Between 22nd and 25th May next year the more than 500 million citizens of European Union member states will elect Members of the European Parliament to serve them all the way until 2019. The size of each country’s delegation is dependent on the population of each member state with Germany’s 81.8 million people electing 96 MEPs and Malta, with a population of only 416,000, electing six.
Much of the speculation about the elections has centred upon which of the Parliament’s two major groupings – the Christian Democrat European People’s Party or centre-left Socialists and Democrats - will secure the most seats. To date, however, the debate about the likely performance of the Parliament’s smaller political groupings has received little (or any) coverage.
Predicting the outcome of European elections is a real joy for geeky psephologists with variables such as whether the FDP will reach the 3% electoral threshold in Germany, if Indrek Tarand will secure his improbable re-election as an independent in Estonia or whether the Spanish Workers’ Party will secure enough D’Hondt points to secure a good committee chairmanship in the next session providing hours of fun.
More simply though, it is just a numbers game – and playing such a game right now suggests to me that the far-right will once again be able to constitute a formal political group inside the European Parliament.
Forming a political group comes with distinct advantages for MEPs in terms of securing access to speaking time in set-piece debates, additional funding for promotional activities in their home constituencies and additional staff to assist with their workload.
In order to form a political group, a party needs to have at least twenty five MEPs representing a quarter of European Union member states (that equals seven out out of twenty seven in the 2014 Parliament that will be expanded to include Croatia).
The major backbone for the new group is likely to come from Marine Le Pen’s French Front National. While some may have expected the party to struggle after the retirement of its long-term figurehead Jean-Marie Le Pen (who you will remember placed second behind Jacques Chirac in the 2002 Presidential election), the party has undergone a disturbing renaissance in recent times.
In 2009, the party won only 6% of the vote and three seats. Current polls show support for the Front National to be as high as 18%. Extrapolated out across France, such a showing in the European elections would give Le Pen’s party a minimum of fifteen and maximum of seventeen seats – roughly two thirds of the 25 MEPs needed to form a group.
While the Front National is likely to be by far and away the largest of the far-right groups, the consistently strong polling ratings the anti-Semitic and ultra-nationalist Jobbik in Hungary and Golden Dawn in Greece will add to the group. Jobbik’s consistent 15% national poll rating would deliver the party three or four MEPs while Golden Dawn’s 10% should see them win three.
If current support levels for Front National, Jobbik and Golden Dawn continue until next May then the parties will have a core of twenty-one fascist MEPs. This leaves them only four MEPs and four countries short of being able to form a group.
With the terminal decline of the Italian ‘Mussolini-ite’ parties – who have ordinarily provided two or three far-right MEPs to each session of Parliament – the hopes of the far-right will now centre upon the Bulgarian Attack Coalition (Ataka), the Greater Romania Party and the Austrian Freedom Party.
Attack and the Austrian Freedom Party won two seats at the 2009 elections, while the Greater Romania Party won three. Each of these parties is in a weaker position today than in 2009 but the national list system of proportional representation used in each country should ensure they win at least four seats between them next year.
With these three parties on board, the far-right will have secured the twenty five seats they need to form a group. They will still be one country short of the seven country requirement.
Such a barrier shouldn’t be too hard for them to cross, however, with the Belgian Vlaams Belang (who belonged to a previous far-right group in the Parliament) likely to win at least one seat. Also in contention for seats in the European Parliament are the British National Party who won two seats in 2009 and the Swedish Democrats who won twenty seats in the 2010 Swedish general election.
The proportional representation electoral system used for European elections also always throws up some wild cards – usually people elected on 7% of the national vote on a 25% turnout. In each Parliament, this group has ordinarily included at least a handful of far-right MEPs amenable to the ultra-nationalist policies advocated by the likes of Nick Griffin and Marine Le Pen.
One year out, the return of a far-right group to the chamber of the European Parliament looks not only possible but likely.
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.