Europe's far-right, xenophobic and extremist parties crossed a new threshold yesterday, winning more speaking time, money, and political influence in the European Parliament than ever before.
Claiming the backing of 23 million Europeans, ultra-nationalists secured enough MEPs to make a formal political grouping, underlining the growing challenge posed by the far right across the continent. For the first time since the Second World War a series of elections has swept nationalistic, far-right parties into office in municipal, regional, national and European parliament elections. The admission of Romania and Bulgaria in January of this year brought in enough far-right MEPs to form a bloc.
Mainstream politicians have been struggling for years to contain the threat from hardline nationalists and extremists who have entered coalitions or supported ruling governments in countries such as Austria, Denmark, Poland and Slovakia.
Amid formal protests and jeers in the Strasbourg Parliament, 20 MEPs yesterday signed up to the new formation called Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty (ITS). As a formal group, they are entitled to up to €1m in central funding. It is led by Bruno Gollnisch of France's National Front, who is awaiting a court verdict on charges of Holocaust denial.
Made up of ultra-nationalists the group includes one Bulgarian parliamentarian, Dimitar Stoyanov, who yesterday attacked the "Jewish establishment" and accused Roma parents of selling 12-year-olds into prostitution.
Even the ringtone of Mr Stoyanov's phone points to his hardline politics. It features a former Bulgarian national anthem which, he says, "tells of the atrocities of the Turkish army in the second Balkan war, how the rivers were flowing with blood and the widows weeping, and urges people to fight for Bulgaria".
A previous far-right grouping in the European Parliament faltered in the 1980s and rival MEPs predict that ITS will have a limited impact on the Strasbourg assembly.
Martin Schulz, leader of the socialist group which is the second-largest in the Parliament, appealed to other MEPs to unite to prevent ITS from securing senior positions in Strasbourg. He said: "We must not abandon this Parliament, which symbolises the integration of Europe, to those who deny all European values."
The new political group was established despite efforts by socialist MEPs to block its formation. One British MEP, Ashley Mote, has joined the group. A former Ukip member, Mr Mote was suspended from that party in 2004 when he faced prosecution for housing benefit fraud and has since sat as an independent.
Prominent members of the far-right alliance include Jean-Marie Le Pen, veteran member of the French National Front, who shocked Europe by reaching the second stage of the last French presidential elections, Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of Benito Mussolini, Frank Vanhecke, leader of Belgium's separatist Flemish nationalist party, Vlaams Belang, and Andreas Mölzer, a former aide to the Austrian far-right leader, Jörg Haider.
Under the Parliament's rules a formal grouping requires 20 MEPs from at least six countries. That requirement was reached only after Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU this month.
As MEPs converged on Strasbourg, Mr Stoyanov, who at 23 is the Parliament's youngest member, claimed the ITS had crossed a threshold of power. "We will be able to table amendments," said Mr Stoyanov. "We will have longer speaking time in the plenary sessions and, eventually, we will win chairman, or deputy chairman, positions on committees." Mr Stoyanov, of Bulgaria's Ataka party, denied being anti-Semitic but said he opposed the "Jewish establishment" which used ordinary Jewish people "like pawns".
In the parliamentary chamber Mr Gollnisch claimed that the new group " will speak on behalf of 23 million Europeans who would not be represented without us".
He added: "We will be the Parliament's conscience. We will be vigilant defenders of the peoples and nations of Europe who want our continent and civilisation to be great."
The sweep of extremism in expanded Europe
Party: Partidul Romania Mare (Greater Romania)
Leader: Corneliu Vadim Tudor
No. of MEPs: 5
Has five ITS members, all from racist, homophobic Greater Romania party, a, nationalist organisation that voted against joining the EU. Among other things, the party despises ethnic Hungarians, Jews and Romas.
Party: N/A (Independent)
No. of MEPs: 1
British membership of ITS is limited to South East England’s independent MEP Ashley Mote. Mr Mote first entered European politics with UKIP but was ejected in 2004 after being tried for benefit fraud.
Party: Austrian Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs)
Leader: Heinz-Christian Strache
No. of MEPs: One
The Austrian Freedom Party, which Jorg Haider made a household name is still winning votes even after his departure. The FP promises stronger anti-immigration laws, stricter law enforcement and more funds for families.
Party: Alternativa Sociale, Fiamme Tricolore
Leaders: Alessandra Mussolini and Luca Romagnoli respectively
No. of MEPs: 2
MEPs Alessandra Mussolini, and Luca Romagnoli are both remnants of the Fascist party that ruled Italy for two decades. Mussolini, grand-daughter of Il Duce, is a former glamour model. Neither enjoy mainstream support.
A long-cherished ambition, and a step further than before
Yesterday's developments are the culmination of a long-cherished ambition by Europe's far-right parties to form a recognised bloc in the European Parliament. They have had self-declared groups before, notably when Jean-Marie Le Pen of France's National Front led an alliance called the European Right in Strasbourg in 1984-89, followed by the Technical Group of the European Right in 1989-94. On the ground and away from the parliament, the far right has prospered in several countries since the mid-Eighties. In Austria, Jörg Haider emerged in 1986 as leader of the Freedom Party. The Swiss People's Party, led by Christoph Blocher, became Switzerland's second-strongest political force in 1999. In Denmark, the ultra-right Danish People's Party swept into parliament as the country's third-largest party following the 2001 elections. In Italy, the xenophobic Northern League entered a right-wing coalition in the same year. In Belgium, far-right Flemish separatists have gained support throughout the decade, and the Netherlands was convulsed by the rise of the populist anti-immigration campaigner, Pim Fortuyn.Reuse content