The start of this week saw the grand opening of the European Parliament, with 751 members from 28 member states arriving in the Alsace city of Strasbourg, all crammed into hotels and lodgings and, happily for local restaurateurs, ready to book tables and call for the wine list. Some 400 of them were newly elected in May, and the injection of eurosceptic new blood will have caused the Eurocrats some palpitations.
The first day began with a flag-raising ceremony in the courtyard outside the Parliament, accompanied by a military band playing oompah music and the presence of soldiers from the Euro Corps. Not heard about the Euro Corps? They’re the EU’s troop of khaki-wearing soldiers who I suspect would not last long on an exercise up Pen-y-Fan. The corps held between them a giant EU flag and marched it around the courtyard.
Whether it was goose-stepping or just very bad marching is open to question, but clearly they hadn’t much time spend on the parade square practising their drill.
The flag was then raised to the top of the flag pole and the band struck up the European anthem, “Ode to Joy”. I always feel “Ode to Joy” is inappropriate not only because of the huge two fingers-up it gives to national democracy but also because Beethoven was an opponent of Europe being united under one rather short dictator. In his case it was a French chap who, when he made himself Emperor, caused the composer to declare him“…no more than a common mortal! Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men…!” In modern times it’s the diminutive figure of Angela Merkel who, when she speaks, the EU listens.
During this stiff and stagey ceremony I was standing in a marquee with some other MEPs and I turned around to walk to the back of the tent, away from the sight of this rampant EU nationalism, with its clear disregard for the recent Euro election results. Elmar Brok, a jovial German MEP, put his arms around me and said, “Is it all too much for you?”
“Yes” I replied, simply.
When the music stopped, one of Ms Merkel’s advisers stopped me to find to more. I had a chat with him and Mr Brok, asking if it “would it be acceptable for the German flag to be marched around in front of the Bundestag and the German anthem played?”
They looked quite shocked that I could make such a suggestion. Perhaps they were recalling that I had a German wife and were wondering how far her influence stretched. “Oh no, that would not be possible,” Mr Brok said.
The irony hadn’t dawned on them that despite their constant attacks on the concept of nationalism, the EU has all the symbols of EU nationalism – yet they are deemed to be perfectly acceptable.
This political leitmotif continued, with an orchestra seated in the well of the European Parliament chamber. At the opening of the parliament the anthem was played again, and I could picture Beethoven spinning in his grave.
In pictures: Extremists in the EU
In pictures: Extremists in the EU
1/6 France: Marine le Pen
Marine Le Pen, 45, took over the Front National (FN), the party that her father founded, in 2011. He himself described her as “a big, healthy, blonde girl, an ideal physical specimen." She claims to have cleaned up the FN and succeeded in pushing her anti-European, anti-euro and anti-immigration agenda into the EU political mainstream
2/6 Germany: Udo Voigt
He will be the first German neo-Nazi to enter the European Parliament. The former army officer, born in 1952, was jailed in 1995 for inciting racial hatred. Formerly the leader of the far right National Democratic Party (NPD), Voigt was convicted in 2009 after he was caught handing out flyers at the World Cup which argued that a black player was not entitled to play for Germany, whose national team – the literature argued – should be made up only of white players.
3/6 Denmark: Morten Messerschmidt
Leader of the Danish People’s Party, which won 27 per cent of the vote. His party has rammed 20 laws relating to immigrants and asylum-seekers through the Danish parliament, giving it the most anti-foreigner legislation in Europe. His party calls Islam “a fascist ideology” and rails against “East European criminal gangs”. One party strategist said “blood ties” to Denmark should be required for citizenship, though the statement was quickly retracted.
4/6 Hungary: Krisztina Morvai
A senior member of Jobbik, the anti-Semitic and anti-Roma party on Hungary’s far right wing. In 2009, she attracted international publicity after declaring: “So-called proud Hungarian Jews should go back to playing with their little circumcised dicks.” In 2009, she cancelled an interview with a British newspaper, declaring in tones of outrage: “I am a decent politician and the mother of three children, yet you in the west keep portraying me as a Nazi and a Fascist.”
5/6 Italy: Mario Borghezio
MEP for Italy’s notoriously racist Northern League, he has relentlessly attacked the nation’s first black cabinet minister, Cecile Kyenge, minister for integration, claiming she would import ‘tribal traditions’ into the Italian government. Other elected members in the party called her “an orang-utan” and suggested that someone should rape her, so she would understand how the victims of Somali rapists felt. He attracted attention by lobbying for the creation of an EU archive of UFO sightings.
6/6 Greece: Eleftherios Synadinos
Fabulously mustachioed retired lieutenant-general in the Greek army, he was one of Golden Dawn’s top candidates in the European elections, at which the overtly neo-Nazi party obtained more than 9 per cent of the vote. With its black-shirted assault squads, the Hitler photos and the party’s swastika-inspired logo, it has been accused of being a criminal organisation. Its website declares: “We aren’t the quiet birds of peace time, we are birds of the storm and the hurricane.”
The Eurofederalists stood ramrod straight to attention. Others like the British Conservatives lolled in their chairs. But Ukip stood up and turned their backs on the proceedings. It was a quiet protest but I think it made the point. I don’t recognise the EU flag or the EU anthem. And I don’t recognise the European Union being written on my passport. Worst of all, no one has ever asked me to accept all this.
The second day started at 9am with the first Parliamentary debate. The 24 Ukip MEPs took their seats in the chamber, all with the union flags on their desks. The opening speech was a 10-minute dirge from Council President Herman Van Rompuy who was followed by the outgoing Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso.
The whole thing was so dull, uninspiring and out of touch they that even their own side could barely muster a round of applause. There was no attempt to address the evident concerns of the voters over the EU project, just the kind of grey words as only a eurocrat can deliver.
Then the leaders of all the parliamentary groups had their turn to speak, and before long the European Parliament began to resemble the House of Commons, with interventions from Ukip members and noticeably more noise and energy in the chamber. I think it would be fair to say that in every way Ukip dominated the first morning’s proceedings even if our new intake hadn’t spent the weeks since their election swotting up on the rules and procedures of the European Parliament. A couple of them were corrected by the chairman on the right points of order to make.
I can tell that this is going to be a much more interesting place now Ukip MEPs make up the biggest UK delegation.