The newly formed Identity and Democracy (ID) group will draw more attention in the European Parliament (EP). However, internal divisions rooted in different national contexts pose a serious challenge for the group’s coherence and effectiveness. Its member parties will have to live up to the expectations which they created in their home countries through populist rhetoric. The size of the group composed of 9 right-wing parties with 73 Members of the European Parliament (MEP) could be an obstacle to satisfying voters’ expectations while making use of its full potential.
A New Right-Wing Alliance
On June 13th leaders of nine right-wing populist parties, including Marine Le Pen (Rassemblement National), Marco Zanni (Lega), and Jörg Meuthen (Alternative für Deutschland), announced the formation of the Identity and Democracy (ID) group. ID is the realization of the alliance of right-wing parties proposed by Matteo Salvini during the EU election campaign even though some prominent parties decided not to join[i]. Among them are Hungary’s Fidesz, Poland’s Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS), and the UK’s Brexit Party.
Fidesz recently made some concessions in order to rejoin the European People’s Party (EPP) after it had been temporarily excluded in March. For PiS, pro-Russian attitudes and Kremlin ties of RN, Lega, and AfD were a deal breaker. The Brexit Party could also not be convinced to join the group[ii].
These absences, nonetheless, did not diminish the group’s optimism. ID could become the fourth largest group in the EP, if the United Kingdom leaves the Union in October. Furthermore, Le Pen boldly claimed that there is a sovereigntist right-wing consensus of approximately 200 votes in the new EP[iii]. The group’s leaders repeatedly employed the term “sovereigntist” as a means to legitimize their political positions. Afterall, to gather the support of 200 MEPs, ID would – in addition to its own 73 seats – depend on the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) group, as well as the EPP’s right-wing. Therefore, the group has been eager to rebrand itself as “sovereigntist”, which is a way to express their vision for Europe in a positive way, as opposed to previous negatively connotated terms such as “Eurosceptic” or “anti-European”.
Nonetheless, ID remains a right-wing assembly of populist parties from nine different European countries, with a variety of different interests. Its effectiveness to shape EU legislation will depend on the group’s coherence. Empirically, however, populists in the EP have been the least coherent groups in their voting behavior[iv]. Will ID be able to live up to Le Pen’s bold announcement that it will be the most coherent and effective group in the upcoming five years[v]? And how effective can the group be, given its internal divisions and populist nationalist ambitions?
ID’s Internal Divisions
Disagreement among the 73 MEPs from 9 Member States is likely on a variety of issues and could show the internal divisions of ID. The Russia-question was already an obstacle to form the group in the first place. And as the Nordic and Baltic member parties remain very skeptical of Russia, their support for integration of European defense policies is in direct conflict with the group’s sovereigntist principle[vi]. Similar tensions may arise in the realm of social policy. While the Italian Lega voted in favor of stronger coordination of social security systems in the previous legislature, northern parties from countries less affected by the 2008 financial crisis have opposed such plans in the past[vii]. A similar north-south fault line divides the group on the issue of distributing immigrants according to a quota system.
The most significant potential for conflict lies in the issue of Member States’ fiscal discipline. While Meuthen (AfD) has emphasized that ID does not want to destroy the EU, Matteo Salvini (Lega) has relentlessly been fighting EU disciplinary measures against his country and even threatened that Italy could leave the Eurozone altogether[viii]. ID’s member parties will be cautious as to what degree they support such open hostilities. The German AfD, for example, has no votes to gain by speaking out in favor of any policies that may undermine the strength of the common currency from which German people and exporters are benefitting significantly.
The case of Italy and Matteo Salvini are in this sense a prototype of the tensions that will challenge ID’s coherence. Since forming a government coalition with the Movimiento 5 Stelle, Salvini has done what any populist leader does when he/she comes into government: enter into a mode of permanent campaigning[ix]. So far, this tactic worked well for Salvini and his Lega party. Despite being the junior partner in the coalition, he has been dominating Italy’s political discourse, which boosted public support for Lega in recent polls[x]. The downside of his aggressive campaigning is that he severely limited his political options. Salvini blames the EU’s austerity policy for Italy’s social and economic problems, announces relentless resistance against the Commissions disciplinary measures, and at the same time promises unprecedented reforms, which is far from realistic given the country’s unsustainable debt[xi]. His own promises and hostilities have led him into a political dead end.
Populism as a Double-Edged Sword
Therefore, as every member party of ID adapts its populist rhetoric to its own domestic contexts, their political objectives and realities vary significantly. The question that arises is whether the parties are willing to compromise for the sake of effectiveness in the EP, or whether they have moved themselves into too many political dead ends through their populist discourses at home.
The composition of the newly elected EP will reinforce this conflict. Coalitions are likely to be much thinner than before as neither conservatives nor social democrats are able to build stable majorities. While some analysts identify the liberal Renew Europe group as the one to tip the balance, others suggest that coalitions will be built on an issue-by-issue basis[xii]. The latter would not only render the distinction between pro- and anti-EU parties obsolete, but also place domestic interests in the spotlight. This could be a crucial obstacle to coherent voting behavior within ID.
While other party groups have a solid ideological foundation uniting them, populism stands out as ideologically “empty”. It is a rhetorical choice which divides societies and rallies different groups up against each other[xiii]. Populism is insufficient to provide common ground for political solutions. Additionally, employing the term “sovereigntist” to cover up internal divisions will not suffice to unite ID’s member parties behind certain policy decisions.
Contrary to its
ambitions as the fifth largest group in the new EP, ID runs the risk of being
incoherent and ineffective. Its member parties are internally divided, and
their populist rhetoric has opened political dead ends and create varying
political expectations which will be difficult to unite on specific policy
decisions. As decision-making in the EP is likely to take place on an
issue-by-issue basis, the populist block, hence, risks being torn apart by its
own domestic interests. Once in power, populism reveals itself as a
[i] Richard, B. “The European Alliance of People and Nations: a tough construction”; EU Logos Athena; retrieved on 24.06.2019; https://www.eu-logos.org/2019/05/17/lareplique-the-european-alliance-of-people-and-nations-a-tough-construction/
[ii] Plucinska, J., Emmott, R. “Poland, UK’s Farage dash far-right hopes for EU parliament alliance” Reuters, retrieved on 19.06.2019; https://www.reuters.com/article/us-eu-election-poland/poland-dashes-far-right-hopes-for-alliance-in-new-eu-parliament-idUSKCN1T61AM
iii Nielsen, N. “New ID far- right EU parliament group falls short” EU Observer; retrieved on 19.06.2019; https://euobserver.com/institutional/145151
[iv] Oppeland, T. “Wie die Fraktionen im Europäischen Parlament arbeiten” Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung; retrieved on 20.06.2019; https://www.bpb.de/dialog/europawahlblog-2014/181419/wie-die-fraktionen-im-europaeischen-parlament-arbeiten
[v] See [iii]
vi “How the old ‘pro-anti’ EU framing becomes obsolete after EU elections” Vote Watch, retrieved on 19.06.2019; https://www.votewatch.eu/blog/how-the-old-pro-anti-eu-framing-becomes-obsolete-after-eu-elections/
[vii] See [vi]
[viii] Ladurner, U. “Das plant Italien“; Die Zeit, retreived on 20.06.2019; https://www.zeit.de/2019/26/italien-matteo-salvini-lega-nord-europa-italexit/komplettansicht
[x] See [viii]
[xi] See [viii]
[xii] See [vi]
[xiii] “De la bonne utilisation du terme ‘populiste’”, EU Logos Athena; retrieved on 25.06.2019; https://www.eu-logos.org/2017/05/02/la-replique-de-la-bonne-utilisation-du-terme-populiste/