Politically Fractured Populists Fail To Shift EU Balance

Far-right populists are expected to make significant gains in elections for the European Parliament this spring, but the only existing populist group in the body shows these parties can shout as loud as they want but are unlikely to have much influence.

The European Parliament in Strasbourg: Populist parties are likely to make gains in elections this spring.
DPA

The European Parliament in Strasbourg: Populist parties are likely to make gains in elections this spring.

By Christopher Alessi in Brussels


On a rainy November afternoon in his cramped office at the European Parliament in Brussels, Francesco Enrico Speroni, co-chair of the right-wing populist Europe of Freedom and Democracy Group (EFD), does not mince his words: "We have not been successful."

Italy's Northern League party, which the 67-year-old Speroni has represented in the parliament on and off since 1989, and its populist allies have failed to roll back European Union integration and prevent bureaucrats in Brussels from interfering in the national affairs of member states, he says.

His staff assistant interrupts him, in Italian, and gently prods the politician. "You're very negative today," she offers. But Speroni plows on, in English, undeterred. Despite predictions that populists from England to Hungary could make significant gains in next year's elections, Speroni believes the populists' power in parliament will not fundamentally shift. "The opposition will be greater, but still not much will happen: We don't have the votes to change the direction of the EU."

A Practical Populist Bloc

The EFD -- one of seven political groupings in the 766 member parliament -- was formed following the last election, in 2009. The bloc is comprised of 32 members from 12 different EU countries, with the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) holding the most seats (nine), followed by the Northern League (seven).

While all of the parties represented in the EFD are nationalist by nature, broadly critical of deeper EU integration and the euro zone, and claim to represent the popular will of their publics, the alliance is more practical than ideological. "The main reason they come together is because to not be part of a group is to be in quite a weak position," explains Jodi Vacquer, director of the Open Society Initiative for Europe. "A group gives them legitimacy and more speaking time" on the floor of the parliament, Vaquer adds. Unlike other parliamentary political groups -- like the Christian Democrats, Socialists, or Greens -- the EFD does not have a shared, pan-European agenda. Members are not required to vote along a party line, but are rather encouraged to vote as it suits their national interests.

The result is that the EFD has achieved scant to nothing in the realm of parliamentary policymaking. The group has "very little policy impact, and are unable to block many votes because their size is so small," says Marley Morris, a researcher at the Counterpoint think tank. EFD members have instead used the parliament as a soapbox in order to call attention to their national causes and garner media attention, Morris explains.

Lots of Talk, But Little Action

Indeed, the EFD delivered an average of less than one piece of draft legislation per member in committee sessions between July 2009 and October 2013, compared with over 2.5 per member for the center-right European People's Party (EPP) and the center-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D). Meanwhile, during the same time period, EFD members gave the largest number of speeches during plenary sessions, at an average of well over 200 per member, compared with around 150 for EPP and S&D members, according to VoteWatch Europe.

For Nigel Farage, Speroni's EFD co-chair and the group's most prolific orator, maximizing publicity, not legislating, is his end goal. "We have hugely increased awareness of what parliament does and increased euro skepticism," says Farage, who likened the EU to the "new communism" on the floor of parliament earlier this year.

A member of the European Parliament since 1999, Farage has long advocated for British withdrawal from the EU. These days, however, he is openly opposed to the very concept of the union. "Now I don't want Europe in the EU," he says. "It's an anti-democratic project run by bad and dangerous people."

Farage's radical and uncompromising stance on the EU is not shared by all EFD members. The Finns party's representative in the EFD, Sampo Terho of Finland, says his group would like to remain in the EU and "keep the euro," but prohibit euro-zone bailouts and return more legislative authority to national capitals. Although his party doesn't share UKIP's position of exiting the EU, Terho says EFD is a "workable" because its members are free to vote as they choose.

But others in the group, including, Speroni, have moved closer to Farage's position over the past few years. Europe's apparent failure to "solve" the euro crisis has encouraged Speroni to favor an Italian withdrawal from the EU and, at the very least, putting Italian euro-zone membership to a national referendum. "There is no discrepancy between me and Nigel," Speroni says of his alliance with Farage.

New Alliances?

Despite his relationship with Farage, Speroni remains open to joining a potentially new bloc with other populist parties after next year's elections -- including with Italian rival Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement or Marine Le Pen's French National Front (FN). Le Pen -- whose party currently holds three seats in the European Parliament but stands to increase its presence to 18 next May -- is in talks to form a new, more ideologically cohesive populist group with Geert Wilders' Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV). "Maybe they will exclude us or maybe they will ask us to join," says Speroni.

He bristles at concerns over the FN's anti-Semitic history and contends that was only an issue in the past when the party was run by Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie. (Northern League, which has also been accused of anti-Semitism, was part of a short-lived group between 1999 and 2002 that included the elder Le Pen, who is still a member in the parliament alongside his daughter.)

For his part, Farage says he is "not open" to an alliance with Le Pen and Wilders, excluding the possibility that the FN could join the EFD. "Le Pen has made great strides, but issues like anti-Semitism are too embedded," says Farage. The Finns' Terho concurs. "We would probably not accept (Le Pen) because she's too controversial. She's making the right decision by talking about forming a new group," he says.

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