Le Pen and Wilders are leading by example. They aspire to form a European political group in the European Parliament, and are openly campaigning for that goal. Many other parties are more silent on their brothers-in-arms. But voters should realise: a vote on a national candidate will strengthen the European alliance to which he or she belongs.

By Kathalijne Buitenweg

With just four months to the next European elections, Austrian, Belgian, Dutch, French, Swedish and Italian anti-immigrant and anti-European parties seem ready to join hands and organize the most European of all European campaigns ever. The nationalists are pioneering to address an electorate that stretches beyond their nation’s borders. Ms Le Pen, leader of the French Front National and candidate for the European Parliament, has announced that she wants to reach a European electorate. She hopes to profit from the fact that the far-Right alliance has united itself on a common anti-Brussels manifesto. European alliances of other political families, already existing for a longer period of time, have drafted common manifestos as well. Just as they did for previous elections. These manifestos are generally very patient and vaguely formulated pieces of paper. In all previous elections, and despite formal pretenses, the European parties have not succeeded in getting substantial European campaigns off the ground. Ironically, if Le Pen succeeds to convince voters across borders to vote for national parties that belong to her alliance, she can be regarded as the avant-garde of European campaigning. A remarkable achievement given the fact that she is ready to “to do all in her power to facilitate the collapse of the EU” (The Telegraph, 9/1/2014).

All too often in the past, candidates for the European Parliament have presented themselves as ideal representatives of the electorate’s national interest. For example, the Dutch Christian-Democrat leader Wim van de Camp and his Liberal colleague van Baalen made the “Dutch national interest” the focus of their campaigns in 2009. The set-up of an “orange network” of Dutch parliamentarians was announced, aimed to secure a joint Dutch front in Strasbourg. The implied promise was that when elected, the parliamentarians would speak and act in the European Parliament with an eye to the interests of people living in places like Rotterdam, Groningen or Losser. The interests of people from Athens, Marbella or Malmo had to be served by others, not by Dutch representatives. Not surprisingly, the parliamentary reality is more ambiguous. As soon as van de Camp and van Baalen were elected, they sidelined the ‘orange network’ and entered European political groups. Hence, when they are speaking in plenary, they speak in the name of their European political group, not of behalf of all the Dutch. When they participate in parliamentary committees, they do so on the ticket of their European group, not for their national delegation only. Because they are spokespersons for their European colleagues, group members become responsible for the electorates of their colleagues as well to some extent. In the European Parliament the national electorates are given an extra, European, layer.

The important role that European political groups have in parliament’s organization is understandable. They serve to overcome national conflicts, foster understanding and facilitate compromises in a manner that national delegations could never do. Political groups strengthen the European Parliament’s efficiency and capacity to strike. Moreover, they increase the resemblance of the European Parliament to powerful national parliaments, rather than toothless parliamentary assemblies, with potential implications for the legitimacy and aspirations of the institution.

In line with this, other alliances are prevented from playing a role in the European Parliament. National delegations are not granted any rights according to the Rules of Procedure. Political groups are the dominant parliamentary actors. Their representatives have prominent speaking time, can participate in negotiations with the Council of Ministers, introduce more easily amendments or motions for resolutions and have a seat in the highly influential Conference of Presidents. In short, being part of a political group is a precondition for working effectively.

The criteria for the creation of political groups are stringent. Groups need to be based on a common political ideology, and consist of at least 25 Members of at least 7 different Member States. These criteria are very normative. To have a threshold for the formation of political groups is not uncommon in parliaments that want to prevent chaos and ensure efficiency. However, to demand national diversity is not a matter of rationalisation only. This requirement means that 60 German Christian-Democrats do not suffice to form a group, whilst 25 Members from 7 different countries can. The normative criterion is telling for how the European Parliament wants the representatives to function.

And it works. While in the past the nationalists could often not meet eye to eye, they are now seeking each other’s company. In the British Telegraph, Marine Le Pen said “I am very optimistic that we will have the capacity to form a group, that is to say, with at least seven nationalities and twenty-five MEPs”. The internal rules of the European Parliament have swayed her to go European.

Remarkably, the far-Right does not stop at making a parliamentary alliance (as some traditional parties do), but seeks to make an electoral alliance. Marine le Pen announced that she will not only be speaking for the voters from Paris or Marseilles, but for the angry men in Berlin or Milan alike. Geert Wilders, the Dutch front-runner in her nationalist alliance, has adopted this European spirit as well. On BNR-radio he said: “we stand for every Dutch, French and Austrian voter and whatever other voter who says: enough is enough, we need less Europe”. By standing for voters because of their political conviction, and not because of their nationality, and by campaigning on European issues rather than national ones, both Le Pen and Wilders act as true European representatives.

Clearly, there is a tension between the electorate in whose name Wilders and Le Pen want to speak and the current European electoral provisions. Members of the European Parliament are elected on national lists. Citizens cannot vote for a candidate residing in another European country. So only voters living in France can vote for Le Pen, and only those living in the Netherlands can vote on the party of Wilders.

The European Parliament is eager to change the election provisions and include a more European dimension, such as transnational lists. Wilders, Le Pen, and several other politicians that are now campaigning for their European alliance, might bring this dream nearby. It is untenable to ask for votes to a national electorate, and transform the latter only in the European Parliament to a European electorate. But whatever the future might bring, for the coming elections it is at least clear: a vote for the Dutch liberals (VVD or D66) is a vote for the political group of Guy Verhofstadt as well; votes for the social-democrats (PvdA) increase the numbers of the group of Martin Schultz; and a vote for the Wilders’ Freedom Party will strengthen the parliamentary effectiveness of the French Front National.

Bear that in mind.

Kathalijne Buitenweg was a Member of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2009. Currently, she is a PhD researcher at the Amsterdam Centre for European Law and Governance. Her personal page can be accessed here.

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