It is now old news that the Front National (FN) and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) won the European elections in France and the UK respectively. Marine Le Pen took her party (inherited from her father) to first place in France, with just under a quarter of the vote, 5 points ahead of the centre-right UMP and sending the Socialists down to third place with a dismal 14%. Meanwhile in the UK, Farage rode a wave of press coverage and anti-EU sentiment to also win the election with 27.5% of the vote.
The parties are similar in nature, especially on social and EU-related issues, with both advocating less immigration–Farage saying that immigration has left Britain “unrecognizable” while Le Pen’s father, the founder of the FN, said that the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa could solve the problem of immigration to France.
Both parties are also strongly against further European integration, with Farage leading the campaign in the UK for the “Brexit.” Le Pen, despite coming from one of the founding members of the EU, has called it a “nightmare.”
Both Le Pen and Farage, leading their parties, were able to take advantage of the public’s heightened scepticism of the EU following the economic and Euro crisis, as well as anti-immigrant sentiment that can ride high in both countries.
Both party leaders have also received an enormous amount of press in the past year. Le Pen led her party to an impressive showing in French municipal elections, while Farage was able to secure highly publicized debates with the pro-EU Liberal Democrats leader, Nick Clegg, in which the public deemed Farage to be the winner.
All of this has been widely talked about, but what hasn’t been said is how once these two party leaders got to Brussels, they refused to work together to create a single, massive political group in the EP and thus sabotaged the eurosceptic agenda that they have become the faces of.
A month before the elections even took place, Farage rejected Le Pen’s claim that the two parties could eventually work together in the EP to form a large group. He then called the French party anti-semitic, after which Le Pen accused Farage of slander, and all hopes of a FN and UKIP eurosceptic coalition in the EP died.
Instead, the two parties each jockeyed for smaller parties or independent MEPs to meet the EP’s guidelines for political groups–containing at least 25 MEPs from at least 7 MS. In the end Farage was able to secure enough MEPS for the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group, while Le Pen was unable to get enough and missed the deadline, thus losing out on funds and speaking time in the plenary. Le Pen then stated in an interview with Le Figaro that Farage used “political dirty tricks” and “media stunts” to get a group which prevented Le Pen from doing the same.
If these two leaders really cared about making a difference in Brussels, like they want their voters and supporters to believe, then they would have worked together to form a large political group that would have been a stronger force within the EP.
The FN and UKIP each got 24 seats in the European election. Farage’s current eurosceptic group (including some extremists which Le Pen refused to work with) contains 48 MEPs. If the FN could have joined forces with UKIP and its group, this would bring its total number to 72, not even counting the other political parties that Le Pen would have brought with her. The French party leader and Geert Wilders from the Freedom Party in Netherlands worked closely together with smaller parties to attempt to form their own group. These smaller parties included Austria’s Freedom Party, Italy’s Lega Nord, and Belgium’s Vlaams Belang. In total, these smaller parties, including Wilders’ party, would have added a further 14 MEPs to the group, bringing the hypothetical total to 86 parliamentarians.
Assuming these parties could all come to an agreement to form a singular eurosceptic political group, with their 86 MEPs they would have been the third biggest political group in the European Parliament, making them much harder for the EPP and the S&D to ignore, not to mention the money and speaking time this group would have been entitled to.
However, what has happened is Farage has gone on as the leader of the EFDD group (a continuation of the EFD from the previous parliament). With a total of 48 MEPs, it is currently the smallest political group in the EP and just scraped by with parties from the minimum 7 MS. The FN and its allies have all become unaffiliated and thus losing much of the influence they could have had as part of a group.
The problem for the eurosceptics is their own success and the fact that European elections remain a type of second-order elections in the MS. Le Pen and Farage have used the euroscepticism that is brewing in their respective countries for political gains in the domestic arena. Le Pen gets enormous media coverage and continues to ride a wave of electoral and polling success in France. Meanwhile it has been widely reported on in Britain just how little time Farage and his UKIP colleagues spend in Brussels. Instead the focus of the party has been on the British local elections and the upcoming 2015 general elections–perhaps UKIP’s best opportunity to finally get MPs elected to Westminster, a difficult task for newer or smaller parties given the British electoral system.
The fact is a eurosceptic group in Brussels cannot work if the parties (and especially their leaders) are still focusing their attention on the domestic political scene. While it’s easy to say that Brussels needs reform (or that Britain needs to leave altogether), you still need to be there to use your power and influence to actually change anything.
Ironically, in the end it is the eurosceptics that have lost in the EP. While they have caused “political earthquakes” in some countries, their message has become divided and in the end the movement faces the problem that the leaders of its largest parties are actually more concerned with their domestic political situation. Polls are now placing Le Pen first in a first round presidential election in France (no doubt due to the extraordinary unpopularity of President Hollande), while Farage is expected to stand as a MP in the 2015 general election in the UK. As long as this pattern holds true, the EPP and S&D can be assured that business will continue as usual in Brussels.
Sidenote: while writing this blog, my friend emailed me with a fantastic quote of two UKIP MEPs lost in the Strasbourg parliament building. Apparently they were unable to find the exit and made the comment “for god’s sake, if we can’t find our way out of the European Parliament, how will we ever find our way out of Europe!” You can’t make that up.