John Lichfield: Strong EU needed in fight against xenophobes

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The Independent Online

A couple of years ago Jean-Marie Le Pen proudly introduced a gaggle of other European ultra-right party leaders to a National Front conference in Strasbourg.

"These are all our friends," he boomed, and then stepping forward he added in a loud stage whisper: "They all hate each other, of course, but they are all our friends."

Not for the first time, the veteran French far-right leader made a good point in a detestable cause. The idea of a pan-European far-right movement is, in itself, absurd.

Because they are xenophobes, because they hate one another, the various far-right movements in Europe can never truly form a common cause. The creation of a far-right group in the European Parliament is a contradiction in terms - but also a profoundly disquieting sign of the times.

The far right cannot be a coherent pan-European movement but it can be a virus which spreads through the democratic institutions that it abhors like some kind of super-bug, a political "MRSA".

Because the EU insists on a degree of proportional representation (PR) in European elections, the far right is much better represented in Strasbourg than in many national parliaments. This is not an argument against PR but gives the fundamentally anti-democratic, European ultra-right a European platform.

Given the generous funding of the European assembly, it is understandable that far-right groups should band together to increase their claim on the parliament's speaking time.

The bread-and-butter work of the European Parliament tends to be under-reported by the mainstream media. Nonetheless, the antics of the new far-right group are likely to be given disproportionate attention.

The best response to this ultra-right political super-bug invasion of the European institutions would be to make these institutions more effective and more relevant. The containment of the far right in Europe is beyond the EU alone. But it cannot be achieved without a strong EU. To that extent, the chambers of Strasbourg and Brussels - as much as the streets of Burnley or Marseilles - are the right places for the forces of democracy to start fighting back.