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Far-right group likely to return after 2014 European Parliament elections

The 2014 European elections are now less than a year away.

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.

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”.