Breaking the Resistance How Brussels Is Integrating Its Euro-Skeptics

One year ago, more euro-skeptics got elected to the European Parliament than ever before, including a number of MEPs from Austria, Britain, France and Greece. They wanted to attack Europe from within, but instead the EU transformed them.

Natalie Hill / DER SPIEGEL

By , and in Brussels and Strasbourg

When Jonathan Arnott thinks about Europe, what he sees is a soulless, bureaucratic monstrosity. Sofia Sakorafa views it as an system of repression. Barbara Kappel sees it as a failed economic experiment, while Edouard Ferrand sees in Europe an attack on everything his country has achieved.

Arnott, Sakorafa, Kappel and Ferrand were all elected to the European Parliament one year ago. They are four out of 751 parliamentarians, and all four are new to Brussels. Arnott is a math teacher from Sheffield, England. Sakorafa was a track and field athlete before becoming a politician and grew up in Tikala, a small city in Greece. Kappel graduated with a degree in economics and hails from Tyrol in Austria. And Ferrand was born in Lyon and worked as an investment advisor in Paris.

The four didn't know each other prior to European Parliament elections in May 2014. And they have little in common -- except for one thing. They view themselves as resistance fighters with a common enemy: the European Union. They are right-wing populists like Ferrand, a Frenchman, who is a member of Front National; Kappel, an Austrian with the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ); and the Brit Arnott of the UK Independence Party (UKIP). But Sakorafa is a leftist radical from Greece and a member of the governing Syriza party. They all ran for office in order to wrest power from Brussels, an undertaking supported by a large number of people in Europe. Indeed, almost one-third of the members of European Parliament belong to the anti-EU camp -- more than ever before.

The year since the European elections was a chaotic one for the European Union. The election of Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission proved to be a test of power and parliament became a battlefield for the populists. And Europe has faced massive problems beyond Brussels as well: Greece's potential exit from the euro zone has dominated the debate, as has Russian aggression in Ukraine. Refugees drowning in the Mediterranean Sea have also become a focus of Brussels politics.

These four politicians, who SPIEGEL followed for close to a year, were right in the middle of these debates. How did they come to terms with a system they actually opposed? How much influence have they had on the EU's power apparatuses? What have they been able to change? And how did they themselves change?

Tuesday, July 1, 2014, Strasbourg

Europe's enemies don't wait long before making their positions clear. As the EU's anthem, Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," plays during the opening session of parliament, Ferrand and his colleagues with Front National remain seated. Jonathan Arnott and his UKIP friends stand up, but turn their backs to the music.

With 24 seats in parliament, Arnott's party represents the largest anti-EU delegation, followed by Front National with 23 seats. Strategists with both parties have spent the preceding weeks trying to find allies to create a party group. Having a group in European Parliament means access to EU funding, translators and greater influence in the apparatus. The euro-skeptics want to establish that kind of a power base.

There are four euro-skeptic blocs within parliament. They include the right-wing radicals with the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD), with 47 members, including the UKIP delegates; the more moderate right with the European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR) faction, with 73 members; and the environmentalist-socialist hotheads with the European United Left-Nordic Green Left, with 52 seats, including those belonging to Syriza, the radical left party of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. Finally, there are the 51 seats belonging to right-wingers who fall outside of the factions, the so-called Non-Inscrits, who include Austria's FPÖ and Front National.

Wednesday, July 2, Brussels

Arnott moves into his office on the third floor of the Altiero Spinelli Building, where other members of parliament also have their work spaces. The room is located in a side corridor between an empty office and a conference room. Arnott realizes that, unlike many of his other colleagues, there's no shower in his office. Furthermore, the foldout sofa on his wall unit won't pull out. He asks the administrative staff to fix it. But the wait will turn out to be a long one.

Arnott views Europe as an immovable, satiated monster. The 34-year-old has a preference for roasted meat and speaks with a broad Yorkshire accent. In school, he played a lot of chess and traveled to competitions all across Europe, but Arnott has always been an outsider. At the age of 20, he signed his application to become a member of UKIP. "I wanted to change something," he says. He liked the party's incompleteness, its rebelliousness. He worked in Sheffield as a math teacher and later served as UKIP's general secretary.

His electoral district is located in northeast England, an area with high unemployment, lots of rain and numerous shipyards that have been shut down. Since his election to European Parliament, he has been a member of the budget and budgetary control committees. During plenary sessions, he likes to make statements about rules of procedure -- Arnott wants to strike his opponents using their own weapons. He also wants to stop the flood of new laws coming from Brussels. "I feel like King Canute fighting against the waves," says Arnott. His hope is that if opponents of the EU on the left and right stick together, they will be able to keep "creeping federalization" at bay.

Tuesday, July 15, Strasbourg

Jean-Claude Juncker is to be elected as the new president of the European Commission, the first test of power. Juncker is a passionate European -- and a figure of hatred among euro-skeptics. In order to get elected, he requires an absolute majority of at least 376 votes in parliament.

Sakorafa, the European parliamentarian with Syriza, is convinced that the European austerity program is responsible for the humanitarian crisis in Greece and that Juncker backs this neo-liberal policy. She mentions Junckers' alleged involvement in the tax scandal in Luxembourg. "How can you be an honest head of the Commission when you have done dishonest things at home?" she asks.

In Sakorafa's view, Europe is not a democracy -- it's an exploitative system controlled by corporations and banks and their helpers in politics. She is 58-years-old and acts with the determination of an activist who considers compromise to be a waste of time. It's an approach that has made her one of the most popular politicians in Greece. She often uses the word "terror" when she speaks about Europe. She got kicked out of the Social Democratic party five years ago when she voted against austerity measures proposed by her prime minister.

When parliament votes on Juncker, Sakorafa casts her ballot against him, just as Barbara Kappel, Jonathan Arnott and Edouard Ferrand all do. Juncker has many critics, but in the end, he gets 422 votes. Nevertheless, 56 members of the three parties that are supporting Juncker's candidacy -- the center-left Social Democrats, the center-right European People's Party and the Liberals -- do not cast ballots for him.

Juncker begins his term weakened and the euro-skeptics are able to record their first success. They have proven that they can work together -- and they begin preparing for the next attack.

Monday, Sept. 1, Brussels

Kappel meets his office neighbor on the seventh floor of the Willy Brandt House for the first time. He's Hans-Olaf Henkel, the former head of the powerful Federation of German Industries, who ran for parliament with the conservative, right-wing Alternative for Germany (AFD) party. Politically, they're not so far apart. Kappel extends his hand in greeting.

"Oh, are you a fan?" Henkel asks.
"No, a colleague. My office is located next to yours," Kappel answers.
"Interesting." says Henkel.

Barbara Kappel views Europe as a centralized state controlled by Brussels, and one that has too much power. The 50-year-old speaks five languages and doesn't like being described as "right-wing." She could have become economics minister in her native Austria if her party, the FPÖ, had gotten elected into the government in 2013. Now she's having to get used to being relatively unknown in Brussels. She has promised voters that she will become prominent and that she intends to be among the top-third in productivity rankings among members of parliament.

For the FPÖ, she's the ideal candidate -- intelligent, qualified, female and good looking. As a moderate businesswoman, her attractiveness extends far into the conservative middle class. She appeared wearing a tennis skirt in a campaign ad. Whereas the FPÖ has been fighting in Austria against the "deprivation of rights of the people and parliaments" by the EU, Kappel has distanced herself from hardliners and says things like: "A return to the Austrian schilling is nonsense. Nobody wants that." For her, holding a seat in parliament will be a challenging exercise in party discipline.

Tuesday, Oct. 14, Vienna

Kappel speaks about her experiences as a member of parliament at an evening discussion panel and gives a euphoric presentation. After less than five months in Brussels, she sounds like a fan of the EU. Some listeners are surprised by her liberal tones. "She's a little too tame," one senior FPÖ politician comments about Kappel, slightly perturbed.

Thursday, Oct. 16, Brussels

A Latvian member of European Parliament makes the surprise announcement she will be leaving the EFDD and the right-wing group collapses. For UKIP, this could mean losses of €2 million a year. Jonathan Arnott's party suspects the development is the result of plotting by European Parliament President Martin Schulz, who wants to weaken the euro-skeptics. The UKIP parliamentarians frantically search for a replacement from another country -- necessary to satisfy the requirement that party factions in European Parliament include delegates from at least seven countries -- and four days later they announce success: A parliamentarian from the New Right in Poland is now on board. So far, most of the attention the party has gotten is for the racist and misogynistic quotes of its chairman. The Poles were even too extreme for the Front National. But Arnott is pleased that his faction has been saved.

Tuesday, Oct. 21, Strasbourg

It's almost 8 p.m. when Jonathan Arnott arrives at the microphone. Members of parliament have already spent hours discussing the 2015 EU budget, debating dozens of motions. The Greens have introduced a motion that would cut EU subsidies to bull breeders if their animals are used in bullfighting arenas. Arnott believes the motion makes sense. "I went to a bullfight as a teenager in Spain and it was disgusting," he says. Besides, he also fundamentally supports any decision by the EU to disburse less money.

Standing at the microphone, Arnott says he doesn't intend to give a speech -- he only wants to ask questions. "Will you vote to scrap EU subsidies for bullfighting? At a time of austerity, we don't need a self-aggrandizing museum. Will you vote to scrap the House of History? Will we vote to cut our own salaries and allowances?"

The bullfighting episode illustrates how difficult it is for euro-skeptics to find consensus. Barbara Kappel abstains in the vote, but leftist Sakorafa is for it, as is Arnott. Edouard Ferrand of the Front National votes against the motion.

In the end, there are 323 "yes" votes, 309 for "no" and 58 abstentions. "We won," Arnott thinks to himself, before realizing they have failed to reach the absolute majority of 376 votes required. And so the EU will continue co-financing bullfighting in Spain. Arnott is disappointed.

Ferrand, on the other hand, is content with the result because, once again, a grand nation has prevailed over the conformity enforced by Brussels. "The corrida (bullfighting) is a part of an identity that we stand up for in the Front National," he says. "It's a national tradition that has to be preserved." One of the reasons the populists are divided is that they are fighting for different goals. They are primarily fighting for their own national interests.

Ferrand sees Europe as an intruder that is destroying the European peoples' cultures, diversity and democracies. With his youthful face, side part and horn-rimmed glasses, he comes across as younger than his 50 years. He can pronounce "Brussels" in a way that makes it sound like a terrorist organization. At the same time, Ferrand says he likes the city and that its restaurants are excellent. "As a Frenchman, I feel very at home here," he says.

But he also feels that the EU apparatus is withdrawn, unworldly and misanthropic. In recent years, he argues that Europe has become "terribly Germanized." A flag bearing the coat of arms of Burgundy, the location of his electoral district, hangs in his office. As a member of parliament, he says he wants to focus on agricultural policy. To that end, he's a member of parliament's Agricultural Committee. Ferrand fights for the interests of French farmers and vintners and for lavender from Provence, all the while fighting against bananas from Chile. The only way to end the scourge of European mismanagement, he argues, is to leave the EU. "We need to get ourselves out of this extortion," he says.

Wednesday, Oct. 22, Strasbourg

Juncker presents his new Commission for a vote. It took weeks of wrangling over the posts before all 28 member states were content. Some 423 members of parliament are prepared to agree on the cabinet. But there are also 209 "no" votes, including those of Sakorafa, Arnott, Ferrand and Kappel. "The Commission is the root of all evil," says Ferrand.

Thursday, November 27, Strasbourg

It is intended as a coup. Parliamentarians from Front National, UKIP, FPÖ and other right-wing populist parties have introduced a no-confidence vote against Jean-Claude Juncker. It is the right wing's first frontal assault, an attempt to topple the European Commission president. Juncker, when he was prime minister of Luxembourg, caused billions of euros in tax shortfalls in other EU countries, the no-confidence motion reads, by supporting tax relief for companies in Luxembourg. EU detractors are ecstatic about the coalition that has formed in opposition to Juncker's commission, but there is a problem. The no-confidence motion comes from the right-wing and leftist EU critics who, although they too would like to hurt Juncker, don't want to help the right wing score political points. In the end, only 101 parliamentarians vote in favor of the no-confidence vote, including Arnott and Ferrand. Sakorafa abstains, as do her fellow Syriza members. And once again, EU opponents find themselves split, unable to agree on a common line despite having a common enemy.

Kappel, the representative from Austria, doesn't take part in the vote, thus rebelling against the FPÖ line. As the prime minister of Luxembourg, she argues, Juncker was merely trying to do what was best for his country, adding that you have to see the tax issue from the perspective of the times. "Just saying 'no' all the time isn't a solution," she says. She wants to remain authentic. And when the leader of her delegation threatens to report her rebellion to Vienna, she sends back a text message reading: "Go ahead. I don't have to do anything. I am free."

Monday, Dec. 15, Strasbourg

In a discussion of "matters of political importance," European Parliament is debating, among other issues, the €315 billion package that Juncker would like to assemble to stimulate the economy. Sofia Sakorafa and Barbara Kappel both are on the list of speakers.

Kappel tells the gathered parliamentarians that Juncker's plan is not made up of "real money." Rather, the EU is merely providing €21 billion, which then must be supplemented by EU member states and investors. She demands a real fund, one that really does create incentives to invest. It is a critical, but constructive speech.

Sakorafa, for her part, uses her 60 seconds for an attack on those with power. Juncker must come clean, she demands, about the amount of money the Greek state was deprived of via the "legal tax fraud" perpetrated by Luxembourg. "I'm talking to Mrs. Merkel, the preacher of austerity and morality and ask her to give the names of those who bribed on behalf of German companies such as Siemens and Rheinmetall in Greece in order to do business," she tells parliament.

Sunday, Jan. 25, Athens

In Greek parliamentary elections, Syriza comes out on top -- and charts a confrontational course in Athens' debt battle with the EU. Sofia Sakorafa celebrates the election victory as an affirmation. "The voters know that I won't change my positions," she crows.

Sakorafa is a fighter. Prior to her political career, she was a javelin thrower and a physical education teacher. "I have a lot of stamina and endurance," she says. After just a few weeks in Brussels, she says, she was "disappointed by how the EU functions." She hardly speaks any English and her husband often accompanies her to Brussels and Strasbourg to help with the language. Sakarofa says she is aware that, as a radical leftist, she is something of an outsider. But she wants to "get the best possible deal" for her country, "given the circumstances." She doesn't attempt to obscure the fact that her main focus is representing the interests of her fellow Greek citizens. Which is why she would like European Parliament to address the issue of German World War II reparation payments to Athens.

Wednesday, Jan. 28, Brussels

Jonathan Arnott's fold-out sofa still hasn't been repaired, seven months after his initial complaint. He writes a piece for a local paper in his electoral district with the headline: "The screw in my sofa was too tight -- but the whole European Union system has a screw loose." The sofa, Arnott makes clear, is a metaphor for EU bureaucracy. "Ever wondered why we get such little value from the £55+ million we hand over to Brussels every single day from our taxes?"

Just a few days after the article appeared, workers arrive to install a new sofa-shelving unit in his office.

Monday, Feb. 23, Brussels

Parliament is discussing the TTIP trans-Atlantic free trade agreement and Edouard Ferrand is on the list of speakers. His staff has been working for months to cripple the treaty with amendments. Americans, Ferrand says, eat hormone-treated beef and cloned sheep. How sick must you be to want such a thing, he wonders?

"Is this Europe still able to fulfil the desires of its citizens?" he calls out to the gathered parliamentarians. He says he wonders why parliament has even been consulted on an issue which, he insists, has already been decided. At the end of his speech, he scolds a fellow Frenchman for having dared to address parliament in English. "I would have preferred it were you, as a Frenchman, to have used the language of Molière."

Thursday, March 5, Rh ône Valley

Ferrand is stomping through a field of gnarled vines in a pair of brown wingtips. It is a sunny day, but the mistral is blowing cold across the plains of Châteauneuf du Pape. "This is France," Ferrand says. He wants to get French farmers more engaged in European Union agricultural policy, which is why he has launched his own, private "Tour de France." He has visited 10 regions thus far.

On this day, he finds himself in Departement Vaucluse, where he is meeting with local winegrowers in a hotel. They complain that more and more vineyards are being bought up by Arabs or Chinese. "You shouldn't expect any support from Brussels," Ferrand tells them. The EU is hurting French agriculture: "We are contributing much more than we are getting back." Europe, he says, is a gigantic mistake.

Ferrand may be an opponent of Europe, but he is proud of his mandate. After nine months in office, he now understands Brussels and tells his constituents how the apparatus works.

Sunday, March 29, Paris

Front National wins 22 percent of the vote in French regional elections and emerges as the country's third strongest party. "We were underestimated, but that is no longer the case," Ferrand says.

Wednesday, April 15, Brussels

Some 30 parliamentarians have gathered in room 4B001 in the Paul Henri Spaak Building, including people from Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom, Front National and FPÖ. It is a collection of non-attached, right-wing members of European Parliament and the atmosphere is conspiratorial. They are talking about increased tariffs on goods from China, about refugees and about the free-trade agreement. Furthermore, the European Investment Bank has invested €7.2 billion outside of the EU -- a scandal for those present. Why wasn't that money spent in Europe?

"We should demand a report on where the billions went," says the Frenchman Ferrand. "After all, it's our money." His colleagues nod in agreement.

At the conclusion of the meeting, a Front National member warns: "What we are doing here is being watched closely. They are looking for our mistakes and want to find something they can use to drive us out of here." He is referring to journalists, other parliamentarians and the EU fanatics in the Commission. The right-wing members of European Parliament feel like they are under surveillance and under pressure.

Thursday, May 7, England

In British general elections, UKIP wins 13 percent of the vote to become the third strongest party. Jonathan Arnott sees the result as proof that a majority of the country would like to turn their backs on the EU.

The EU opponents are on the advance -- in their home countries as well -- and the EU is helping them along. Even the most decisive EU detractors receive expenditure allowances, office space and staff -- all of which benefits the national parties. Like all members of European Parliament from his party, Arnott donates 10 percent of his monthly base salary of €8,023.53 to UKIP headquarters in London. As such, the EU is one of the most important financers of the Europe-haters.

Europe this year, though, has thus far managed to largely neutralize its detractors. The EU opponents often join together in smaller groups on an issue-by-issue basis, but rarely are they able to form a uniform opposition. Indeed, they are more likely to engage in bitter in-fighting, meaning that they have failed to become much of a danger to the EU.

More importantly, parliament has been able to integrate its opponents by way of the heavy workload. Barbara Kappel, for example, was chosen as rapporteur of the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy, a high honor for a non-aligned parliamentarian. Furthermore, she has achieved her goal of joining the top-third in MEP productivity. On the website earlier this month, she was listed 231st of 751 parliamentarians in a ranking system based primarily on speeches held, motions made and questions asked. Kappel has gotten used to Brussels.

Jonathan Arnott focuses on the budget, Edouard Ferrand on agriculture. The system can crush individual parliamentarians if they don't watch themselves, a process EU officials call "programmed osmosis." By doing so, the EU has the capacity to completely integrate erstwhile opponents.

Arnott says that there are two reasons why his plan to reduce the flood of laws coming from Brussels failed. First, it is almost impossible to make inroads into the block of pro-EU parliamentarians. Social Democrats, the European People's Party and the Liberals tend to push through legislation by themselves, he says. Second, he had hoped to be able to cooperate more closely with the left, but that hasn't panned out.

But Brussels has changed Arnott. He says he has become more open and more eloquent, and he no longer feels like an outsider quite as often. "Recently, I gave an interview to Spanish television, in Spanish," Arnott says. He is proud of the fact that journalists were interested in hearing his opinion. Europe, in short, has transformed him into the politician that he had wanted to become. In a certain sense, he has arrived.


Discuss this issue with other readers!
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billcstf04 06/01/2015
1. attitudes
having spent several years as a lobbyist in Brussels I am particularly appalled by the corruption and self serving ways of the bureaucracy. I think the EU is an amazing and worthwhile project totally undermined by the bureaucracy. One of the major problems is that most people do not even notice. I remember criticizing a proposal which was going to make a serious problem worse and was told that as an outsider, i.e. an Irishman I could not know enough of the IPR problems in Europe to comment. unfortunately that seems to be the attitude of the staff.
spon-facebook-1270454953 06/02/2015
2. strategic planning
Keep your friends close. Keep your enemies closer. (Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola)
delia 06/02/2015
3. What is the EU, anyway?
I used to think that the EU was the bravest, the worthiest, and the most progressive experiment on the planet. That notion came crashing down during the time of the constitution/treaty/agreement/whatever, when the only two countries where a referendum was permitted turned it down flat. When I finally took the time to research it, I could understand why. Today, I can related to Ms Sakorafa: “Europe is not a democracy -- it's an exploitative system controlled by corporations and banks and their helpers in politics.” Now, when I think of Europe, I envision a well-fed homo economicus, a "begeisterte" neoliberal who has no loyalties to anything but The Market. It's sad.
Inglenda2 06/02/2015
4. Overpaid but absolutely incapable
What complete rubbish! Of course there will always be a number of politicians who live by the thesis of :If you cannot beat them, join them. Nevertheless, it is the European Commission policies which are turning pro-Europeans like myself into sceptics. This totally illegitimate and undemocratic organisation has done more to destroy the good idea of a united Europe, than any nationalists could ever have done. The European parliament should do the job it is paid for and would do well to start by ridding themselves of such a commission. Politicians such as Jean-Claude Juncker are the cause, not the cure of scepticism.
emeryderek 06/06/2015
5. Globalization
Navel gazing and bureaucracy will not make the EU into a competitive economy in world terms. Mckinsey reckon the impact of change is 3000 times in the Industrial Revolution, the centre of world trade will be Asia and nearly half of the world biggest companies will have the HQs in the developing world by 2025. I'm not convinced anybody realizes this will be a problem for the EU whose economy is flat-lining.
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