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Far-right will struggle to unite despite EU gains

The parties of France's Marine Le Pen and Italy's Matteo Salvini earned the biggest results in their respective countries
The parties of France's Marine Le Pen and Italy's Matteo Salvini earned the biggest results in their respective countries AFP
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Brussels (AFP)

Despite gains in European elections, far-right nationalists and eurosceptics are disunited and will have difficulty in mounting a coherent anti-EU opposition over the next five years, analysts say.

Between them, the various populists, eurosceptic and right-wing parties won more than 150 seats, with the parties of France's Marine Le Pen and Italy's Matteo Salvini earning the biggest results in their respective countries.

If they were to act as one, the far right could stand as the second or third biggest force in parliament, but for now they are a disparate group, whose political lines are often in contradiction.

This will come as a sore disappointment to Le Pen and Salvini who have yearned -- along with Donald Trump strategist Steve Bannon -- for a far-right reawakening in Europe.

But given recent history, chances are small that the far right forces will consolidate into a force of consequence within parliament over the next five-year session.

"The far right won't be large enough to block legislation... And considering their disunity, you are always going to need one of the big parties to get anything done," said Pelle Christy of Euraffex, a consultancy in Brussels.

One obvious problem sets Matteo Salvini against Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary whose ruling Fidesz party will command 13 MEPs and would be a huge prize in building a powerful group.

Salvini's success is largely based a promise to make sure that the migrants landing in Italy from northern Africa can quickly be sent on to other EU states, a notion Orban categorically rejects.

- 'No single party' -

The political kaleidescope that makes up the right-wing in Europe is filled with such contradictions as well as long-running feuds that make potential alliances impossible or highly volatile.

In 2014, the Brexit party's Nigel Farage rejected any tie-up with Marine Le Pen's French nationalists, condemning what he sees as her party's blind eye to anti-Semitism.

The hard-right eurosceptic ruling party in Poland -- PiS -- has also shunned Le Pen over her pro-Russian stance, while Orban has similarly spurned her advances.

"I don't believe in a single party for the far right," said Jean-Yves Camus, a specialist on political extremism at the Jean Jaures Foundation in Paris.

"The lines are too divergent and (Le Pen) triggers too much suspicion to certain partners," he said.

Steven Blockmans of the Centre for European Policy Studies wrote in an analyst's note: "Arguably there are too many diverging national interests, radically different economic and social policies, as well as diametrically opposing views on Russia, that stand in the way of forming and maintaining a coherent European parliamentary group on other topics than anti-immigration."

Another big question is what commitment nationalists will make on policy-making once at European Parliament with extremists having a reputation of making headlines, but with little follow up.

Strasbourg observers widely agree that the interest in EU politics by far right MEPs has been lukewarm, beyond making noise on topics such as Brexit or immigration, where parliament's actual influence is weak.

"Le Pen's National Front MEPs elected in 2014 never blocked much, even though they were even more numerous. It's barely a power of nuisance," said Sebastien Maillard of the Delors Institute.

This may keep Orban's Fidesz party within the political establishment's EPP group, the family of German Chancellor Angela Merkel that is torn on whether to keep ties with the firebrand leader.

"Orban will do everything to stay within the EPP and stoke divisions within the group" where the prime minister's virulent anti-migration rhetoric has its supporters, said political analysts Marc Lazar.

Given his huge score domestically, Orban "has absolutely no interest" in getting involved with Salvini and Le Pen, added Camus.

Ania Skrzypek of the Foundation of European Progressive Studies cautioned that despite a lack of legislative firepower, the far right and eurosceptics remained the dominant force in parts of eastern and central Europe.

After generations behind the Iron Curtain, eastern Europe is again at "risk of isolation" within the EU, she said.

The real question is how the far-right vote -- and a more fragmented parliament -- will influence the other institutions, especially if Salvini forces a hard right-winger to join the commission, the EU's executive arm.

After Sunday's result, what programme will the next commission still have an appetite for, she wondered.

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