Welcome back to the playground

The arrival of new and old MEPs in Strasbourg for the first European Parliament session has been described as feeling like the first week of a new school year — with new pupils (sorry, Members) getting lost, sorting out who gets which room (sorry, office), finding out who will be in which class (sorry, committee) and jockeying for position to see who will be elected chief prefect (sorry, President), class president (committee chair) and so on. Not to mention who will be in which gang (political group)!

On the latter, there’s almost universal relief that the hardest faction of the far-right (Le Pen’s Front National) couldn’t assemble enough support to create their own political group. But the intake of extremists into the British Conservatives’ ECR group has caused a sharp intake of breath across Europe. Scandinavians are outraged at them taking the True Finns party, which inter alia advocates banning the teaching of Swedish in Finnish schools, while German conservatives are aghast at them taking on board the Allianz Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

This, of course, was not what David Cameron wanted. But in splitting away from the mainstream centre-right EPP and creating a new Conservative Group in the European Parliament, he has “lost control of the monster he created” (to quote Seb Dance MEP). I’m told that Cameron’s plea to keep the AfD out of the group was read out in the meeting, but nonetheless they voted to accept them after requesting for a secret ballot. Quite a snub for Cameron from his own MEPs!

The expansion of the ECR to encompass these unsavoury parties was engineered in no small part by Dan Hannan MEP. Long before the elections, he proclaimed that the ECR would become the third-largest group in the European Parliament. It has now done so — not by gaining seats in the elections (the Conservatives and their main allies lost seats), but by ushering in new parties without worrying too much about either the nature of these parties or the political consequences.

Meanwhile, UKIP has (just) managed to keep its own political group, the EDDD (European Dilettantes, Dunces and Demagogues). They edged over the necessary threshold by taking on a French MEP elected last month for the Front National. Before the election, Farage had ruled out any alliance with the likes of them. Now, they’re saying she’s “only ex-National Front”, as if it had been in her distant youth. But she stood and was elected only a month ago on a racist platform. How quickly does a leopard change its spots?

Anyway, UKIP are clearly not too fussed who they take as allies, provided it gets Farage the status of a group leader giving him a prime slot in major debates (he doesn’t do much else in Parliament). And achieving group status also qualifies them to receive financial assistance. It’s no surprise, then, that in their desperation to reach the threshold (25 MEPs from a quarter of member countries), they aren’t looking too closely at who they team up with. One of their new members, Evi Eleonora [link in Italian], proclaims her belief in “the highest democratic institution representing European citizens, the European Parliament” — interesting comment, but not a line I previously thought of as UKIP’s!

The BBC decided to give some coverage this time to the new Parliament, following a new member as she found her way to her office and took her seat in the chamber. No surprises for guessing that they chose a UKIP member. No doubt they will justify this on the grounds that UKIP won more MEPs than other parties in Britain — but they never did this with a Labour member when we won the most seats, nor with a Conservative member when they did, after previous elections. So the BBC’s favourable treatment of UKIP continues, giving them what amounts to a mini party political broadcast, as their new member takes full advantage to give a propaganda blast while she’s at it.

But UKIP did win a prize this week: for the most silly political posturing. Rather than address real issues, they made a rude and petty gesture by turning their backs on an orchestra playing the Ode to Joy at the opening ceremony. As a schoolboy prank, it at least it fitted in with the new school year theme — though it’s soon to be chalked up as a major achievement, no doubt.

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