Love him or loathe him, you can't deny Nigel Farage's celebrity status. He is one of Britain's most recognisable politicians and with his barnstorming media antics, he spearheaded the resurgence of hard euro-scepticism across the UK.
Yet hard right, anti-European, anti-immigration parties like Ukip are growing across Europe. Various polls suggest that the once disorganised movement, often flippantly dismissed 'respectable racists', could register significant gains in the upcoming European Parliament elections.
The potential for Ukip dominance has been widely publicised. Farage himself predicted an "earthquake" while other prominent right wingers envisage "the liberation from the European elite, the monster in Brussels".
So are they correct? Their success would certainly send a shockwave across the continent but are we really about to find ourselves at the mercy of the most anti-EU, combatively euro-sceptic European Parliament to date?
There are currently seven pan-European political groups in the Parliament and a handful of politicians possessing no formal group affiliation. Farage leads the hard euro-sceptics in the 'Europe of Freedom and Democracy' (EFD) group.
The EFD is mostly made up of Ukip and the Italian Lega Nord Party. While it meets the threshold required to form an official group - 25 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from at least seven member states -it is the smallest group and has minimal policymaking influence as its politicians are traditionally unwilling to engage constructively in the legislative process. Anyone working in the Parliament knows that they rarely show up, let alone engage in or vote on policy.
Their (misguided) rationale is most that Europe should not be responsible for so much legislation, so why bother to amend it? Ironically, such abstentionist-like policies only weaken their own nationalistic positions. Their non-attendance reduces the size of opposition to pro-EU parties who eventually win most of the key votes.
So would victory in the euro-elections prompt change? Would more MEPs lead to a more influential group of hard-right euro-sceptics?
There is already a groundswell of support for such parties. Across Europe, populist and far-right movements are ditching old tactics. They are downplaying their fascist, anti-Semitic sympathies. They have smartly adopted socially liberal language, become adept at using social media and even defended gay rights and women's rights. They have had a PR facelift. The rampant intolerance is omnipresent and they still play on paranoia surrounding Islam and immigrants, but they are cultivating support by banding together to fight a common enemy; the European Union.
Enter the 'European Alliance for Freedom' (EAF).
Founded in 2010 by former Ukip MEP Godfrey Bloom, the EAF is already a pan-European political party but it is not a group in the European Parliament...yet. It is the 'Trojan Horse' which is being used to link various national parties who will then form a new hard right euro-sceptic parliamentary grouping after the elections, which will seek to bring down the European Parliament from within.
In terms of membership, the French 'Front National' (FN) will play a leading role. It currently has three MEPs but is polling ahead of all other French parties at 24% and could return up to 20 seats. The Dutch Freedom Party (PVV) has publicly declared its intention to join the group and the Austrian Freedom Party, Belgium's Vlaams Belang party, the Sweden Democrats and a Maltese politician are also expected join, if elected. Lega Nord, the Slovak National Party, the Danish People's Party and the Finn's Party are all potential suitors despite their links to the current EFD group.
So where does that leave Ukip?
For Nigel Farage, it is a predicament. The formation of the EAF would likely collapse the EFD, leaving Ukip MEPs with no formal group affiliation. The result would be less staff, less office space, less funding, less speaking time and less visibility. Finding themselves in the barren wasteland of non-attached politics, some Ukip MEPs would likely signal interest in joining the EAF and Farage may ultimately be left with no choice but to unite.
Farage is openly reticent about linking with the Front National or PVV because of their deeply embedded anti-Semitism, but he recognises that cooperation may be unavoidable. He has already been quoted as saying that "there are going to be euro-sceptics in the Parliament next year, we don't intend to get into bed with any of them, but we may vote the same way".
Even if he was forced to cooperate with more extreme parties, the policymaking impact of a hard euro-sceptic group would be minimal. A coherent anti-EU, 'us versus them' narrative is one thing, but internal ideological differences would be crippling. Some parties, like Ukip, market themselves as anti-extremist Libertarians whereas others are openly xenophobic protectionists. The worst a large euro-sceptic grouping could do is plague mainstream parties by forcing them to regularly compromise with each other in order to block any fascist gains. Anti-EU parties could then bemoan such a 'democratic deficit' in European politics.
The time may be ripe for a coordinated assault on the EU, but even if Ukip sweep the board in May's elections, it will not cause much more than a slew of sensationalist, 'racism without borders' headlines about the resurgent right. Any new hard euro-sceptic coalition would ultimately be as ineffective and irrelevant as ever.
Ukip could send an army of newly elected MEPs to Brussels, but working without a formal affiliation to a parliamentary grouping almost guarantees political impotence and even if they join forces with the type of hard-right fascist parties which they have worked hard to distance themselves from, they could actually lose influence.
Your move, Nigel.
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