“Today is the beginning of the liberation from the European elite, the monster in Brussels.” These are strong words. But they are not surprising coming from Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom and a man known for his rhetorical flourishes. He was speaking at a joint press conference with Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front in France, on November 13. They announced that they would work together in the next European Parliament elections, scheduled for May.
Wilders and Le Pen believe the European Union is run by unelected, elite bureaucrats who are destroying democracy and eroding national sovereignty. “We want to decide how we control our borders, our money, our economy, our currency,” said Wilders. Le Pen added, “Our old European nations are forced to ask the authorization of Brussels in all circumstances, forced to submit their budget to the headmistress.”
Known for his bouffant bleach-blond hair, Wilders is easily the most polarizing figure in the Netherlands. Since founding the Party for Freedom in 2006, he has consistently driven the national political agenda—despite never having been a formal part of a Dutch coalitional government. In recent years, Wilders has turned his focus on the European Union, but he is best known for his criticism of Islam and Islamic immigration. Security guards protect him at all times because of the frequent death threats he receives from Muslim extremists.
Marine Le Pen has led the National Front only since 2011. She took over from her father, Jean-Marie, who led the party from its founding in 1972. She has worked very hard to detoxify the National Front’s image as antisemitic and racist, and she has purged its more extreme elements. In the last French election, her party only took two seats in the Assemblée Nationale. Today, they are leading in the polls.
Are Wilders and Le Pen a match made in electoral heaven? That remains to be seen. Their cooperation could bring them great rewards, but the risks are also considerable.
Elections for the European Parliament are held every five years. Each country is allocated a certain number of members of the European Parliament (MEPs) based on its population.
E.U. elections have their own special dynamic. In many ways, they are an ideal vehicle for smaller parties. A citizen’s previous voting history often says very little about how he will cast his ballot for the E.U. Parliament. Voters realize these elections don’t make much of an impact. The European Parliament is one of several E.U. institutions and hardly the most powerful: Greater influence is wielded by the unelected European Commission. Thus, some voters are more comfortable voting for an extremist party. And many others voters simply don’t think it’s worth their time to go to the polls.
In the 2009 E.U. election, only 43 percent of eligible voters bothered to turn out; in Britain, it was 34 percent. Voter participation has declined every year since the elections started in 1979. Parties with a passionate stance on the European Union do the best job of turning out the vote. The UK Independence Party (UKIP), a well-established anti-E.U. voice, was founded in 1992 to oppose Britain’s joining the union and still campaigns on that platform. It has no seats in the British Parliament in Westminster, but 13 in Brussels.
The European Union is more unpopular now than ever before in its history. According to a Gallup Europe poll in September, only 30 percent of Europeans had a positive view of it. That’s down from 70 percent 20 years ago. Young people are particularly likely to be Euroskeptics. They are angry about the massive bailouts of debtor countries like Greece and Portugal. They also believe E.U. regulations are strangling economic growth.
“Europeans used to believe the EU was needed to guarantee peace. They now see peace as a given. Prosperity is not a given, and they think the EU gets in the way of that,” says Jan Pieter Beetz of the University of Exeter.
If they can turn that frustration into votes, Wilders and Le Pen will be able to use the European Parliament’s own rules against it. If they form a caucus of 25 MEPs from at least seven countries, they will be entitled to significantly more funding, committee seats, and speaking rights in the main chamber. Their MEPs currently sit as independents. While the parliament has little direct power, the caucus would provide an excellent platform to speak out against the European Union.
Getting 25 seats should be no problem for the Wilders-Le Pen alliance. The seven countries, on the other hand, might be tricky. Wilders and Le Pen have narrowed their options by promising not to work with some of Europe’s more openly fascist parties, such as Golden Dawn in Greece. And, significantly, UKIP has declined to join the new alliance because of the National Front’s racist roots.
UKIP’s refusal to join is not a great surprise. Nigel Farage, UKIP’s leader, is regularly asked in interviews if he has ideological affinity with any of Europe’s far-right parties, and he usually dodges the question. Wilders, though, left the door open for UKIP, telling the press conference on November 13, “I understand that [Mr. Farage] is not too eager today to work with my party. I hope after next year’s elections he will be able to join in our initiative.”
Most political analysts agree that Farage is wise to rebuff Wilders and Le Pen. UKIP is doing fine on its own strength. Polls are indicating it will take 25 percent of British votes in the next E.U. election. UKIP is benefiting not just from the anti-E.U. feeling that is sweeping the Continent, but from the unpopularity of Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron. Most of UKIP’s supporters are disaffected Conservatives. They believe Cameron is far too “soft” on the European Union and cedes British national sovereignty to Brussels.
The absence of Farage may be a boon in that it means there will be one fewer big-name politician in the alliance. Smaller parties tend to be dominated by a strong leader who enjoys a cult of personality. Le Pen and Wilders are no exceptions. As the election progresses, they may have trouble sharing the limelight—and making room for leaders of the other parties who still need to join.
The alliance will unite not only large egos but diverging ideologies. While Le Pen’s and Wilders’ parties are usually lumped together as “far-right extremists,” there are significant differences between them. For instance, the National Front was strongly opposed to France’s recent drive to legalize gay marriage. Wilders is a proponent of gay rights. His opposition to Islamic immigration is partly based on his fear that Muslims will roll back Dutch emancipation of gays. Le Pen and Wilders will have to ensure that their MEPs are disciplined and focus on the areas of agreement: opposing Islamic immigration, the euro, and further European integration.
Discipline is precisely an area that is likely to be a problem. Smaller parties often have candidates and supporters who are “not ready for prime time.” In the upcoming election, poorly worded remarks by a member of one party could damage the entire alliance.
One politician who is known for making controversial statements is Jean-Marie Le Pen. In 1999, he was convicted of inciting racial hatred by calling the holocaust a mere “detail” of history. While he has kept a low profile since his daughter took over in 2011, Jean-Marie Le Pen is still the National Front’s honorary chairman and one of its MEPs. Despite being 85 years old, he intends to seek reelection in 2014.
The media has been asking Wilders repeatedly about Le Pen père. Wilders is a noted friend of Israel; he spent two years living there as a young man and still visits frequently.
Wilders has responded by emphasizing that his alliance is with Marine Le Pen and not with her father. “I will no longer be held hostage by what journalists write,” he said in an interview in November. “It is liberating to let go of that and to see a person just for who they are and not for what their father did.”
Wilders has experience defusing scandals with problematic candidates. When his Party for Freedom was first elected to the Dutch parliament, five of his MPs were discovered to have criminal records. It seemed like the death knell for his political movement, but he struck back quickly. He took to Twitter to tell his followers that he was fed up with the media’s “witch hunt” into his MPs’ backgrounds.
In the new alliance, though, neither Wilders nor Marine Le Pen can act with the imperious decisiveness with which they have governed their parties to date. This could not only lead to tensions but hinder effective responses to the problems that will inevitably arise.
Wilders and Le Pen have both show that they can make an impact in their home countries. Will their skills translate to the European level? One thing is certain: The 2014 E.U. elections will not be boring. Voter turnout may well increase again, and anti-E.U. sentiment will drive the debate. Speaking on Dutch TV after the press conference of November 13, commentator Kees Boonman said, “The traditional parties are scared to death. You can see they are now taking a more critical tone about Europe. Voters are tired of a political class that’s always positive about European integration.”
In a certain sense, the Le Pen-Wilders alliance is a triumph of European unity. Two very different European groups are united for a single purpose: to destroy the European Union. The bureaucrats in Brussels are probably not amused by the irony.