As the EU launches its 2007 Year of Equal Opportunities, Claude
Moraes asks how this sits with the formation in the same week of the first
EU far-right political grouping.
It is a terrible irony that the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the EU - bitterly fought by the far right in the European Parliament - will this week in Strasbourg (week beginning 15 January) give the far right the breakthrough they have sought for years in the EU - the formation of their first transnational political group in the European Parliament.
The new 'Identity, Sovereignty, and Tradition' Group will also include one British MEP, Ashley Mote, formerly of UKIP until they withdrew the Whip following his prosecution for housing benefit fraud. There will, interestingly, now be at least twice as many identifiable neo-nazi MEPs as there are MEPs from ethnic minorities across the whole Parliament.
With a threshold of only 19 MEPs from at least five EU countries required to form a political group, in-fighting, criminal charges and the dysfunctional nature of Europe's neo-nazis has ensured until now that Le Pen, the Belgian Vlaams Belang, the Austrian Freedom Party, the Italian Lega Nord and others have existed within the Parliament but never created a clear European neo-fascist identity. Now the addition of five seats for the anti-Roma, anti-semitic Greater Romanian Party and one seat from Bulgaria's extreme Ataka Party have supplied the numbers needed for Bruno Gollnisch, deputy leader of Le Pen, to lead the Group.
That the formation of the Group is a breakthrough for organised racism and anti-semitism is beyond doubt - but what is its real political significance?
A number of European analysts have cautioned that the Group will suffer from the same crippling inertia that has dogged them separately in the Parliament - namely disunity and constant implication in criminal activity including violence and holocaust denial. This dysfunction has long been symbolised by the long-standing hatred between the Italian Lega Nord leader Umberto Bossi and the National Front's Jean Marie Le Pen.
There are also, by definition, widely disparate nationalistic goals of each far right party - introspective and concentrated on dividing communities in their own back yards, rather than putting energy into an EU-wide movement with coherence.
We have also seen recently with Le Pen and Vlaams Belang that their bid to appear respectable or to 'modernise' is meeting with very mixed results.
Another diminishing factor for the new far right Group is the way in which they have split towards what is now a major grouping in the Parliament - the Union for a Europe of Nations (UEN) - now a mix of hard right (Alleanza Nazionale and Dansk Folkeparti) and more moderate right wingers (Fianna Fail). In Strasbourg this week the Group will will be joined by the far right Italian Lega Nord and the deeply homophobic League of Polish Families. The UEN will now grow from 34 to 44 MEPs crucially surpassing the Greens and GUE/NGL (far left) groups in the Parliament allowing it real clout with the three main parties - the EPP (Centre Right) PES (Socialist Group) and ALDE (Liberals).
The real success for the hard right of course lies not in the arithmetic of the European Parliament, but the ability for a clearly identifiable political Group to give extreme, racist solutions to migration and related issues and to give added drive and clarity to xenophobic messages and organised votes against progressive legislation in the EU.
The clue to treating the latest developments with seriousness is the opening gambit of three key strategists - Bruno Gollnisch, the French MEP and intellectual deputy leader of Le Pen, currently charged in France with Holocaust denial; the Austrian MEP Andreas Moelzer, the original ideologist behind the success of Jorg Haider's Freedom Party (he will be general secretary); and Frank Vanhecke, the leader of Vlaams Belang. All three represent parties which have scored significant successes in their own countries. All three are now desperately trying to show that they are leading normal mainstream European political movements to stop non-EU immigration. That is no doubt why they rejected the name 'Europe of the Fatherlands', which was preferred by some of their members. At his press conference last week Gollnisch said they are 'normal people with respectable and professional backgrounds' who would address the mainstream concerns of European citizens - namely migration and globalisation. Whether they will succeed is a moot point, but there is no doubt that they want to embark on a rebranding exercise for fascism in the EU, in much the same way as a violent neo-nazi movement such as the Italian MSI was rebranded as the Alleanza Nazionale putting its leader Gianfranco Fini in the Berlusconi government and his party in the UEN political group in the European Parliament.
All three know that at one level far right populist movements in countries like Denmark, the Netherlands and Austria have transformed politics and the left in those countries, while at the same time the far right in the European Parliament have remained embarassing caricatures with no serious political influence within the EU.
There is nothing new about the far right fighting dirty political battles over immigration, Islam or the Roma in Eastern Europe. The newer strategy of the new Group is to amplify the recent message of Jean Marie Le Penn, who, when asked why he maintains poll ratings (TNS-Sofres October 2006) as high as 18 per cent in the run up to the French Presidential elections, answered: "Now that people on the left, centre and right use the same language about immigrants as we do, European voters should consider the original copy".
The added 'boost' for the Western European far right is the knowledge that a particularly nasty and growing strain of far right nationalistic politics in the new member states bolster their numbers. Typical is of this is Jan Slota of the Slovak National Party who wants to pay Roma Slovakians to undertake sterilisation - he leads one third of the Slovakian coalition government that runs one of the fastest growing economies in the region.
Another recent Eastern European example of how the far right clearly affect mainstream politcal events came last year as the Hungarian Truth and Life Party (MIEP) helped steer the chaotic riots that threatened to bring down the Hungarian Socialist Party government of Ferenc Gyurcsany. The Hungarian unrest has echoes across Eastern Europe as unease and resistance to the effects of globalisation and market reforms are deftly exploited by the far right who raid the political toy-box of the 1930s for old standards such as anti-semitism and anti-liberalism and portrayal of post communist centre-left parties as fundamentally dishonest.
Of course the strains of nationalism throughout Europe are complex - but the 'big players' of Western European fascism sense an opportunity, as when last September the neo-nazi National Party of Germany leapt into regional prominance as support for the ex-communists sagged.
And what about the impact on the UK? The BNP knows that in at least two UK regions the possibility of a BNP MEP exists - we now have ten UKIP MEPs to illustrate what is possible but the election of a British neo-fascist at the next European Elections would be far more serious with a ready-made European political group to join, with the extra political funding and media opportunities that come with that status. It is a danger that must be recognised and fought - as many on the left across the UK are doing.
It should also be interesting to see in which political group David Cameron will now place his increasingly dysfunctional Conservative MEPs now that he has committed to withdrawing them from the centre right EPP.
As well as the obvious and direct threat of the far right is the much greater and growing danger of the 'mainstreaming' of their message. Parties of the centre across the EU have transformed their language and policies under pressure - to have a continual lobby at the heart of the EU will clearly add to that pressure.
It will also help compromise or occasionally cause voting problems for the progressive voices within the EU who have succesfully taken through EU legislation such as the Race Equality Directive and Employment Directive (outlawing discrimination across the EU on the grounds of religion, disability, sexual orientation and age), and wider social legislation or amendments to major legislation bringing a greater social dimension to European law making.
An immediate irony is that the new group and the bolstering of the more extreme elements of the UEN come at the same time as the German Presidency of the EU launches the 2007 Year of Equal Opportunities. Germany and Angela Merkel are throwing their weight behing the year and have already come up with eye-catching if controversial initiatives such as a European-wide holocaust denial law.
The reality is that the formation of the new far right group may succeed in its aims, or prove a disappointment to hard right national movements across Europe. The fact remains that pursuing a progressive agenda on a whole range of issues in the EU will be that much more difficult. Should we be worried? Yes. The EU will have to help treat the deep causes as well as the more obvious symptoms of the rise of the far right in its midst. That ensures difficult times ahead for the EU. It should also stimulate progressives on the left to seek lasting answers to a movement set to grow.
Claude Moraes is a Labour MEP for London and Chair of the European Parliament's All Party Group on Anti-Racism. He is also the European Parliamantary Liaison Officer on the NAAR Executive Committee