Far-Right Leaders Loathe the European Parliament, but Love Its Paychecks

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For decades, Ms. Le Pen’s National Front and other parties on Europe’s far right have drawn a strange legitimacy by winning seats in the European Parliament. They blame European institutions for being onerous bureaucracies and lacking democratic accountability even as they enjoy the perks of office and generally shun the daily grind of legislative work.

Winning seats in the European Parliament is often easier for them than winning at home, because turnout is anemic, boosting the chances for well-organized protest candidates. The National Front, with more than 20 lawmakers including Ms. Le Pen and her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has the largest bloc of French representatives in the European assembly — even though it holds just two seats in the French National Assembly.

In 2014, anti-European fringe parties had their strongest-ever showing in European elections, and far-right lawmakers now hold about 10 percent of the 751 seats in the European Parliament. The U.K. Independence Party, which has no lawmakers in the British Parliament, has 20 seats in the European Parliament, including the party’s former leader, Nigel Farage.

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Marcel de Graaff, a Dutch far-right lawmaker, and Marine Le Pen of France at Parliament this month. Ms. Le Pen’s National Front has over 20 lawmakers in the European assembly, even though it holds just two seats in the French National Assembly. Credit Sebastien Bozon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

European institutions in Brussels are routinely criticized for lacking democratic accountability. The European Parliament, whose members are directly elected, is supposed to be the answer to that complaint. But anti-Europe lawmakers instead often use the Parliament, based in Strasbourg, France, to attack the European Union.

The overall expenses of salaries, benefits and other funds for far-right Euroskeptic lawmakers and their staffs cost European Union taxpayers about €55 million this year, according to Thilo Janssen, a political scientist who has studied the far right and who advises a left-wing lawmaker in Parliament.

Even more ironic, the Parliament provides a platform for these lawmakers to network and coordinate their anti-Europe efforts — and to get paid for it. They have formed political groups, the main organizational units of Parliament, which allow them to qualify for an array of privileges.

Ms. Le Pen, for example, is co-president of the Europe of Nations and Freedom Group, founded in 2015, along with Marcel de Graaff, a Dutch right-wing lawmaker. The group billed for €1.6 million during its first year for staff and activities.

Mr. de Graaff, a fiery ally of the Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders, has argued that unauthorized migrants have carried out mass rapes and warned that “we must stop the invasion” of Islam in Europe.

“More and more people see through the lies of the E.U. establishment and are joining the patriots,” he told colleagues during a recent address on the floor of Parliament. “The E.U.’s end is approaching.”

Two years ago, when Ms. Le Pen was absent for some votes, Mr. de Graaff covered for her, casting her ballots. She later praised his “chivalrous spirit.” Other lawmakers were less amused. Mr. de Graaff was fined €1,530.

“Unsurpassed insolence,” Manfred Weber, a powerful conservative German member of the European Parliament, said at the time.

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Nigel Farage, former leader of the U.K. Independence Party, addressing Parliament this month. Mr. Farage soaks up free media attention by giving strident, anti-Europe speeches. Credit Vincent Kessler/Reuters

Yet Mr. de Graaff and others mostly shrug off the criticism. Mr. Farage, who helped lead the “Brexit” campaign for Britain to leave the European Union, soaks up free media attention by giving strident, anti-Europe speeches.

Mr. Farage leads another Euroskeptic bloc in Parliament, Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy, and that bloc in turn shares many members with a party called the Alliance for Direct Democracy in Europe.

In November, Parliament ordered that party to repay €172,655. The money was supposed to help lawmakers compete in European elections and “contribute to forming a European awareness.” But the U.K. Independence Party used it instead to conduct opinion polls on Brexit, officials found. (The alliance’s executive director said the audit procedure was “biased” and aimed at “silencing” critics of European integration.)

Neither Mr. de Graaff nor Ms. Le Pen responded to requests for comment. But one Le Pen ally, Jean-Luc Schaffhauser, who helped the National Front secure a loan from a Russian-linked bank but is not himself a member of the party, said he believed that fraud investigators were unfairly singling out right-wing parties for scrutiny.

Other lawmakers fume at the antics of the far right, but have little recourse.

Far-right members are “hollowing out the whole structure from within, and it’s like tooth decay,” said Esther de Lange, a lawmaker with the Christian Democratic Appeal, a center-right Dutch party. “Are you going to wait until the whole thing falls out, or do you actually come up with a solution?”

Prominent members like Mr. Weber want to block funding for anti-European parties — including the Alliance for Peace and Freedom, which has three representatives from Greece’s neo-fascist Golden Dawn and one from the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany in Parliament. That entitled the party to nearly €400,000 last year.

Mr. Weber acknowledged last month that nothing could be done to turn off the money spigot immediately, partly because the rules need to be tightened.

There also are concerns about freedom of speech. “You want to gag us, basically,” Georg Mayer, an Austrian member of Mr. de Graaff’s and Ms. Le Pen’s bloc, told lawmakers recently. “I don’t like that reading of democracy.”

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The Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders at a meeting in Koblenz, Germany, in January. Credit Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters

Ms. Le Pen, for one, has benefited from leading one of the far-right blocs. It entitles her to a prominent placement on the parliamentary benches and choice speaking slots. Eighteen months ago, when President François Hollande of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany tried to rally support for migration policies on the floor of Parliament, Ms. Le Pen rose to give a stinging, and widely publicized, rebuke.

She belittled Mr. Hollande as a German puppet, the “administrator of the province of France.” Her rant, which evoked the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, has been watched at least a half-million times on YouTube.

When he visited the Parliament in February, Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, did not have lunch with the heads of the political blocs — to avoid encountering Ms. Le Pen, officials speculated at the time.

A number of far-right lawmakers skipped Mr. Trudeau’s speech. Many also joined a boycott in December, when two young Iraqi women who had escaped sexual slavery by the Islamic State were honored with the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the European Union’s top human rights award.

The boycott infuriated Anthony L. Gardner, who was the United States ambassador to the European Union until January and was present for the occasion. “They tried to turn a deeply moving ceremony about how these girls had survived unimaginable things into a political event,” he said in an interview. “It was shameful behavior for them not to be there.”

Meanwhile, Ms. Le Pen has also enjoyed another privilege of being a European parliamentarian: immunity.

Last month, French prosecutors persuaded European lawmakers to lift her immunity in a criminal investigation into images she shared on Twitter that showed brutal acts by the Islamic State. (Dissemination of violent images is a crime in France.) On Wednesday, they began a process that could lead to her losing immunity in another French case, concerning alleged abuse of European Union funds to pay for party assistants.

Lawmakers are still considering yet another French request to lift her immunity, in a case of alleged defamation against a former mayor of Nice.

But for now, Ms. Le Pen continues to receive legal protection from a European Parliament she wants to bring down.

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