Marine Le Pen has a new right-wing group in Europe – should we be worried?

Look casual, guys. EPA/Olivier Hoslet

Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front, has set up a new far-right alliance in the European Parliament.

With 36 MEPs from seven member states, the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group is the first far-right partnership to enter the European Parliament in eight years. The last attempt to create such a group was short lived – Identity, Tradition and Sovereignty (ITS) collapsed in chaos and disarray alliance imploded after only a few months when its MEPs bitterly fell out.

Le Pen tried to start a group in 2014 but has only now managed to garner enough support to do it.

European Parliament rules dictate that party groups must have at least 25 MEPs from at least seven member states. At the start of the parliamentary term, Le Pen and her main partner Geert Wilders, a MEP for the Dutch Party for Freedom, were assured of the backing of Belgium, Italy and Austria – member states with a long history of returning far-right MEPs to the parliament.

They struggled, though, to find support from another two member nations. This problem was finally solved by the inclusion of two MEPs from Poland’s Congress of the New Right and a last minute addition from the UK in the form of Janice Atkinson, who found herself newly independent following her expulsion from the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in an expenses scandal.

There has been widespread condemnation of the group across the parliament and a resolution among mainstream MEPs to unite against the far-right bloc.

The European Parliament has a long history of antagonism towards far-right ideology, which began in the 1980s when the French National Front first joined the parliament. There was concern that the rise of xenophobic views would threaten the protection of ethnic and migrant groups in Europe.

In 2015, at a time when a position of EU solidarity on immigration issues is once again under strain, there is great concern that a cohesive group of anti-EU MEPs, many of whom have long held views considered xenophobic and racist, could work to further destabilise the EU approach to immigration.

Wilders and Austria’s Heinz-Christian Strache speak at a meeting on the ‘Islamification’ of Europe. EPA/Helmut Fohringer

What’s more, giving a greater platform to parties that consistently campaign for their countries to withdraw from the EU is a dangerous game at the moment. With the threat of a Grexit and Brexit casting dark clouds over the horizon, the new group is likely to be eager to sow the seeds of disunity.

Being a member of a party group allows MEPs access to more funding, resources and speaking opportunities, which gives these once disparate MEPs more opportunity to make their presence felt.

Delicate union

Despite the dangers, the new group is hardly built on solid foundations. Far-right MEPs have typically been spread across party groups or have chosen to remain non-attached.

They struggle to get other MEPs to cooperate with them and often even fail to cooperate between themselves, as the doomed ITS venture proved. Getting a bunch of ultra-nationalist MEPs to successfully join forces in a pan-European parliament is nigh on impossible.

With 20 MEPs, the French National Front makes up more than half the new group, which is not exactly a broad base of political affinity. And while the ENF is the only exclusively far-right group in the parliament, it is not the only cluster of Eurosceptics. The Europe for Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) group, which is based on a spirit of antagonism towards the project of European integration, is larger than the ENF, with 45 members.

So, although the emergence of this new far-right group is no laughing matter, past experience suggests that it is not to be taken too seriously.

Rise of the right

What should be of more concern is the unabated popularity of Eurosceptic and far-right parties across Europe. Successive European Parliament elections have brought in an array of populist and far-right MEPs from the UK in the West to Romania in the East; Finland in the North to Greece in the South. Their popularity shows no sign of dissipating and, with economic uncertainty and issues relating to immigration dominating the EU agenda, it seems likely that support for these parties will continue.

At a time when the European project seems on shaky ground, the legitimisation of anti-EU ideology in the form of a directly elected far-right bloc in the parliament could further weaken the bonds of the union.

There are real concerns that the measures taken over decades by the EU to protect the rights of minority ethnic groups, to provide asylum to those in need, and to create a position of solidarity across the union will be undone by parties such as those led by Le Pen and Wilders.

Europe of Nations and Freedom might prove to be a flash in the pan, but its parties are not going anywhere.