The composition of the newly elected European Parliament, which holds its first session next week, will make many Britons hang their heads in shame. For British politicians are either poorly represented, or not represented at all, in the 736-seat assembly’s three biggest political groups: the centre-right, centre and centre-left. By contrast, Brits dominate the Eurosceptic and far-right fringes.
The loss of British influence in the parliament, which has a say in most European Union laws, will be substantial. The likely damage to Britain’s reputation in Europe can only be guessed at.
We’re already getting a taste of what may happen in practice. In a BBC interview, Nick Griffin, leader of the extreme-right British National Party and newly elected MEP for north-western England, discusses how the EU should handle the problem of illegal migrants travelling across the Mediterranean from north Africa to Italy. “I say boats should be sunk, they can throw them a life raft, and they can go back to Libya,” he tells his interviewer. He is not advocating that “anyone should be murdered at sea”, he adds.
The BNP has been unable to form a political group in the European Parliament, with all the perks and influence that go with it, because for that you need at least 25 MEPs from seven countries. The BNP tried to entice Italy’s Northern League, whose rabble-rousing leader, Umberto Bossi, refers to immigrants as “bingo bongos”. But the League preferred the company of the UK Independence Party.
For its part, the UK Independence Party sees itself as part of a seamless anti-EU political trend that starts on the nationalist right, extending to and embracing Britain’s Conservatives – and as everyone in Europe knows, the Tories are likely to win the UK general election due next year.
A few data about the new European Parliament may drive the point home. The mainstream centre-right European People’s Party is by far the legislature’s largest group, controlling 265 seats. Not one of them is British. The centre-left Progessive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, the second largest group, has 184 seats, of which 13 are British.
The centrist liberals are the third largest and have 84 seats, 11 of them British. German, Italian and French legislators dominate these three groups as well as the Greens, in whose group the British hold two out of 55 seats.
The core of the 72-strong British representation in the new parliament will be the Tories and the UK Independence Party. The first is highly critical of the EU, and the second wants to pull the UK out. They hold 25 and 13 seats respectively, or 53 per cent of the British total.
All in all, Britain appears to be sleepwalking into a serious crisis in its relationship with the rest of the EU. Does anyone in London know – or care?