The recent creation of the Eurosceptic far-right faction Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) by Marine Le Pen, the leader of French party National Front, means there is a new and more powerful pro-Kremlin caucus in the European Parliament. ENF members consistently push Moscow’s interests in committees and plenary sessions, while masking their actions by saying they are lobbying the needs of interest groups.
With the formation in June of the Europe of Nations and Freedom group in the European Parliament, Marine Le Pen created a new force willing to back the interests of the Kremlin in the EU. Although ENF accounts for only 5 percent of all MEPs (751), by gathering more than 25 members the faction received certain rights and powers, as well as a significant budget, which will allow it to boost the existing institutional and lobbying power of Putin-friendly representatives.
In total, up to 20 percent of all MEPs currently vote at times in the interests of Putin’s Russia: in addition to ENF, there is the strongly pro-Russian far-left group European United Left — Nordic Green Left (GUE-NGL); Nigel Farage’s Eurosceptic group Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD); and various non-affiliated members of the parliament. At the same time as these groups advance Kremlin interests, they accuse their pro-European opponents of being puppets of the United States, thereby bolstering Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cause of trying to undermine Euro-Atlantic relations.
The Benefits of Political Opportunism
ENF was created on June 15 and currently its caucus consists of 38 members representing 8 different nationalities. More than half of them hail from France and are members of Le Pen’s National Front party. Other members represent various Eurosceptic far-right parties across Europe, including the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV), the Belgian Vlaams Belang (“Flemish Interest”), the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), the Polish Congress of the New Right (KNP), and the Italian Lega Nord.
Le Pen and PVV leader Geert Wilders failed to form an alliance after the 2014 European Parliament elections, but this time they were able to do so. In order to form a caucus in the European Parliament, 25 MEPs from at least one-quarter of the member states must join. The group was initially reluctant to include far-right parties that leaders considered to be anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi—namely, Greece’s Golden Dawn and Hungary’s Jobbik—but they did accept members of Polish far-right party Congress of the New Right, which used to be even more extreme than Jobbik until it expelled its controversial leader, Janusz Korwin-Mikke. Another step that helped the alliance form was the acceptance of Janice Atkinson, who had been expelled from the United Kingdom Independent Party (UKIP) by leader Nigel Farage over fraud allegations. In an even more surprising move, Le Pen’s group recruited a Romanian member of the European Parliament who is under investigation for corruption, Laurentiu Rebega, who claimed that he wanted Roma and Romanian to be differentiated in Europe and for Romanian citizens to “benefit from the same treatment as other Europeans, without being systematically stigmatized.” Having included the Romanian MEP, the new group contained just over 5 percent of the total number of MEPs in the parliament, which granted them even more privileges.
With its current number of members, the group is less fragile than previous far-right groups. Although the ENF caucus is extremely new and could be short-lived, it represents a breakthrough for the European far-right—and, most importantly, for Marine Le Pen, who has never shied away from showing her admiration for Putin. Last year, she received a $11.7 million loan from a Kremlin-linked bank, which helped her to finance the campaign for the 2014 European Parliament elections in France in which National Front came in first with 25% of votes.
Having a parliamentary group at one’s disposal has certain advantages. First, the group can accumulate total funds of up to €20 million ($22 million) during its mandate. Second, if the group includes at least 5 percent of mandates (see Figure 1) it receives certain privileges, such as more speaking time at plenary sessions, the ability to propose amendments during plenary sessions, more influential positions in the parliamentary committees, and its own secretariat, relieving it of the need to depend on the European Parliament’s personnel. It will also gain more rapporteur roles, which is crucial to the legislative proccess. Rapporteurs present reports containing proposals for resolutions or legislative amendments adopted by a parliamentary committee to the plenary for voting. Overall, the group will have a stronger (but, of course, still limited) political impact by having the ability to influence policy decisions on many levels.
Finally, with abundant financial resources and a more extensive network and institutional impact, ENF will now be able to finance the far-right infrastructure more efficiently both in individual nations and in Europe overall.
Plenary Votes: Declaration of Loyalty to Russia
Given ENF’s evident sympathy toward Putin’s regime, it is easy to assume that this sentiment is reflected in the group members’ voting patterns. In order to determine whether the far-right MEPs who are now part of the group showed support for Putin’s Russia before the new caucus was formed (we will refer to them as “pre-ENF” MEPs), we examined their votes on six Russia-related decisions. These include votes on the Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine, a resolution criticizing Russia for its aggression in Eastern Ukraine, a resolution condemning the murder of Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov, and others.
According to our data, in 93 percent of cases the pre-ENF members voted “no” in Russia-related decisions, which essentially suited Russian interests (see figures 2 and 3 below1). To compare, the radical-left group GUE/NGL voted “no” in 78 percent of cases, while the EFDD group did so in 67 percent of cases. It would therefore be logical to conclude, as others have done before, that there is a pro-Putin coalition in the European Parliament consisting of anti-EU and radical parties. This is not only because opposition parties generally go against mainstream decisions. For example, the Green Party is not a member of the grand coalition, but they voted “no” only in 15 percent of Russia-related votes. David Cameron’s softly Eurosceptic alliance ECR voted “no” in only 5 percent of cases, while mainstream parties—the social democratic S&D, the liberal ALDE, and the center-right EPP—did so in 3 percent, 3 percent and 1 percent of cases, respectively.
Certainly the high ratio of “no” votes by the fringe groups is partially due to the fact that they are composed of anti-establishment parties, and therefore their agenda is to oppose the mainstream parties in the European Parliament. But this does not mean that their pro-Kremlin stance should be considered a mere act of unthinking contrarianism. The pro-Kremlin votes of these MEPs are consistent; the members show support at the plenary sessions and in the committees (see figure 3); and they hold high-level meetings with Russian stakeholders and make public pro-Kremlin and pro-Putin statements. Their pro-Russian and anti-European position can be easily exploited and abused by the Russian regime.
Defending Europeans from Europe: Activity in the Committees
ENF’s ability to promote Kremlin interests can be seen in the activities of certain MEPs who exhibited strong pro-Russian attitudes in the European institutional framework. National Front members Bernard Monot, Marie-Christine Arnautu, Jean-Luc Schaffhauser, Edouard Ferrand and Aymeric Chauprade are current ENF MEPs who have seats in various committees (see Figures 3 and 4) and have taken stances in line with the Kremlin’s interests. Figure 4 shows that the pre-ENF members were strongly opposed to the sanctions against Russia.
Edouard Ferrand, who is a member of the Agricultural and Rural Development Committee, voiced opposition to the sanctions and called for them to be lifted during a plenary session, arguing that farmers were the main victims of the measures. Similarly, Arnautu lamented the fact that truck drivers had lost their jobs due to the sanctions. It should be noted that while farmers have suffered losses due to the sanctions, they receive enormous support from the European Union in the form of subsidies: 30 percent (!) of EU expenditures are allocated to support agriculture. The anti-EU right-wing politicians usually fail to mention this fact. They appear to be defending certain interest groups, but in fact they are representing Russia’s political and policy interests.
Aymeric Chauprade is one of the most adamant pro-Russian politicians, and his parliamentary activity reflects his support for Putin’s interests. During a parliamentary debate on the resolution regarding the state of EU-Russia relations, a resolution that was highly critical of Russia and included a reference to the Kremlin’s support of European far-right forces, Chauprade argued that the resolution was inaccurate when it said that Russia takes “deliberate actions aimed at destabilizing its neighbors through illegal trade embargos or the conclusion of integration treaties with separatist and breakaway [entities].” In an interview with state TV channel Russia 24, Chauprade said that sanctions against Russia were in no way objective and that the majority of MEPs represented U.S. interests rather than the will of their own people.
In a vote on the European Energy Security Strategy resolution drafted by the Industry, Research and Energy Committee, Jean-Luc Schaffhauser said that Europe was acting against its own interests by “obeying the United States’ order and starting a war against Russia.” The resolution emphasized the need for EU members to reduce energy dependence and pursue energy diversification to counter Russian aggression by strengthening the “EU’s resilience to external pressures.”
Finally, Matteo Salvini, leader of the Italian Lega Nord, opposed a resolution authorizing financial assistance to Ukraine. The resolution said that Ukraine was suffering due to an “undeclared hybrid war and trade restrictions from Russia,” but he argued that the resolution waged a “trade war” against Russia and “fuels wars.” Salvini has expressed a pro-Russian point of view on other issues as well, including with a vote against the “State of EU-Russia Relations” resolution (he said he considered Russia a “strategic partner”) and his refusal to condemn the Kremlin over the murder of Boris Nemtsov, claiming that Europe itself was undemocratic and “instigates war and violence.”
The Politics of “No”
While the new group in the European Parliament will almost certainly not be a game-changer in European politics, it is a valuable asset for Putin’s Kremlin. The Russian government and its cronies apply a broad range of “pull factors” on ENF and the other two Kremlin-friendly caucuses, the far-left GUE-NGL and the anti-EU EFDD, to keep them loyal, ranging from diplomatic support to financial and political carrots. These groups’ pro-Russian position is largely ideological in nature, part and parcel of their rejection of the European status quo. They are the “parties of no” that vote against the mainstream and the establishment. But this does not diminish the importance of their pro-Kremlin stance. On the contrary, given that Eurosceptic attitudes are widespread in the European Union, these groups serve as influential dancing partners for Putin. According to the latest Eurobarometer survey from fall 2014, 37 percent of EU citizens were pessimistic about the future of Europe.
Given the often dualistic nature of political debate—in which one is either “for” or “against” something, has to vote “yes” or "no“—disillusionment with the EU could become a “push factor” for voters, driving them away from a united Europe and toward Russia, one of the main critics of European values. It does not mean that Euroscepticism should be automatically regarded as pro-Putinism. But widespread pessimism about the EU project and a general erosion of trust in Europe helps Putin to promote his regime’s ideology and interests more effectively. The latest example of this trend is public opinion in Greece, where a recent Gallup poll indicated higher approval of the Russian leadership than of the European leadership. Given the harsh terms of the latest Greek bailout deal and the new Greek-Russian plans for a gas pipeline—and the fact that Greek ruling parties base their image on harsh criticism of the EU and sympathy toward Putin—Russia could start to seem like an attractive counterpoint to Europe for Greeks. This will most certainly help Russia increase its disruptive influence in Europe.
This analysis is a part of the joint project of the Political Capital Institute and the Institute of Modern Russia. The calculations have been made by the Political Capital Institute’s experts.
- We did not include the new Romanian MEP, given that he is an odd one out: he is an ex-S&D member, not an ex-independent.
- “No” in every case means either voting against a resolution critical of Russia (e.g., condemning the murder of Nemtsov), or against a measure that runs counter to Kremlin interests (e.g., the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement). There have been a number of important analyses in the past relating to some of these decisions, including this one by Anton Shekhovtsov.
- This figure reflects the current distribution, which took place before the ENF was formed. The MEPs remain in their respective committees but are now part of the ENF group.