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Home Opinion How dangerous is Geert Wilders’ European populist alliance?
EU • Populism • Elections

How dangerous is Geert Wilders’ European populist alliance?

Marley Morris - 08 October 2013

The Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders is trying to gather like-minded parties in a mass movement ahead of next year's European elections. Does populism pose a serious threat to the European Parliament?

As next year’s European Parliament elections approach, there are two emerging views on the prospects for populist radical right parties.

On the one hand, there are the pessimists – those who believe that populist radical right politicians will overwhelm the European Parliament; that this will fundamentally change the nature of policymaking in the Parliament; and that populist radical right MEPs will band together in one or more political groups to rival the big three (the EPP, S&D and ALDE groups). As a result, the other parliamentarians won’t know what hit them after next year’s elections.

On the other hand, there are the sceptics – the people who think that concern about populism is exaggerated; that populist radical right politicians won’t storm the European Parliament next May; or that even if they do perform well they will in any case have little power. Of course populism should not be dismissed, they say, but at the same time let’s not get carried away – a big change is unlikely.

Who is right?

At the moment, the pessimists look like they could be on to something.  Polling points towards hefty wins for populist radical right parties, whose Euroscepticism appeals to voters who have grown weary of ‘ever closer union’ politics. The Front National, a French populist radical right party formerly led by the notorious nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen, is likely to do particularly well given the current disillusionment with Hollande and the UMP in France. Because France is allocated a total of 74 members, this could have a big impact on the makeup of the Parliament. If they do well enough, populist radical right MEPs may even be able to in some situations block votes made by the mainstream political groups in the plenary.

A parliamentary group is on the cards too. Geert Wilders, leader of the populist radical right PVV in the Netherlands, has met with Marine Le Pen from the Front National, and they have touted a possible alliance. Having formerly focused his energy on Islam, Wilders had changed tack in the past year and now appears to be seeking to build a pan-European Eurosceptic movement.

A political group in the European Parliament needs 25 MEPs from at least seven countries. With a large cohort of Front National MEPs expected in the next Parliament, they could form the bulk of a group with smaller parties making up the rest – Wilders has also been in contact with other likeminded parties, including Lega Nord in Italy, Vlaams Belang in Belgium, and the Sweden Democrats. With a political group, these MEPs would have much more power to influence policy.

Yet while the pessimists do make a good argument, there are two reasons to be sceptical of this picture. First, it makes sense to look at how successful today’s populist radical right politicians are in the European Parliament. At the moment, populist radical right MEPs are for the most part in one of two places in  the Parliament – they either sit in the non-attached section (for instance, the Front National and the PVV) or in the Europe of Freedom and Democracy group (for instance, Lega Nord and the True Finns).

Counterpoint’s recent report Conflicted Politicians: the populist radical right in the European Parliament showed through data from VoteWatch and interviews with MEPs that, as it stands, populist radical right MEPs tend to be less involved in policymaking in the Parliament. They draft fewer reports and opinions in the committee stage than other MEPs. This is in part because these MEPs tend to be ostracised by the mainstream parties (they live in “splendid isolation” in the European Parliament, one ALDE MEP told us) and in part because they are not themselves interested in changing policy at the EU level.

In fact, when we compared Europe of Freedom and Democracy MEPs with the non-attached MEPs, we found that (roughly speaking) they are equally unlikely to draft reports in the committees. This suggests that being part of a political group does not make a huge difference to MEPs’ willingness to get involved in policymaking. It may be that a political group involving the Front National and the PVV will not have such an impact on policymaking in the European Parliament as it at first might appear.

Second, it is worth bearing in mind that the populist radical right politicians who form a group in the European Parliament may struggle to get along. The historical precedent is one of disagreement and hostility, dating back to the groups led by Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 1980s. And the Europe of Freedom and Democracy group – a Eurosceptic group with some populist elements – has the lowest cohesion rate in the European Parliament. This means that its members disagree in their voting decisions in the plenary sessions more often than MEPs from other political groups.
 

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Source: VoteWatch Europe

Often populist radical right parties from different European countries are concerned about working with each other too closely because they see themselves as ideologically distinct from other parties. They hate being pigeonholed, particularly when it means being placed in the same category as parties in other countries considered extremist and dangerous. It is therefore unsurprising that UKIP is refusing to join any potential alliance between Wilders and Le Pen – it does not want to face the stigma of working with parties considered to be part of the ‘far right’ by the UK mainstream. Similar reasoning is behind the PVV’s refusal to work with Jobbik in Hungary, a far more extreme party often accused of anti-semitism.

Despite these reservations, those predicting a big win for populism should not be dismissed. There is one consequence of a populist radical right resurgence and a subsequent formation of a populist radical right group that I have not yet discussed. Being in a group will give the populist radical right the opportunity for more speaking time. Research from Counterpoint’s report suggests that it is speaking time that is of real importance for populist radical right MEPs – they tend to focus on giving speeches and asking questions rather than drafting policy. Findings from our interviews indicate that parliamentarians tend to use speaking time as a platform to espouse their views to the wider public.

Arguably, it is here where the true power of populism lies – in its ability to weave together narratives, myths, symbols and metaphors and thereby truly shift the terms of political debate. On this final point, the pessimists should be taken very seriously.

Marley Morris is a researcher at Counterpoint on the Recapturing Europe’s Reluctant Radicals project

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Understanding Populism .

Tags: Marley Morris , Opinion , Populism , Multiculturalism , Euroscepticism , Eurosceptic , Far-right , Right-wing , Radicals , Radicalism , Mainstream , Political Elite , Liberal Elite , Elections , Votes , Voters , UK , Netherlands , France , Front National , Marine Le Pen , Finland , Immigration , Integration , EU , European Union , European Parliament , Election , Geert Wilders , Party for Freedom , Partij voor de Vrijheid , PVV , Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe , ALDE , Alliance des Démocrates et des Libéraux pour l'Europe , ADLE , Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats , S&D , European People's Party , EPP , Lega Nord , Italy , True Finns , Ukip , Vlaams Belang , Belgium , Sweden , Sweden Democrats , Jean-Marie Le Pen , Europe of Freedom and Democracy , EFD , Anti-semitism , Jobbik , The Movement for a Better Hungary , Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom Jobbik , Hungary ,

Comments

durieu
30 October 2013 23:26

UKIP is waiting the results of the european election in may 2014 to decide or not to make an european group with the FRONT NATIONAL The latest poll gives the FRONT NATIONAL a score of 24% and the first place in France. If the votes will confirm it, UKIP will not be afraid to bild a group of around 70 MEP's with the FRONT NATIONAL

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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