Farage could refer to any number of withdrawals awaiting members of the European Parliament for their election.
Some time ago, the EU decided that it would be good for MEPs to set up political groups within parliament. The idea: if you were a socialist in Spain, you could find your socialist comrades in Sweden or France and work as a block.
This led to the formation not only of groups in Parliament, but of multinational political parties outside of it. All these organizations employ staff in Brussels and at home. Travel and subsistence costs are borne by the EU budget. They can form think tanks to research and promote their ideas, all about the EU dollar.
From a Brussels perspective, it’s okay if these MEPs are working to strengthen the union. However, EU funding rules are opaque and the system is subject to abuse.
Funding is only the beginning. The proportional representation of the European Parliament also means that far-right parties, squeezed out of power at the national level, have the opportunity to be elected, have a platform and make friends with like-minded populists across the continent. “The European Parliament has been a breeding ground for some of these movements,” says Daniel Freund, a German green MEP.
Freund explains that the far right is ruthlessly efficient at squeezing the maximum out of Brussels. “They aren’t always ideologically coherent and don’t vote together, but they can form political groups to increase things like staffing and speaking time in Parliament.”
Talk time is important. Parliamentary speeches are translated into all EU languages. They often end up on social platforms. This puts Eurosceptic Euro MPs, some of whom would have found it difficult to get elected to local councils at home, in front of a large audience.
Being in Parliament also allows populists to perform anti-EU stunts. Memorable episodes include the time when an extreme right-wing Italian MEP named Gianluca Buonanno wore a mask by Angela Merkel and interrupted the then President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker while speaking in Parliament. Buonanno was protesting against the EU’s migration policy, pointing out that wealthy countries like Germany impose policies on the poorest nations.
Last year, Brexit MEPs turned their backs on an execution of the EU anthem. The video provided Eurosceptics with viral success for fans at home. And it’s how this stuff sounds at home that really matters.
“They are noisy in the European Parliament. But their ability to influence legislation is close to zero,” says Siegfried Muresan, vice president of the European People’s Party, the most powerful pan-European political group. While this may be true – the far right represents only about 10% of all MEPs – their higher percentage of votes over time has already influenced the internal political agenda in many Member States.
Sara Hobolt, professor of European politics at the London School of Economics, explains that far-right parties have successfully exploited “more indirect ways of influence … since traditional parties across Europe have been seen to accommodate some positions of the right radical “. He says the most obvious example has been the integration of far-right ideas about immigration.
“The more a threat is seen by the radical right as an electoral, the greater the temptation for the center-right and even the center-left to try to adopt part of the same rhetoric as these parties to win back the voters.”
This is where we return to European reform. While parliament may have a large pro-European majority, it is the political leaders of the Member States (which make up the European Council) that hold real power.
“The biggest threat to the EU is not gaining strength in far-right parties; the biggest threat to the EU is where pro-EU politicians become more Eurosceptic, due to the lack of reforms on key EU institutions “says James F. Downes, a researcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Without addressing “the democratic deficit in the European Parliament and the technocratic nature of the European Commission”, European reform could lead to less integration, as European populations tire Brussels. Downes adds, “this would lead to a smaller economic version of the EU project and the EU political project will become obsolete in the long run.”
Although this may seem to tinker, the implications of making mistakes are enormous for Europe. “Just because these parts have stopped talking about Brexit, that doesn’t mean they won’t see something similar for their own countries in the long run,” says Fabian Zuleeg, director of the European Political Center. “We have to be able to tell what the EU is for and that is why the EU is facing these challenges better than what we see at national level.”
He is right. While the appetite for leaving the EU has recently declined across Europe, Eurosceptic populists continue to perform well in the elections. If the European project continues to feed the populist beast, the domestic political scene across the continent could continue to fragment. “What can happen at European level depends on how strong governments are at home,” says Zuleeg.
How does the EU solve this problem? Brussels has already outlined plans to make the EU feel less remote for Europeans, from hosting “dialogue with citizens” events to an ambitious climate policy that produces jobs and offers real people real benefits. And throughout the 2020-2022 period, the EU will discuss ideas for a way forward in its conference on the future of Europe.
The idea was largely driven by French President Emmanuel Macron. However, eagle-eyed European observers will know that while Macron plays an important role on the European stage, he is being haunted by regular protests and inconsistent public approval at home.
All this brings us back to the great uncertainty of how appetite there is for a more pro-European agenda.
Freed from the troublesome UK, the EU can now move forward by safeguarding its future. The question is: how much damage has years of perceived inaction and weak responses to real concerns eroded affection for the project?
If the EU fails to assert itself, it may find that the rot inside it cannot be repaired. And as he tries to fight those who wish to destroy the project from the inside, he may find that he has already been defeated in many of the key opening battles for the heart of the continent.