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New European Parliament far-right group still on track

imageBack in early June, I wrote a blogpost examining the prospects for a new far-right group in the European Parliament. I concluded that the return of such a group was likely – albeit with the usual caveats about how difficult conviction fascists find it to work together.

After a Twitter exchange with former MEP Michiel van Hulten yesterday, I decided to take another look at national opinion polls and see how things had changed since June. As things stand, the following far-right parties look set to secure seats next May:

  • France: Front National – 19% current poll rating – 20 seats
  • Greece: Golden Dawn – 13% – 4 seats
  • Netherlands: Freedom Party – 24% – 6 seats
  • Bulgaria: Attack – 8% – 2 seat
  • Hungary: Jobbik – 12% – 2 seats
  • Austria: Freedom Party – 20% – 3 seats

Recent polling is not available for Romania or Belgium but the two counties have long-established far-right parties in the form of the Greater Romania Party and Vlaams Belang. Both parties will secure at least one seat.

Adding together the above numbers, we reach a total of 39 MEPs from eight countries – enough to cross the technical hurdles associated with forming a group. Given the traditionally low turnout in European elections that occasionally throw up freak results such as the election of British National Party MEPs in the UK, there is likely to be a small smattering of extremists elected in other countries too. There will likely be three or four far-right MEPs that come as a complete surprise.

In Italy, the Northern League don’t meet the traditional definition of being a “far-right” party – but they certainly share the anti-immigration, anti-Islamic rhetoric of the French Front National and Dutch Freedom Party. The party is likely to secure somewhere in the region of seven MEPs (well down on their performance at the 2009 elections) and would be a key component of the far-right group if they were to choose to join.

There’s still a way to go until the Euro elections but it’s more than likely a far-right group will be formed.

I’ll conclude with the same comment I made in June:

Of course, any far-right group that is constituted may prove short-lived. Fascists are very good, after all, at hating each other. A previous far-right alliance – the innocent-sounding but thoroughly sinister ‘Identity, Tradition and Sovereignty’ group – collapsed after only eleven months after one of Italian members (Alessandra Mussolini, no less!) made such gratuitous remarks about Romanians that the Romanian entire delegation resigned, depriving the group of a quorum.

For the far-right, the challenge of forming a group could well prove easier than keeping it together.

The European left must not derail the EU-US free trade agreement

This piece was originally published on TheCommentator.com.

This week marks the start of negotiations between the European Union and United States to reach agreement on the largest bilateral trade deal in history. When concluded, the EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) will see the removal of artificial trade barriers between two markets accounting for 30 percent of world trade and 20 percent of global foreign direct investment.

The Prime Minister and the British government are enthusiastic supporters of the TTIP, which would undoubtedly strengthen prospects for economic growth, boost employment and remove artificial trade barriers between us and our closest internationally ally.

When it comes to advocating on behalf of a deal, the facts and figures speak for themselves.

Twenty-six million people are currently unemployed across the European Union. Youth unemployment in Italy stands at 42 percent, rising to 58 percent in Greece. While the UK economy is starting to show green shoots of recovery, the economies of nine of the seventeen eurozone countries remain firmly in recession with negative growth outlooks predicted for the rest of 2013.

A Free Trade Agreement with the United States would not be a panacea for all of Europe’s economic woes but it would go a considerable distance towards strengthening links with the world’s largest economy.

A study compiled for the London-headquartered Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) estimated that the benefits of the TTIP could amount to as much as €119 billion a year – equal to around £470 (€545) for a family of four each year. The CEPR further estimates that 80 percent of the financial benefits derived from the agreement would be delivered in terms of the elimination of bureaucracy– a factor which could only but reinforce the efforts the government is making to cut ‘red tape’ on a domestic level.

Amidst such poor economic circumstances and faced with overwhelming evidence about the benefits the TTIP could bring, it is astonishing to note that a coalition of Labour-aligned forces on an EU-level resorting to wrecking tactics to block its progress.

In an eleventh hour intervention shortly before negotiations were about to begin, French President François Hollande issued a statement calling for the suspension of the talks until the US provided further, unspecified “clarifications” with regards to its position on Edward Snowden’s as yet unproven PRISM surveillance allegations.

Even prior to Snowden’s allegations, the socialist government in Paris expressed its willingness to exercise its veto against any agreement that does not provide for the protection of “exception culturelle” – namely, the country’s declining film and music industry.

In the European Parliament, opposition to the agreement amongst Leftist parties is also growing.

Hannes Swoboda MEP, the leader of the Socialists and Democrats Group has been particularly bellicose in his use of language: “This means America is not bound by agreements,” he said when commenting on Snowden’s allegations, adding that, “if partners become targets, we may want to review our position on TTIP.”

In common with the cherry-picking approach to the agreement advocated by the French government, Swoboda has pledged that his group will seek to exclude the audio-visual sector from the agreement and introduce socialist measures related to labour standards and social affairs. If successfully adopted, such measures risk undermining the true principle of free trade and reciprocity, giving rise to a situation where the TTIP is little more than a finely-negotiated white elephant.

The Green Group, which has never been a fan of trans-Atlantic cooperation, has already called for the European Union to “cancel” existing deals regarding the sharing of air passenger records and SWIFT bank transfer payments. To renege on existing deals with the United States would be the clearest possible signal the European Union could give that it is more serious about pursuing petty vendettas against Washington DC than rebooting its own struggling economy.

Against a backdrop of growing hostility and distrust towards the United States, it is more important than ever that the British Conservatives and our allies across the European Union bang the drum for free trade and market liberalisation.

For the UK – Europe’s largest and most dynamic services economy – the benefits of TTIP are crystal clear. Aside from the general savings it would deliver to consumers and the boost it would deliver to manufacturers, the TTIP would help to resolve outstanding controversies surrounding intellectual property concerns and strengthen our fast-growing pharmaceutical and bio-sciences sectors.

While Labour’s allies in Europe pontificate, prevaricate and pour scorn on the need to cooperate more closely with the US on trade and seek to mire the agreement in red-tape, thousands of British jobs and billions of pounds of investment hang in the balance.

We can’t afford to let the European Left let Europe get this wrong.

Ivica Dacic and the art of the possible

There’s an interesting piece on the Balkan Insight website this evening reporting comments made by Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic regarding the future status of Kosovo.

Referencing the 1995 Dayton Agreement which brought about an end to conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina by dividing the country up into two functionally autonomous regions linked by only the very loosest central government ties, Dacic argues in favour of a “new Dayton” to resolve the conflict between Serbia and the majority-Albanian government in Pristina about the future of Kosovo.

Unsurprisingly, the suggestion has been dismissed out of hand by the government in Pristina.  After all, why would they feel compelled to accept a sovereignty-sharing arrangement with Belgrade?

Kosovo’s independence has been recognised by the United States and twenty-two of the EU’s twenty-seven member states (those that don’t – Spain, Slovakia, Cyprus, Romania, and Greece – have problems with irredentist or secessionist movements and are unwilling to recognise Kosovo for fear of setting an internal precedent).  Furthermore, 93 of the 193 United Nations members recognise Kosovo, just shy of the “magic number” (100) require for them to apply for UN membership.

The charming and urbane former Serbian State Secretary for Kosovo Oliver Ivanovic, who I have had the pleasure to meet on a number of occasions in his home-town of Mitrovica, offered a withering response to Dacic’s suggestion: “only Serbia thinks that Kosovo’s status has not been resolved, while for the [Kosovo] Albanians and the West the issue is resolved”.

The government in Belgrade increasingly gives the impression of advocating a position on the Kosovo issue that it itself knows is untenable and unrealistic, while at the same time losing out on genuine opportunities to improve the lives of Serbs in the province.  On a diplomatic level, Serbia enjoys a level of confidence and trust akin to that of a Greek covered bond.

Despite the dogged international support it has received, backed up by tens of millions of Euros in US and EU funding, the Ahtisaari Plan which was supposed to ensure the safe return of Serbs to Kosovo and their integration into the country’s political system has, for most part, been a failure.

While a small number of Serbs hold posts in the Kosovan government and in municipal authorities, large tracts of the country remain total “no go” zones for Serbs.  In the past four months alone, two elderly returnees were murdered close Urosevac, two men were shot while driving in Istog while Serb homes near Zac were pelted with stones and daubed with extremist graffiti.

These communities are exactly the ones forgotten by the Dacic government in its almost-daily clamour to announce new and untenable “solutions” to the Kosovo conflict.  Politics is the part of the possible and, try as he might, Dacic will not achieve the impossible: the reunification of Kosovo and Serbia in a unitary state.

It’s time for Dacic to wake up to what he can positively achieve for his people.

In the short-to-medium term the Serbian government should aim to secure two successful outcomes from their EU-led negotiations with Pristina – and avoid any talk of reunification, beyond that of the majority Serb provinces in the north of Kosovo where Pristina’s writ has never run.

Firstly, a clear pledge should be extracted from the European Union Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) to refocus its resources on guaranteeing the safety of Serb returnees to an area that is, at least in theory, a “multi-ethnic Republic”. Secondly, the government should push for the security checks and (in some cases spiteful) customs levies being levelled on Kosovo’s northern and western borders with Serbia to be removed in order to allow a free flow of people and goods.

In return, Serbia should promise to continue working with Belgrade on projects such as the sharing of cadastral records, the mutual recognition of educational diplomas and the re-opening of railway links between Pristina and Belgrade – an economic link Kosovo badly needs.

Such a solution would go some way towards achieving a sense of normalisation between Kosovo and Serbia that is of benefit to both its peoples – without the word “sovereignty” passing Ivica Dacic’s lips or giving Kosovan Prime Minister Hashim Thaci the opportunity to level his usual allegation of Serb “aggression”.