Rise of Europe's extreme politics
The economic gloom and public disillusionment with incumbent governments has Euro MPs worried that voters will turn to the fringes at the polling booth next month. Vanessa Mock reports
From Stockholm to Sardinia, Waterford to Warsaw, a noisy and eclectic band of nationalists and eurosceptics are on the campaign trail hoping to unseat their mainstream rivals in the European Parliament.
Dutch anti-Islamists, Hungarian nationalists, Italian separatists and an Irish-backed anti-Lisbon Treaty party are all clamouring for seats when Europe goes to the polls between 4 and 7 June. And a combination of dismally low voter turnout and the economic downturn looks set to play into their hands in the vote. Job losses and the grimmest economic forecasts in decades have created the ideal conditions for single-issue candidates and marginal groups hostile to the EU to win seats in the Strasbourg assembly.
"It's a worrying trend" says Urszula Gacek, a centre-right Polish MEP whose country is itself home to several arch-conservative Catholic parties and headed by a eurosceptic President, Lech Kaczynski. "The extremists are better at mobilising their voters, by playing on citizens' fears and talking up the need for protectionism and the closing of borders."
Many, like Ms Gacek, view the possible arrivals from the extreme fringes of the political landscape with a trepidation bordering on fear, fretting that their new fellow parliamentarians will attempt to hobble the workings and powers of the institution to which they are seeking election. "It is bad enough having our sessions broken up by anti-EU ranters from the United Kingdom Independence Party [Ukip], but what if these people actually get power now?," says one Portuguese deputy.
During their last pre-election session of parliament in Strasbourg, chatter about the looming changes to the balance of power dominated the corridors. Over glasses of wine in the parliament's bars, politicians pondered about possible alliances to disrupt the traditional dominance of the centre-right and the socialists. One prospect is the establishment of a new eurosceptic faction, thanks to the British Conservatives' much criticised plan to abandon the powerful centre-right, umbrella grouping European People's Party. The Conservatives are now reportedly seeking to team up with Irish businessman Declan Ganley's Libertas, a pan-European movement set up specifically with the ambition of derailing the Lisbon Treaty.
More worrying is the threat from the far-right, which could well include the British National Party (BNP). The BNP is poised to win at least one seat and has been seeking "greater co-operation between European nationalists". Last month, Nazi salutes greeted the BNP's deputy leader, Simon Darby, at a far-right rally in Milan, organised by Roberto Fiore, an Italian MEP and head of Forza Nuova, which seeks the expulsion of about 150,000 Roma gypsies from Italy.
"It's really very ironic that these groups have decided to go European, given that they are all basically campaigning against the EU," says the Green Party's co-president Monica Frassoni. But she points out that these parties are so rooted in domestic politics that Romanian and Hungarian groups campaigning on an anti-Roma gypsy ticket are unlikely to get into bed with, for instance, the Vlaams Belang, which wants independence for Flanders. "I can't see how they will organise themselves into a credible new faction given the complete disarray and isolation they've faced before."
A new party of far-right groups, Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty, collapsed spectacularly just weeks after its creation in 2007, when Italy's Allessandra Mussolini hurled verbal abuse at her "scum" Romanian colleagues, and Poles were left fuming over Austrian mutterings about the need to change the Polish-German border - a far cry from the cosy European spirit that has seen even British members grow used to kissing their foreign colleagues on both cheeks.
"Inevitably it all dissolved into a shambles and now they will never make up the numbers they need to create a new political entity," says Andrew Duff, a British Liberal MEP, referring to recent changes to triple to 28 the minimum number of politicians needed to form a viable political grouping. Only a group can wield power at the parliament, he says, as they can chair committees and sway voting. "Independent members count for nothing, which is why the risk posed by these extremists is in reality so insignificant."
At the other end of the scale, the parliament risks being seen as a depository for outlandish wannabes or failed has-beens. France's fallen political star, the former justice minister Rachida Dati (UMP), can at least boast cabinet experience, unlike the string of female soap-opera starlets and models being fielded by Italy's Silvio Berlusconi for his centre-right party, to the outrage of his wife, who last week filed for divorce, calling the move "shameless".
In Britain, the former Apprentice star and Met Office worker Katie Hopkins announced she will stand as the sole candidate for the Katie Olivia Hopkins Independent Party in Exeter. "It makes us look like a bunch of amateurs," said one Dutch MEP.
Although the parliament has massively increased its powers since it became a democratically elected chamber three decades ago and now wields its zeal for regulation wherever it can, the world's only trans-national parliament still leaves most Europeans cold: two-thirds say they know little or next to nothing about what it does and only one-third plan to vote next month, one poll found. "Everyone is worrying about the economic crisis, but people don't necessarily believe that the parliament can address it," says Ms Frassoni.
Its 785 MEPs like to blame the media for the plummeting public interest, accusing it of failing to report on its achievements in swaying legislation on issues as diverse as working hours for employees, EU environmental targets and mobile phone roaming charges. Instead, the assembly's reputation is all-too-frequently dogged by scandals over MEP allowances and the extravagant idiosyncrasy of being the only parliament in the world with two houses.
MEPs and armies of assistants and translators leave the gleaming steel-and-glass hemisphere in Brussels once a month to travel several hundred miles to Strasbourg for a four-day plenary session in a time-honoured practice branded the "travelling circus', "Euro gravy train" or any variation of the two.
The monthly move to France of thousands of staff wheeling boxes of documents as well as the upkeep of a state-of-the-art premises which stands mostly empty costs European taxpayers about €200m a year. Even if Strasbourg's restaurants buzz with the nightly patronage of the MEPs during sessions, many elected representatives don't even bother to show up. "We had around 150 colleagues missing during the last session, which is completely unacceptable and dangerous as it skews voting results." says the British Liberal MEP Andrew Duff. "Some Mediterraneans hardly ever show their face".
Others seethe with frustration at the parliament's reluctance to self-reform. "In the past, Strasbourg was a symbol of Franco-German reconciliation. Now it's a symbol of waste," says Alexander Alvaro, a German Liberal MEP who wants to scrap the Strasbourg location - a historic arrangement enshrined in EU treaties. However, there are signs the European Parliament is getting the message. New rules on allowances will curb some of the excess. And if Ireland passes the Lisbon Treaty in a second referendum in the autumn, Strasbourg will be conferred with a greater say over justice, immigration and foreign policy, rather than wasting its breath on passing resolutions on matters beyond its remit.
Ironically, the europhobes and extremists may find themselves wielding real power rather than just disrupting hand-wringing debates on the situation in Burma or the disappearance of the brown bear.