photo credit: Rémi Noyon
Today was a worrying day in Brussels as Marine Le Pen, leader of France's far-right Front National (FN), announced that she would be forming a new political group in the European Parliament made up of 36 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), including one from the UK.
Following a failed attempt to create a political group last year, the influence of the Parliament's most extreme political fringes has been limited: Le Pen was unable to gather support from the required minimum of seven countries, with UKIP rejecting a union on the basis of "prejudice and anti-Semitism in particular" in the FN. UKIP leader Nigel Farage instead heads another immigration-focused alliance in the European Parliament, the Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFDD) group.
However it seems the jump from UKIP to the Front National is now more of a skip: thanks to the decision of disgraced former UKIP MEP Janice Atkinson to join with the French far-right, Le Pen and her supporters have enough members from enough countries to form a united political faction with the name "Europe of Nations and Freedoms", ensuring that the far-right exert a hitherto uncoordinated presence in European politics.
Expelled from UKIP for alleged expenses fraud, Atkinson has become a key player in guaranteeing a total of €17.5 million worth of EU funding to the European far-right. The new political group will also be able to form a dedicated staff body and will be granted places on parliamentary committees.
Co-chair Geert Wilders of the Dutch Party of Freedom has repeatedly claimed that he wants European nations to be "masters of [their] own money", but he clearly has no qualms about taking EU money.
Atkinson will be a vice-chair to the new Europe of Nations and Freedoms alliance. Sitting next to the leader of the FN at this morning's press conference she described Marine Le Pen as one of her two greatest political influences - the other being Margaret Thatcher - and praised her "great courage and leadership".
UKIP has tried to distance itself from Atkinson, who until March this year was consistently seen with Farage on the campaign trail and was indeed selected to stand as the party's candidate for Folkestone and Hythe in the 2015 general election. Farage's EFDD group have said that since her expulsion, whatever she does is beyond their control.
But it seems that UKIP and Le Pen are playing a game of give-and-take: it was only last week in the European Union (EU) Parliament in Strasbourg that UKIP MEPs stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Front National and Hungary's Jobbik to protect the interests of Russia's Vladimir Putin, by voting against a report that was deeply critical of the Russian administration's disregard for democratic principles, fundamental values and international law.
Nigel Farage has described Mr Putin as the world leader that he "admired most", however by joining hands with Marine Le Pen in last week's crucial vote UKIP made clear their desire to keep the coffers of the Front National stuffed. The report, which also calls on the European Commission to legislate in order to ensure "the full transparency of political funding and financing of political parties in the EU", calls funding streams linking the French far-right party to the Kremlin into question. It is alleged that loans in the region of tens of millions of euros, from banks associated with the Russian government, have be offered to help the Front National stay afloat - part of an expanding web of connections between Putin and extremist and Eurosceptic parties in the EU.
Following today's announcement, UKIP has become even more closely linked to the fascist bloc in EU Parliament by way of MEPs from Poland's Congress of the New Right party, whose members now sit both in Farage's EFDD group and the new Europe of Nations and Freedoms. This is an important shift: once upon a time the racist and Holocaust-denying views of the Polish party's then-leader were deemed too extreme even for Marine Le Pen.
Today shows that the far-right is getting wise to the need to put old rivalries to one side in order to form a united and powerful bloc of Members from across the member states. Wilders called the formation of the group "the beginning of our liberation" - we see it as casting a dark shadow over the EU that stretches all the way back to the UK.
Paul Brannen and Jude Kirton-Darling are Labour MEPs for the North East of England