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The Le Pen-Wilders alliance and the European Parliament: Plus ça change, plus la meme chose

This is a guest post by Cas Mudde, an assistant professor in the School for Public and International Policy at the University of Georgia. He is the author of Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2007) and editor of Political Extremism (SAGE, 2014, 4 volumes). He can be followed on Twitter @casmudde. — Erik Voeten.

The European elections are less than a hundred days away and the media is slowly but steadily moving from the topic of a far right victory in the elections – which has now become an established ‘fact’ – to that of a far right party group after the elections – which seems a certainty too, if one is to believe the international media. Some of my colleagues recently argued that a new ‘Le Pen-Wilders’ alliance will change European politics. But who is in and who is out of this ‘alliance’? And how will this “brown international,” as anti-fascists love to refer to it, function within the new European Parliament (EP)?

To address the last question first, probably not very well. The far right has a long, and mostly unsuccessful history of collaboration in the EP. The first official far right group was the “Group of the European Right” in the 1984-89 EP, which included members of the FN, the Italian Social Movement (MSI), the tiny Greek EPEN, and the Northern Irish Ulster Unionist Party. In the next EP (1989-94) the FN had replaced the MSI with the Belgian Flemish Bloc (VB) and the German Republicans (REP). This “Technical Faction of the European Right” agreed only on a minimum program, being internally divided between ethnic and state nationalist parties, and ended de facto in 1991, after the six-member REP faction had imploded. Between 1994 and 1999, the far right was without an official group and in the 1999-2004 period there was a short-lived “Technical Group for Non-Attached Members – Mixed Group” (TDI), which included both the usual suspects (e.g. FN, VB, and the MSI-split Tricolor Flame, MS-FT) and some non-far right MEPS (including Basque separatists and Italian radicals). The last official party group was called “Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty” (ITS), which only became mathematically possible because of the joining of the EU of Bulgaria and Romania in January 2007. ITS included the new European axis of FN and Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), the always present VB (which had re-established itself as Flemish Interest), two MSI-splits, the Bulgarian Attack party and the Greater Romania Party (PRM). It faltered after ITS member Alessandra Mussolini (indeed, the granddaughter of the Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini) had made xenophobic remarks about Romanian immigrants in Italy, and the PRM left the ITS.

That was November 2007. And although far right parties did well in the 2009 elections, they were unable to form an official party group in the current EP. There were many attempts to come together, but personal and political consideration prevented the FN-FPÖ-LN-VB axis from finding new suitors. Now it looks like the succession of Jean-Marie Le Pen by daughter Marine Le Pen has not only led to a new élan for the far right in France, but also in Europe. To the surprise of many, Geert Wilders, party leader and only member of the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV), recently reversed his position of never cooperating with the “extreme right” and “anti-Semitic” FN. In a much covered press conference with Marine Le Pen in The Hague, he announced that the FN and PVV will campaign jointly for the 2014 European elections and will collaborate in the European Alliance for Freedom (EAF) that will “wreck” the European Union from within the EP.

To constitute an official party group in the next EP, the rules state the following: “25 Members are needed to form a political group, and at least one-quarter of the Member States must be represented within the group. Members may not belong to more than one political group.” According to my predictions eleven far right parties will (re-)gain entry into the next EP: the Austrian FPÖ, the Belgian VB, the Bulgarian Attack, the Danish People’s Party (DFP), the Dutch PVV, the French FN, Greek Golden Dawn (CA), the Hungarian Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik), the Italian Northern League (LN), the Latvian National Alliance (NA), and the Sweden Democrats (SD) – perhaps the relatively new Slovak People’s Party-New Slovakia (LSNS) will also make it. Together they will get between 40 and 50 seats. Seems a pretty straightforward issue then… but is it?

The alliance between the FN and PVV might already guarantee the 25 seats, but only includes two of the required seven member states. At the initial “secret meeting” in Vienna, in November 2013, three more parties were present: the FPÖ, LN and VB. With the exception of the PVV, these four have constituted the core of the European radical right alliance for the past decades. The most likely candidates to complete the group of seven would seem to be the DFP and SD, which would keep the party group relatively homogeneous: all populist radical right parties in relatively affluent West European countries and regions. This notwithstanding, so far the Scandinavians have been hesitant to join, for all the familiar reasons.

The DFP has a long history of snubbing the FN- FPÖ-VB alliance for the mixed mainstream and far right party groups Union of Europe of the Nations (UEN) and Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD). In surprisingly harsh terms, the foreign affairs spokesperson, Søren Espersen, not only rejected the invitation to join the EAF, he also said that the DFP would cut ties with the SD if that party would join. Both Le Pen and Wilders have been visiting Sweden to gain the SD’s support. Despite decades of low-key collaboration between FN and SD, often at the explicit request of the Swedes, party leader Jimmie Åkesson is responding cautiously now. Being more concerned with national than European elections, Åkesson has said that the SD will only consider joining after the Swedish parliamentary elections, to be held on 14 September 2014.

This leaves Le Pen and Wilders with two choices: the extreme right or other Euroskeptic populists, who are not far right. Attack, Jobbik and Golden Dawn are all considered beyond the pale for most EAF members– the same applies to LSNS. All parties are deeply anti-Semitic and have been linked to significant political violence. That said, there have been connections, most notably through the Alliance of European National Movements (AENM), which includes MEPs from, among others, Attack, the British National Party (BNP), Jobbik and VB. Its president used to be Bruno Gollnisch, an old FN stalwart in the EP, and close to Jean-Marie Le Pen. However, when Marine Le Pen took over, she changed AENM for EAF, and told her father and Gollnisch to severe ties to their old brethren.

For the radical right EAF parties collaboration with the extreme right AENM parties could mean national suicide. It would make them vulnerable to guilt-by-association charges of anti-Semitism and extremism, which could cost them support from national voters and further diminish their chances at national collaboration with non-radical right parties. The only possible exception in Eastern Europe is the NA, a little known merger of an extreme right and a national conservative party, which is currently a junior coalition partner in the Latvian government. However, for that party an alliance with the marginalized EAF parties could be national suicide, so there is little chance they would be interested.

This leaves parties that are considered far right by some scholars and many media, most notably the Finns Party (PS) and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), but that are, and consider themselves, much less radical than Le Pen and Wilders. Despite sustained courting and flattering by both Le Pen and Wilders, Nigel Farage has made it absolutely clear that UKIP will not “get into bed” with Le Pen. Given that the Finns Party is close to the DFP and UKIP, with which they are in the EFD group, there is little chance that they will join the EAF.

So, where does this leave the Le Pen-Wilder alliance? It is pretty certain that there will be no official far right party group in the new EP, at least for the first couple of months. After the Swedish election the SD might join the alliance, but that would still leave them one country short. While they could pick up a rogue MEP, this would leave the group vulnerable to dissent and defections, as they always have been in the past. The situation could change after the next British parliamentary elections, scheduled for May 7, 2015, depending on the electoral and political outcome of UKIP. If UKIP fares very poorly, or is politically marginalized by the other parties, it could join the EP group. This would put the party in good company, as the FPÖ and PVV also only ended their self-isolation from the FN after being marginalized in the national political arena.

And even then, will the EAF have to deal with the same demons as its predecessors? First, there are the personal tensions between and within the different parties. History teaches us that far right party factions in the EP are fragile and they split easy. On top of that, the FN dominance of the party group creates additional tensions within and between the parties. On top of that, it is not the more pragmatic leaders like Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen that are running the show in the EP, it is hardliners like Bruno Gollnisch and Andreas Moelzer (FPÖ).

Second, there are the political tensions. Previous party groups have faltered over nationalist arguments over border disputes and national minorities. As long as the EAF will only have West European members, that risk is fairly limited. However, while all parties are Euroskeptic and anti-immigrant, they do not necessarily see eye to eye on all issues. Most importantly, while some parties want their country to leave the EU (e.g. FN, PVV, UKIP), others want to reform the EU into a more intergovernmental organization (e.g. FPÖ, VB). Similarly, some parties want closer transatlantic ties with the US (e.g. PVV and UKIP), while others want a European front against U.S. dominance (e.g. FN and LN). Even socio-economically these parties will disagree, but all will put their own national interest above European solidarity.

In short, while the far right will undoubtedly have enough parties and seats to form an official party group, history teaches us that the chances that this group will be an important political actor in the next EP are slim to none. Rather than changing Europe, the Le Pen-Wilders alliance will probably continue the tradition of “conflicted politicians” with much bark and little bite.

Corrections: In an earlier version Søren Espersen was incorrectly called “the new party leader” of the DFP. Instead he is the foreign affairs spokesperson. The title was also corrected for a spelling error.