Lee Rotherham: Europe’s new radical alliance is brittle, but offers the EU an important warning

15 Jul

Dr Lee Rotherham is a member of the advisory board of Kids Count.

In a recent piece on this site, Garvan Walshe pondered the development of a new continental Eurosceptic coalition. This “rassemblement des patriotes” brings together the parties of Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orban, and Jaroslaw Kaczynski among others. The phenomenon serves as a marker not only of the EU’s past mistakes, but also its future ones.

As the piece noted, it is not a simple alliance nor a very deep one. It excludes a number of Eurosceptic players, most notably the Czech ODS and some key Scandinavians. The definition of “Euroscepticism” among signatories is elastic: in addition to the Italian contingent navigating a coalition government, Le Pen’s own Rassemblement National accepts the Euro and rejects Frexit. The fact that Orban, having been forced out of the EPP, is now jumping into a new grouping he originally turned down in 2019 certainly demonstrates an element of instability.

Yet the simple fact of this arrangement is a milestone. It reminds one of the quote attributed to a continental diplomat at the time of Maastricht that, “If the British did not exist, we would have to invent them.” After Brexit, that is precisely what is happening.

To explain why, we need to first understand where the impetus to generate a group comes from. It is an institutional response to an institutional problem.

European bodies in recent years have increasingly formalised political alliances for administrative purposes. Even within the Council of Europe, you may recall several years back how United Russia formally sitting alongside the Conservatives suddenly became an issue.

Within the EU this has become very developed. Political groups have a composite budget and employ staff (on healthy wages) for policy drafting, committee work, negotiations with counterparts, and generating the whip.

Group size determines budget share, speaking time, share of posts and committee places, PR money for MEP freebies, and the very significant think tank money for the likes of the Wilfried Martens Centre. It also guarantees a seat at the Conference of Presidents running EP business. Being able to generate a group is therefore important, and the bigger the better, though the dynamic limits are evident if we remember Conservative membership of the EPP.

There is a threshold for setting up a group. Currently, 23 MEPs are needed, and at least one-quarter of the member states must be represented. Look back to my 1998 edition of the Vademecum though, and it’s 29 from one member state, 23 from two, 18 from three or 14 from four or more.

Why this jump to get members from at least seven countries? In large part, it was ruthless cynicism. It was assumed by the main groups that it would difficult for Eurosceptic groups to reach that threshold given both ideological differences and the lack of pan-Europeanism. They weren’t wrong.

The net result was four Eurosceptic blocs. There was a “soft Eurosceptic” element in the ED subsumed in the EPP, emerging again to become the ECR. There was the “hard Eurosceptic” group (variously EdN, EDD, Ind/Dem), dependent on small MEP delegations and ever hovering on dissolution.

Then there were the small group of Left/Green “Europe is a capitalist plot” Eurosceptics, counterpoised with their fellow Left/Greens who saw the EU as a mechanism to smash big industry. That left the “political untouchables” often sitting as the ragtag leftover Non-Inscrits (an attempt to formalise this as a group was defeated in the courts).

This then generated an EU political scene dominated by ideologically-overlapping Centre Left and Centre Right groups, largely operating in a state of formalised compromise; and on the edges a marginalised and divided Eurosceptic opposition, obliged to make its appeal directly to the electorate.

With Brexit though the group maths has changed, and I would suggest it is generating contradictory imperatives. Strategically, it encourages radical parties to soften in order to cooperate internationally; but there is also a competing domestic pull to harden their positions more, to secure support among increasingly alienated social conservatives at home. It is not yet clear which force will win out; following how Estonia’s new EKRE party plays out will perhaps be an early pointer.

Set in the context of group politics, the arrival of this new “rassemblement des patriotes” correspondingly suggests three significant conclusions.

First, it is significant that the named trigger was the Conference on the Future of Europe – basically a second Convention on the Future of Europe, which last time round offered up an EU Constitution. The EU is already repeating the same mistakes it made before, anticipating more integration rather than questioning assumptions and remembering lost referenda.

So far the ECR Eurosceptics around veteran MEP Jan Zahradil have been doing the running in the fightback. This new group though is now giving notice that it intends a massive organised pile-on as well. Expect the Conference to heat up and its findings to generate a political crisis next year, and quite possibly several.

Second, it’s clear there are enduring splits among Eurosceptics about who is and who isn’t an appropriate partner. Sharing a broad opposition to EU integration is still not enough. It is nevertheless a fact that parts of “New Europe” are very socially conservative and reject the EU’s direction both conceptually and emotionally.

This social conservatism also happens to be shared with large parts of Russian society. It is hardly surprising in that context if Putin’s domestic politics give him a certain specific appeal, not as a border revanchist but as someone who dares push back against a Western “policy consensus gone wrong”.

Third, we can predict that EU politicians will botch their response. Brussels players too lazily conflate extremism with populism, and populism with popularity. Experience suggests that this is often down to a combination of a lack of intellectual curiosity plus short-term political advantage.

But attempts to marginalise, delegitimise and humiliate only serve to polarise by disenfranchising. Even a more tempered approach that ignores the core grievances still produces asymmetric and anti-establishment figures in response, from Beppe Grillo to now Slavi Trifonov in Bulgaria.

This is certainly not an endorsement of any political party’s stance: it is simply a warning that serious EU policy failures especially over immigration and Eurozone management need to be fixed and not rendered taboo. Liberal campaigners also need to recognise that the European Courts are a counterproductive mechanism for pursuing major social change by lawfare.

This new radical alliance (for want of a better term) is indeed brittle. It is uncemented, frangible, and perhaps ephemeral. But if Brussels commuters physically need to see an early warning sign that any move to grab more EU powers next year is going to end badly, then this is it, plastered all over a billboard.