Democracy is slowly coming to the European parliament. It’s hard to tell whether that, or the formation of a far-right group, is more shocking for the mainstream MEPs who provide most of the voting fodder.
One can deride the 20 or so MEPs from six countries who are set to form a new caucus on Wednesday that would give them speaking rights in parliament. A motley crew, ranging from holocaust deniers to gypsy-baiters, most people wouldn’t want to sit next to them on a bus never mind in a parliament. But they don’t particularly like each other any more than most like them.
It’s the EU’s expansion to Romania and Bulgaria on January 1st that has made the far-right nightmare, long talked-about in Strasbourg, close to coming true. Veterans like Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front now have allies in the requisite five European countries to form a group. Bulgaria’s anti-Roma Ataka party and the nationalist Great Romania party of Corneliu Vadim Tudor are set to join what could be known, evocatively, as "Europe of the Fatherlands" or "Identity, Sovereignty, Tradition".
But they would not even be talking to each other if it were not for the consensus-cloying way the parliament works.
Just before Christmas, I went on a daytrip to Iraq. I was part of the press pack following Tony Blair around and, although the other journalists and I gave pretty short shrift to the prime minister’s whole Middle East trip, it was, in many ways, an illuminating experience.
For example, there was the sight of Blair’s top advisers donning helmets and body armour to visit a country that was supposedly liberated three and a half years ago. And there was the prime minister himself, seemingly tired and stressed on what could turn out to be his last official trip to Iraq, evidently relieved when his Hercules aircraft left Baghdad and Basra behind it and headed for Tel Aviv.
The trip also raised an intriguing possibility for the future of British and European foreign policy.
When the European Commission starts talking about a plan to "connect the EU with its citizens" you know that something supremely ridiculous is about to happen. Poster competitions are one popular device, but the Commission on one occasion even tried wowing Europeans by sending a copy of the draft EU constitution into space.
This month Brussels will unleash its latest drive to befriend the alienated citizen – and for once it has actually come up with an idea that is simple, innovative and that promises to do some lasting good.