The chief political aide of Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front party and candidate for the French presidential election, has just been put under investigation by French magistrates. If the charges are correct, the National Front leader has been cheating on European Parliament expenses to pay her bodyguard and her chief political aide for jobs they didn’t do.
This may sound strange. The National Front, like other European far-right parties, is virulently hostile to the European Union — so why is it able to use European Union resources to build itself up? Yet as we discuss in a new research article for the Review of International Political Economy, the National Front is far from unique.
Far-right parties hate the European Union — yet without it, many of them would have died
Right-wing populists like the National Front typically hate the European Union. They advocate radical changes to the European Union — or outright withdrawal from it. Yet without the support of the European Union, they almost certainly would have a far weaker voice in national politics. Many far-right parties rely on Europe both for elected positions and for money.
The first key resource that Europe offers to far-right parties is the chance to get elected. Far-right parties often have a tough time getting launched into politics. They are not part of the political mainstream, which means that they may face a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. People are unlikely to vote for these parties, even if they agree with some of the parties’ positions, because they don’t know much about them, and likely think the parties don’t have any real chance of success.
European Parliament elections have boosted far-right parties like the National Front and the UK Independence Party. European voters don’t take European Parliament elections very seriously, treating them as what political scientists call “second-order elections.” This means that voters are more willing to use their European Parliament votes to protest the government and the political mainstream, making it more likely that they will vote for fringe parties, giving these parties greater credibility. When the National Front won a third of France’s seats in the European Parliament elections in 2014, it sent shock waves through France and Europe.
The second key resource that Europe offers to fringe parties is money. Parties elected to the European Parliament or categorized as “Europarties” can receive European funding. This again can be very valuable — especially to parties that do not have parliamentary funds or wealthy backers in their home countries. In theory, this money is supposed to go to Europe-level activities — such as hiring assistants who help members of the European Parliament research legislation and do their jobs. In practice, there is not as much supervision over spending as there ought to be.
This is what has gotten the National Front into trouble. Le Pen is accused of having paid her chief political counselor and her bodyguard on the pretense that they were parliamentary assistants, when they were nothing of the sort. Other members of the National Front are accused of similar abuses.
Brexit would never have happened without European Parliament resources
The most notorious example of the European Union helping a virulently anti-Europe party is the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which was the key mover behind Britain’s exit from the European Union. It’s safe to say that the UK Independence Party would have died long before Brexit became a possibility if it hadn’t been for the European Parliament.
European Parliament elections were crucial to UKIP’s success. British national elections are held under a “first past the post” rule, which gives electoral seats to the party with the most votes in a given constituency. These rules make people much more likely to vote for big parties, and much less likely to risk wasting their votes on small ones. In the description of UKIP former leader, Nigel Farage, “the first-past-the-post system is brutal to a party like us.” Britain’s elections to the European Parliament, in contrast, are conducted under a proportional representation system that is much more forgiving to fringe parties. This combined with the protest vote to give UKIP 24 seats after the 2014 European Parliament elections, as opposed to 20 for Labour and 19 for the Conservative Party.
UKIP was poorly funded in Britain, and hence had strong reasons to suck up as much money as it could from the European Parliament. Nathalie Brack describes how euroskeptic parties like UKIP practiced “strategic absenteeism,” in which their members turned up in Parliament solely to collect the money that they received for attendance. As Brack quotes one UKIP member of the European Parliament: “If I don’t come and put my card in the slot to vote, I don’t get my money to give to the party.” Without this funding source, UKIP would have been far more poorly resourced.
As both the UKIP and National Front stories demonstrate, there are two things that far-right parties like about the European Union — its election resources and its money. It seems paradoxical that the European Union is paying the parties that want to dig its grave. Indeed, the trouble that the National Front is in may reflect the fact that some European authorities are unwilling to continue this arrangement. The National Front is certainly not the only party guilty of sketchy behavior with European Parliament money — the fact that the Parliament has gone after it, triggering the French investigation, may have as much to do with politics as the desire to uproot corrupt practices.
Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.
Abraham Newman is an associate professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.