The European Parliament's hand-out to the far-right

The decision to award money to anti-semitic parties shows where the EU is going wrong.

The fight against anti-semitism has just got a whole lot more difficult. The Conservatives, Socialists and Liberals in the European Parliament have just decided to extend a massive subsidy to promote political anti-semitism. €289,266 of taxpayers' money will now be given to openly anti-Jewish parties like Hungary's Jobbik, whose MEPs tried to take their seats in Strasbourg wearing the uniform of the anti-Jewish Hungarian Guard. Krisztina Moravi headed the Jobbik list in the last European Parliament elections and declared she "would be glad if the so-called Hungarian Jews went back to playing with their tiny circumcised dicks instead of vilifying me."

Another beneficiary is the British National Party, whose leader and senior MEP, Nick Griffin, has denied the holocaust and whose only lengthy publication, Who are the Mindbenders?, accused Jewish journalists of forming a secret lobby to control the media. Griffin has moved on to plough the more politically profitable furrows of Islamophobia and anti-immigrant xenophobia but across the European far-right the threnody of a disappeared national identity lost of Jewish influence remains strong.

Predictably, le grandpère of anti-semitic parliamentary politics, Jean Marie Le Pen, who is still an MEP at the age of 83 after decades of anti-Jewish sneers, will also benefit from the handout. The European Parliament grant has been given to the European Alliance of National Movements, (EANM) a grouping of 13 far-right parties. Only three of them have MEPs - eight in total from Britain's BNP, France's Front National, and Hungary's Jobbik.

The grant is to the EANM, even though European Parliament rules stipulate that any political group in Strasbourg should have at least 25 members and have MEPs from at least seven member states. The hurdle is not that high and Britain's Conservatives were able to forge their own alliance with fellow Eurosceptic parties after the 2009 Strasbourg election. But under no interpretation of the European Parliament's rules is there any justification for giving thousands of Euros to extremist anti-democratic parties that do not even have the support to win the odd seat in the Strasbourg assembly under its lax proportional representation electoral system.

Instead this is a fix within a fix. Once elected, MEPs operate an Ottoman system of divvying up the spoils of office between themselves. In the closed corridors of Brussels and Strasbourg, the leaders of the Socialists, Conservatives, Liberal-Democrats, Greens, Communists and Christian Democrats decide who will be president of the European Parliament and who will chair all the key committees. The votes are pure formalities as the deals are decided by a handful of top MEPs without any reference to their colleagues, to their parties, still less to voters.

It is the depressingly undemocratic and unaccountable nature of the European Parliament that has led more and more pro-Europeans like Germany's former Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, France ex-president, Valéry Giscard D'Estaing and myself, to call for reform of the European Parliament so that is has some connection to European citizens.

The scandal of handing out cash to Europe's anti-semites and to parties without even an MEP to their name might encourage governments, who ultimately vote this money, to think harder about overdue reform of the European Parliament. Ever since David Cameron quit the mainstream centre-right grouping in the European Parliament to build links with Latvian defenders of the Waffen SS or the clericalist, nationalist Law and Justice Party in Poland, the Conservatives have had an unhappy relationship with the European Parliament. Their best-known MEP, Edward MacMillan Scott defected to the Liberal Democratic group in 2009 and last week, the Tories' best-known Midlands MEP, Roger Helmer, defected to UKIP.

But Labour and the Lib Dems are scarcely in better shape. UKIP and BNP MEPs outnumber Labour MEPs as the European Parliament allows the election of extreme or fringe candidates who have little real purchase in national politics in terms of parliamentary or local elections. The three decades of the European Parliament's existence has seen ever-decreasing participation in its elections. National parliaments feel utterly excluded from oversight of EU decision-making. The decision to award money to anti-semitic parties should be the occasion for a major re-think about the role and purpose of the European Parliament.

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and a former Europe Minister

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
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After a year of division, a new centre is emerging in Labour

Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy and Jonathan Reynolds show how factionalism is being transcended. 

On 26 September, Clive Lewis sat onstage at Labour’s conference in Liverpool and puffed out his cheeks in exasperation. He had just been informed that a line in his speech as shadow defence secretary committing the party to Trident renewal had been removed by Jeremy Corbyn’s office. Such was his annoyance that he was said to have later punched a wall in anger ("I punched no walls," he told me when we recently met). 

For Lewis, however, the feud proved to be a blessing. Hitherto hostile MPs hailed his pragmatism and deference to party unity (he is a long-standing opponent of Trident renewal). The former soldier also affirmed Labour’s support for Nato and for collective self-defence. “The values that underpin Nato are social-democratic values: liberty, democracy, freedom of expression,” Lewis, an early Corbyn ally, told me. “Let’s not forget, it was Clement Attlee and the New Deal Democrats who initiated and set up Nato. It’s about being in it to win it. It’s about winning the arguments inside Nato and making sure that it’s a force for good. Some people would say that’s impossible. I say you’ve got to be in it to be able to make those changes.”

In October, Lewis was replaced as shadow defence secretary by Nia Griffith and became shadow business secretary. Many regarded the appointment as a punishment. “Do I think there was an ulterior motive? I’ll never know,” Lewis said. “I’m confident that the reason I was moved – what I was told – is that they wanted me to be able to take on a big portfolio.”

Whatever the truth, Griffith has since said that Labour’s next general election manifesto will include a commitment to Trident renewal and will support multilateral, rather than unilateral, disarmament.

Many MPs had long feared that the divide between them and their leader would prove unbridgeable. Some contemplated standing on bespoke manifestos. Yet with little drama, Corbyn has retreated from a conflict that he could not win. Labour’s conference, at which the largely pro-Trident trade unions hold 50 per cent of the vote on policy and which the leader has vowed to respect, would never have endorsed unilateralism.

“Jeremy Corbyn deserves credit for that,” Lewis said. “Everyone understands that his position hasn’t changed. He still believes in unilateral disarmament . . . But he’s also a democrat, and he’s a pragmatist, despite what people say.”

In policy terms, at least, Labour will contest the next general election as a less divided party than many anticipated. As Corbyn’s team has long emphasised, there is unity around issues such as opposition to spending cuts and support for rail renationalisation. A new centre for Labour, embodied by Lewis, is emerging.

“When I became an MP,” the 45-year-old told me (he was elected in Norwich South in 2015), “to be anti-austerity, to say that cuts don’t work and they’re bad economics, meant you weren’t in touch with reality, and that you had no interest in winning elections. Within the space of 18 months, there’s now a growing consensus that cuts aren’t the way forward and that we need an industrial strategy.”

Theresa May’s support for new grammar schools and “hard Brexit” has given Labour MPs other issues to unite around. After Corbyn’s second landslide leadership victory, many of his opponents have reached the final stage of grief: acceptance. Others, as Lewis noted, are imbued with “an eager enthusiasm to make this work”. Contrary to some predictions, more than half of the 63 frontbenchers who resigned last summer have returned.

An emblematic figure is Jonathan Reynolds. The Liz Kendall supporter, who resigned as shadow transport minister in January 2016, has rejoined the front bench as shadow City minister. Earlier this year, Reynolds backed the introduction of a universal basic income, an idea that is now being explored by John McDonnell’s team (and that Barack Obama has called for “debate” on). In July, Reynolds and Lewis wrote a joint piece in support of proportional representation (PR), warning that without it “a more equal, democratic and sustainable society is less likely”.

Another advocate of PR is Lisa Nandy, the former shadow energy secretary and a friend of Lewis (on 26 October, along with Reynolds, they called for Labour to stand aside in the Richmond by-election to aid the Liberal Democrats). In the view of some, the defining divide in Labour is no longer between left and right but between open and closed. On one side are pluralists such as Lewis, Reynolds and Nandy, while on the other are tribalists such as Ian Lavery (pro-Corbyn) and John Spellar (anti-Corbyn).

The division stretches to the top, with McDonnell in favour and Corbyn opposed. “It’s a work in progress,” Lewis said of his efforts to convert the Labour leader. “There’s a growing movement of MPs who now either support PR or understand the growing necessity for it. They may not be quite there themselves, but they’re moving in that direction.”

At times since Corbyn became leader, the parliamentary party’s divisions have appeared to many to be insurmountable, even as the party in the country has grown and been inspired by Corbyn. Yet a new consensus is being forged in the PLP: anti-austerity, pro-Trident, pro-Nato and, increasingly, committed to political and constitutional reform. If there is any consolation for a becalmed Labour Party, it is that its European counterparts are faring little better. In Spain, France and Germany, an already divided left is further fragmenting.

But Labour is likely to both fight and survive the next general election as a united force. If Lewis can retain his seat in Norwich (he has a potentially vulnerable majority of 7,654), he could one day act as the bridge between the party’s “soft” and “hard” left. After a year of factional skirmishes, the common ground in which Labour’s future will be shaped is emerging.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage