“Mr President, you were looking for me in the front row I suppose,” Marine Le Pen, retorted with barely concealed sarcasm, to European Parliament president Martin Schulz.
Le Pen was speaking in the plenary as leader of the newly-formed Parliament grouping, the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF), created in June. Leaders of political groupings usually sit in the front row. Apparently without a formal invitation, she remained confined with her National Front and ENF cohorts in the upper rows.
Still, the ENF has qualified for millions in European Union funds, with 39 MEPS drawn from various right-wing parties across the EU: France’s National Front (FN), Italy’s Northern League (LN), Austria’s Freedom Party (FPÖ), the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV), Poland’s Congress of the New Right (KNP) and Belgium’s Flemish Vlaams Belang (VB).
Proudly Eurosceptic, they reject criticism that they are anti-immigrant and xenophobic.
Vice Chair Janice Atkinson, the independent British MEP who was formerly a member of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), said at the ENF’s inaugural press conference: “We will come under attack from the trolls on the internet – the state-funded left campaigns against us”. What she failed to mention, however, is the state-funding the ENF will receive.
It was Atkinson’s arrival that facilitated the ENF’s creation after it passed the required seven-nation threshold to form a parliamentary grouping. This is after her expulsion from the UKIP/Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) group over allegations of fraudulent expenses.
Le Pen has sought to moderate extremist rhetoric from the National Front to widen its appeal. Her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, the FN’s founder and notorious Holocaust denier, was recently excluded from the party. The ENF also claim that the inclusion of the KNP only occurred after it expelled its leader Janusz Korwin-Mikke, who was once fined for using racist language in the plenary.
Indeed the ENF’s website aims to distance itself from the far-right oratory of previous party groups, highlighting its “respect for democracy” and its rejection of “any past or present affiliation, connection or sympathy to any authoritarian or totalitarian project.”
It does however detail its aims to oppose the transfer of more sovereignty to the EU as well as calls for tighter immigration controls.
At the press conference Atkinson made a point of clearly setting out the aims of the ENF that would rile the pro-EU camp. “Millions support us and we want to bring down this place [the EU]. We want our countries back.”
Reaction from other political groups is unsurprisingly scathing. “They offer nothing for the future to citizens. The ENF whips up anxiety and fear and we can’t build a future on that,”Pervenche Berès, a French MEP with the centre-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D), tells Equal Times.
Philippe Juvin, French MEP with the centre-right European People’s party, (EPP) says he is ”neither angry nor worried” adding their existence “means they have to abide by the rules of the Parliament”.
Taking part in the legislative process is the least the ENF can do,” Juvin tells Equal Times. “Until now, Europhobic parties have wasted the European Parliament’s time and resources in theatrical speeches and dramatisation.”
No doubt incentives existed to encourage the ENF’s formation. Significant advantages await them, says Charles de Marcilly, head of the Brussels office of the Robert Schuman Foundation, a think tank.
“These MEPs have to be more united as it brings in money – €17.5 million (US$20 million) for the next four years. It means more staff and administrative support. In addition it means more time to speak in plenary debates as well as more influence within plenaries themselves,” says de Marcilly.
This is of particular concern to ENF detractors who fear they will hijack and stonewall the legislative process. “They are using the means of the EU Parliament to campaign. This is counter-productive,” Berès claims.
That angers Le Pen. Speaking at a press conference, she described any arguments over the ENF’s right to EU funding as scandalous, adding: “This is not used against other groups who receive voters’ money.”
Livid in turn is the European Network against Racism (ENAR), which says the ENF has no business being in the Parliament. In a statement, it calls on the European Parliament to “establish certain criteria for groupings to meet before they get funded,” adding that rules concerning “incitement to hatred” must be included.
Concerns from progressive groups over the ENF’s impact may be unfounded, at least for this parliamentary term, as they are the smallest group, says de Marcilly.
“I have doubts about their claims that they will make changes and bring a new approach. They would need cooperation with other groups, but they are alone in their programme. If they introduce legislation or table amendments, they need support from other groups and this won’t be the case,” he explained.
So, just a lot of rightist hot air? Seemingly the ideas of some of Europe’s strangest anti-EU and anti-immigrant parties have been gaining ground with the electorate, as appears to be the case in France, Sweden and UK. The ENF has been outspoken on the refugee crisis and border control.
At another ENF press conference, Atkinson claimed that despite the views “of the human rights industry, this is not a refugee crisis but a massive crisis of illegal immigration which must be resisted for what it is.”
The worry for progressives is that this message has and will continue to find resonance among some voters.
“Some people are worried about the size of the EU, which has focused on deeper integration and welfare on a global level,” explains de Marcilly. “I think this is why such parties get votes. It’s about the need to blame problems on people and for most of those parties’ voters it is the foreigners.”
Rather than just filling the void for voters against immigration, could the ENF become a substantial force in the near future? De Marcilly says the jury is out: “Around 14 states saw an increase in the vote for the far right, so there is a real concern about the increase in their prominence. I think the next EU elections will be telling.”
Berès believes the ENF are already having an impact, that they are already “too numerous” and playing spoiler. She says one of the main ENF arguments is that pro-EU groups are all the same. Indeed the centre-left and centre-right have been forced to ally to push through legislation because of the rise of the fringe parties in last year’s elections.
“The paradox is that the weight the ENF has, along with other Eurosceptic groups, is that we are obliged in some topics to go for a common deal with EPP, which I don’t like by nature,” Berès says.
With the next European Parliament elections under four years away, pro-EU parties are aiming to combat a further rise of the far-right.
“This phenomenon is fuelled by anxiety, uncertainty and frustration. All pro-EU groups must not let far-right parties monopolise important issues like the immigration crisis, the negotiations with Greece or the Brexit,” explained Juvin.
Communication with voters is key for Juvin. “If European voters feel they are listened to and that elected representatives are making responsible decisions in their best interest, they will once again believe in the European project.”
Berès agrees that communication is important but it is “nothing if policies don’t deliver, adding that it depends on a change to austerity policies and “giving more room to manoeuvre for growth and jobs.”
Juvin also realises this, emphasising that pro-EU groups must have a positive impact on the lives of voters. “If we achieve positive results, like significantly lowering unemployment, I am sure the influence of far-right parties will recede,” he believes.
Not without a fight. De Marcilly says as Le Pen now has the right to a two-minute plenary speech as group leader, this presents more publicity opportunities, such as denouncing EU figureheads who attend the Parliament. This, he says, ”is a new level of communication beyond a national scale.”
The battle lines are thus drawn between the Europhiles and far-right Europhobes. Le Pen says the ENF won’t be dissuaded. “We will remain true to our convictions. The EU institutions have no hold over us.”
Berès calls for a more confrontational role among the progressives. “We can no longer ignore them now they have more strength. We must combat them. If we remain silent, we leave the floor to them.”