Europe’s far right plans to use legislative elections to attack EU
Populists hope to harness anger over weak economies and immigration to win seats in parliament so they can attack EU from within
France's far-right National Front, coming off a historic electoral victory at home, is marching towards a new target: the European Parliament.
Party chief Marine Le Pen is leading the charge for the continent-wide elections next month, hoping to attract kindred parties around Europe in a broad alliance.
As the extreme right rises across Europe, Le Pen wants to seize the momentum - raising the voice of her anti-immigration National Front and amplifying it through a broad parliamentary group. These parties, leveraging public frustration with the EU, want to weaken the bloc from within.
"My goal is to be first" in France's vote for the European Parliament, "to raise the conscience over what the European Union is making our country live through", she said after her party won a dozen town halls and more than 1,000 city and town council seats in municipal elections.
The voting for the 751-seat European Parliament, based in Strasbourg in eastern France, takes place in each of the EU's 28 member states over four days from May 22. Even if far-right groups expand their presence in the parliament, they're unlikely to break the mainstream majority, and their divergent nationalist agendas may clash.
The European Parliament was long derided as a mere talking shop, but it has steadily gained power in recent years and its approval is now needed for all major EU legislation. But the European Parliament falls short of the clout of national legislatures in two important ways: it cannot propose new laws and it has only a limited say over the EU's budget.
Le Pen's main goal is to use larger numbers in parliament to shift the political discourse towards far-right complaints and establish a long-term foothold.
Europe's economic downturn has fuelled populist parties of all stripes across the continent, from the United Kingdom Independence Party, known as UKIP, to Greece's Golden Dawn. But it's not all about the economy: Europeans are in the grips of a chronic identity crisis fed by immigration.
"The multicultural question, the question of the transformation of the European cultural landscape, notably with the arrival of a Muslim population," said far-right expert Jean-Yves Camus, weigh as heavily on Europe's anxieties as economic frustrations.
In a heated television debate on Wednesday night, UKIP leader Nigel Farage - whose party holds nine of Britain's 73 seats in the European Parliament - warned Britain's deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, the EU risked breaking up "very unpleasantly" if it doesn't dissolve democratically.
"If you take away from people their ability through the ballot box to change their future because they have given away control of everything to somebody else, I'm afraid they tend to resort to unpleasant means," Farage said, warning of protests and the rise of neo-Nazis. Clegg responded that the EU of the future would be "quite similar" to today's EU, with trade remaining "at the absolute heart" of it.
The National Front currently holds three seats in the European Parliament, with Le Pen and her father, party founder Jean Marie Le Pen, holding two of them.
Experts say the National Front could get up to 20 deputies in the European voting, and foresee strong performances from other European extreme-right parties.
Le Pen wants to rally far-right parties around a common anti-EU stance - and create a parliamentary grouping to increase their clout. In November, Le Pen joined with the anti-EU, anti-Islam Freedom Party of Dutchman Geert Wilders, who announced plans to "liberate Europe from the monster of Brussels".
Le Pen has been short on details about who else might form a group with her and Wilders - saying only that the excessively extreme positions of Greece's Golden Dawn and Hungary's Jobbik make them unacceptable partners. The high-profile UKIP has refused to join with Wilders and Le Pen, considering their views too extreme.
Some experts say it would be challenging to get inward-looking nationalist parties to co-operate on a European level.
"Their current agendas are about getting out of Europe," said Marco Incerti of the Centre for European Policy Studies, "but there is little cement between them".