party from the far-right parties in Europe, IMRO prefers the ECR.

What we see is that the far-right is already well placed inside the European Parliament. It is also quite acceptable that far-right parties will enjoy a spectacular electoral rise in Italy and maybe in France. They will maintain and even boost their positions in Austria, Germany, the Netherlands or will mark a certain decline in Finland. The question is: will they join the new super star of ‘hate speech’ Salvini or will they opt for safer political environments?

Real difficulties

To answer the previous question, it is necessary to see what will happen in the ECR Group. Because, while there are some signs that the Group wants to continue – ECR endorsed last November MEP Jan Zahradil as their preferred ‘spitzenkandidat’ for the next European Commission President – it is not clear yet if the main conservative forces of the Group (the Polish PiS, the Czech ODS and the Belgian New Flemish Alliance) want to continue.

The camp of the ENF will have a new leader, Matteo Salvini. Marine Le Pen will not run for the European Parliament and will probably leave the first post to the Italian leader. This could pose a major problem since not all of the far-right parties are easy to digest his ‘bulldozer’ behaviour and political weight.

A first sign of this vexation was the Austro-Italian incident in October 2018 over the Austrian passports granted to Italian citizens.

After Salvini’s role in the anti-immigration arena was highly advertised, the Austrian Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of the far-right Freedom Party, pushed the idea to offer native German speakers in Italy’s border region of South Tyrol with Austrian nationality as well as Italian. This was considered a ‘casus beli’ by Salvini and relations between two countries, where far-right leaders are deputy Prime Ministers as well, were frozen for some time.

There is probably no doubt that the Austrians will be an important partner in the new ENF Group. But are those of the AfD ready to support Salvini’s exuberant leadership? Are the Swedes, the Danes etc. ready for this as well?

Until now, only the leader of the Finns had said on July 2018 according to ‘Helsingin Sanomat’ that his party has been in talks with Salvini’s League.

But Salvini and his friends are also fans and supporters of Vladimir Putin’s political choses and this represents a major problem for many parties and for their electoral base.

After all, being in a Group like ECR offers a lot. While those of the ENF are marginalised, the members of the ECR (and the EFDD) have the chance to participate in the everyday political cooperation that marks EP’s legislation procedures.

It is probably too early to predict what will happened in the far-right camp after the European Parliament elections in May. The rise of a powerful Group that will shake the European Parliament and will upwards the European policy does not appear to be an easy goal.

But instead of rejoicing with the above, we should remember that it is, after all, the European Council that decides. And because of this, the aftermath of EU elections will be characterised by more conservative politics.

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