Eurosceptics are set to be a major presence in BrusselsImage: AP
July 12, 2009
Opponents of European integration have had their hand strengthened with the recent election of right-wing members from Britain. The Euroskeptic bloc in Brussels is wielding more power than ever before.
Amid the bland blue, grey and white neutrality of the debating chamber, a collection of mini-Union Jacks on a collection of tables stands out.
The European parliament members next to these flags are from the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), whose goal is to take the UK out of the European Union.
Until now, it was seen as a party on the fringe, but ever since European elections in June, hardline Euroskeptics are moving toward center stage.
Even allowing for different strands of Euroskepticism, opponents of deeper EU integration have never been so numerous nor so prominent. More than half of Britain's 72 MEPs will now be sitting in groups opposed to deeper political union.
Britain's Conservative Party has made good on its threat to leave the main center-right grouping in the European Parliament and form its own alliance with politicians from across Europe opposed to deeper political union.
Extreme right in EU parliament is bigger
Despite the recent moves by Britain's Conservatives, hardline Euroskeptics of UKIP accuse the party of hypocrisy.
UKIP spokesman, Andrew Reed, says the new Tory-led grouping cannot call itself Euroskeptic if it agrees to work within the bloc's current structures, including the European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament.
"We are the other side of that line, which requires that the electorate be sovereign," Reed said.
David Rennie of the weekly Economist also sees a dilemma for British Conservative Party leader David Cameron. Rennie says the Conservative chief is trawling for moderate voters back home by suggesting tackling climate change at the European level and by supporting gay rights.
The paradox, according to Rennie, is that Cameron has had to veer deep into the angry nationalist and socially conservative right to find allies who share his Euroskeptic views.
"If you are then aligning yourself deliberately and choosing new members for a group, and you choose parties that don't believe in climate change or think that homosexuality is a wicked sin, you do open yourself up to the allegation of hypocrisy," Rennie said.
The UKIP has also founded its own grouping, and some of its allies are criticized as populist and anti-immigration.
But spokesman Reed says the group's members are united by a common goal: to restore the sovereign state as the chief ruler of Europe.
Reed does not like the term European Parliament, but for the time being is prepared to play by the rules in exchange for extra speaking time and clout. Without a grouping, the UKIP would have been stranded on the independent benches.
"I don't think we ever intended to go it alone in the EU's consultative body, which I refuse to call a parliament," he said. "We realize that anything else would be a mistake."
British extremists to take seats in Brussels
Many British politicians fear the biggest fuss will be caused by the arrival of the openly racist British National Party, which, for the first time, has secured two seats in the European Parliament.
Still, the high profile of British extremists does not mean there has been a surge of support for the far-right, according to the Economist's Rennie.
For one thing, the British National Party actually did no better in these European elections than last time. The difference is that this time around the Labour vote collapsed.
He attributes the rise of the far right to the collapse of the left, which boasts its own strand of Euroskepticism.
"When France voted 'no' to the constitution, that was a vote from the far-left and communist parties," he said.
In the new EU Parliament, the actual number of Euroskeptic MEPs may not have increased, but sitting in their new constellations, their voices could be louder than ever.