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Fringe parties change face of new EU Parliament

July 1, 2014

BRUSSELS (AP) — It is more raucous, more anti-immigration and more skeptical of the European Union: Welcome to the 28-nation bloc’s new Parliament.

Expressing resurgent nationalist sentiments and distrust with how the EU is run, voters in May handed almost one in three seats to parties seeking to slash its powers: Some want tough immigration curbs and to re-erect borders, others seek to dismantle the euro currency or want to see their country leaving the union altogether.

In the European Parliament’s constituting plenary session Tuesday in France’s Strasbourg, lawmakers from Britain’s Euroskeptic, anti-immigration UK Independence Party turned their backs on the assembly while an orchestra performed the European anthem, part of Beethoven’s ninth symphony.

“National democracy and EU membership are incompatible,” thundered the freshly elected UKIP lawmaker Paul Nuttall. “We will do everything we can to free ourselves from this corrupt institution.”

Nuttall and his peers used to be radical voices on the fringe of the political mainstream, but that very concept was shattered by the May 27 elections, when voters disappointed by the EU and persistently high unemployment across the bloc handed former fringe parties resounding victories. UKIP and France’s far-right National Front came in first in their countries.

The European Parliament was long derided as a mere talking shop, but it has steadily gained power and its approval is now needed for all major EU legislation — ranging from financial market regulation to decisions on how big warning signs on cigarette packs have to be.

But the Parliament’s 751 lawmakers fall short of the clout of national legislatures in two important ways: They cannot propose new laws — a role that the EU’s executive Commission fulfils — and it has only limited say over the EU’s budget, whose outlines are decided by the EU governments.

The 200-odd euroskeptic lawmakers, however, will not only make debates livelier but will also have an impact on policies as leaders scratch their heads seeking to reconnect with an ever more disenchanted European electorate.

“There is a backlash,” said Janis A. Emmanouilidis, senior policy analyst with the Brussels-based European Policy Center think-tank. “Now everybody only talks about better implementing existing policies, but there is great caution regarding any further steps of EU-integration,” he said.

The emboldened radical parties will also use their EU offices to put more pressure on their respective national governments, he added.

In the European Parliament, however, their political clout is diluted by the fact that they have very different agendas — with some of them being as suspicious of each other as they all are toward the EU’s powers.

UKIP seeks to make its lawmakers “redundant” by pushing Britain to leave the EU, France’s National Front seeks the abolishment of the euro currency shared by 18 nations and advocates re-erecting national borders to crack down on immigration. Italy’s 5-Star Movement, led by comic Beppe Grillo, seeks more direct democracy, while Greece’s leftist Syriza says it’s pro-European at heart but seeks a very different Europe.

“They aren’t a coherent group,” Emmanouilidis said, adding that “parliament will find a way to work; there will be a grand coalition of pro-European forces” running the show.

That was apparent Tuesday when the two biggest mainstream groups — the center-right European People’s Party and the center-left Socialists and Democrats — easily re-elected German Social Democrat Martin Schulz as the assembly’s president with 409 out of 723 votes cast. Schulz also served as president from 2012 until earlier this year.

“This parliament is at the heart of European democracy,” Schulz said. “We are a legislature deciding laws for 507 million people in 28 sovereign nations. That is unique in the world.”

The EPP backed Schulz after securing the more powerful position of President of the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, for the conservative former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker.

Guy Verhofstadt, a leading lawmaker of the pro-business Liberals, who also supported Schulz, said the answer to the voter backlash in May must be reforms, but toward an even stronger EU.

“It is not by retreating behind national borders and populist prejudices that we will create a better, fairer and more competitive Europe that can stimulate growth and lay the basis for sustainable job creation,” he said.


Follow Juergen Baetz on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/jbaetz

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