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Last Updated: 01/30/2007A Small Thorn in the EU's Side
Marion Kraske and Hans-Jurgen Schlamp
Ashley Mote, 70, is the very image of a polite British gentleman: balding, slight belly, striped tie and hand-made English shoes. As he sits in his spartan fifth-floor office in the European Union parliament building in Strasbourg, he dreams of a victory over the European Union. "We are going to take our money and go back home."
For 20 years he owned a marketing agency with offices in seven different countries. He wrote books about the history of the British national sport of cricket and stood up for the system of "free enterprise," which he sees as the "antithesis of the EU." But instead of enjoying his retirement, he has gone into politics and moved into the European Parliament as an independent member of parliament (MP). His aim is to wage a "guerrilla war" against Europe, infiltrating the organization as "a Trojan horse" -- until his fellow countrymen grasp the fact that Europe is choking them and Britain quits the EU. For Mote a pro-European Brit is like "a Turkey voting for Christmas."
For a long time the Londoner has been a lone fighter on the continental battlefield. But last week he joined forces with 19 MPs from six other countries to form the European Parliament group "Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty." The move gives them the chance to get more money, more speaking time and above all more attention. The group's members now have to pretend that they have the same political aims. This, however, is easier said than done.
What is the extreme right?
The group's 20 members are none too sure about what exactly unites the French National Front, founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen and still run like a farming enterprise, with the Belgian separatist group Vlaams Belang. Or what the common ground is between the Italian fascists, the successors of the Austrian populist Jörg Haider and the Greater Romania Party.
According to Andreas Mölzer, a lawyer and member of the Austrian Freedom Party, Le Pen has "a terrible reputation" in Austria, even among voters who support Jörg Haider. Whereas in France "Haider is seen as a member of Adolf Hitler's guards unit."
Mölzer himself doesn't want to destroy the EU, and is not calling for Austria to break away. Quite the opposite in fact. He wants to protect the Union: from the Turks, who he believes have nothing to do with Europe, from "the flood of foreigners," and from the "corpse of the constitution" – referring to the controversial European constitution -- which Germany's chancellor is currently trying to "revive through constitutional mouth-to-mouth resuscitation."
When Mölzer gets going, he likes to even shed the occasional tear for South Tyrol, which has been lost to Italy and which, he believes, will one day be brought back home to Austria. That puts him at odds with the temperamental fellow member of "Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty," Alessandra Mussolini, the granddaughter and admirer of "Il Duce," Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini. But Alessandra Mussolini doesn't have much in common with the other members either, such as the Vlaams Belang, who ideally would like to see Belgium split in two. The separatists from the north of Italy are among Mussolini's toughest political opponents.
But despite all these differences, Mölzer believes last week brought a lot of changes for Europe's "traditionalists, nationalists and patriots:" "Those who have been stigmatized by the skeptics are no longer excluding each other," he says.
Small group, big voice
The group consists of just 20 of the 785 EU MPs -- a small but radical minority with shaky prospects for peaceful coexistence. But even a tiny splinter can be painful.
The German head of the Social Democrat faction in the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, is enraged at the thought that "old, new, all kinds of fascists" are now entitled to two senior committee positions according to the parliament's rules. In a letter to the other parliamentary factions he called for the committees to be kept free of the extreme right-wing. "I do not vote for fascists," he said.
The leader of Greens faction, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, agreed, saying he "can't with a good conscience vote for the far right," even though, according to the rules, they are entitled to take part. The Christian and liberal parties, on the other hand, are unsure whether they wouldn't actually be playing into the hands of the right-wing extremists, if they were to exclude them. As a result, for the past week the hot topic of discussion within the democratic majority has been how to handle the upstarts.
The increased power of the far right is a result of Romania and Bulgaria's entry to the EU: This has provided nationalist conservative politicians in parliament with the influx of support which for a long time was lacking. Romania alone is sending five extreme right-wing politicians to Strasbourg, all of whom belong to the party of Corneliu Vadim Tudor, 57.
Speeches made by Tudor, a sociologist and chairman of the racist Greater Romania Party, are always accompanied by noise and bedlam. The corpulent man likes to wear white suits and dark sunglasses, he is aggressive, vulgar and quick to lose his temper.
In mid-December, for example, when Romanian President Traian Basescu was in parliament reading from a recent report about the injustices of the communist legal system, Tudor threatened the authors of the report at the top of his voice. The outburst wasn't entirely unexpected: Tudor himself is cited in the report as dictator Ceausescu's court poet. He dedicated benign songs of praise to the "titan of titans." He still refers to Ceausescu, who was executed after being ousted in 1989, as a "great patriot."
The son of a tailor from Bucharest has a lot less sympathy for the minorities in his country. One day he rants against the many Roma living there, the next he complains about the Hungarian minority. He has referred to journalists as "little worms" and threatened them with "being sent to work camps." If he ever becomes president, he says bluntly, he will establish order in his own way: by "brandishing a weapon in his hand."
Dimitar Stoyanov, who has just won a seat in the European Parliament representing the Bulgarian Ataka Party, has similar opinions. He is particularly virulent in his comments against Turks and Jews. And members of his party have said they want to turn Roma "into soap."
Racists, xenophobes and anti-Semites
"Well yes," says Mölzer, the eloquent Austrian, adjusting his gold and red striped tie, it is important to understand that Bulgarians and Romanians have "a different political culture." After almost 50 years of communism, "we have to provide them with political and democratic incentives in order to develop."
The head of this new faction of right-wingers is Bruno Gollnisch, the number two in Le Pen's Front National. Last Tuesday he blithely announced that there were no "racists, xenophobes or anti-Semites" in his group. But he himself doesn't seem entirely blameless: The professor of Japanese studies has just received a three-month suspended sentence for doubting in October 2004 the Holocaust. Pure "political persecution," is Gollnisch's explanation. "The minister of justice at the time in Lyon was my political opponent," he says.
But Alessandra Mussolini, 44, doesn't seem particularly at ease with her new friends. They have all just agreed on a seven-point platform which would uphold national interests, Christian values, and law and order, while fighting against bureaucracy and bureaucrats. Apart from that though, there were "many difficulties," she explained quietly and haltingly last week.
Normally she is quick-tempered, easily irritable and loud -- famous for flippant tabloid language such as "better to be a fascist than a fag!" But last week, in the Strasbourg parliament, the mother of three children and niece of Sophia Loren was uncharacteristically restrained as she posed for Italian television cameras.
She didn't even want to respond to the comments made by Martin Schultz, the head of the Social Democrats. The only thing she said was that she and Schulz usually greet each other politely when they meet. But this morning, when they met in one of the long, narrow corridors of the Strasbourg parliament, she just said "ciao Schulz," and he answered back, without turning round, "ciao Mussolini."
Originally published by Der Spiegel, 23 January 2007.