PARIS — For more than a decade far-right parties in Europe have been lost in regional and ideological squabbles, some of them dating to the 1930s. But with the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the European Union last month, a move at first opposed by the far-right, the ultranationalists suddenly found enough fellow travelers to formalize a coalition.
The "Identity, Tradition, and Sovereignty" caucus, born Jan. 16, is constituted inside the European Parliament. It includes the "Attack" party from Bulgaria, which published lists of Bulgarian Jews on its website; the party of Alexandra Mussolini, grand-daughter of Italy's World War II fascist leader; and is led by Bruno Gollnisch of Jean-Marie Le Pen's far-right French party, who faced trial in Lyon this fall for Holocaust denial.
Yet right-wing leaders insist they are not racist, represent 23 million voters, and have two main goals: To hone their message to be more "respectable," and to put aside differences in order to get that message more broadly heard.
Indeed, in a Europe embroiled over new immigrants, cultural wars about European identity and values, and with skepticism of a "super-Europe" run in Brussels, people are ripe for their ideas, Identity members feel.
"By joining forces, we will be able to get our message more powerfully heard," says Philip Claeys, vice president of Identity and member of Vlaams Belang or "Flemish Interest" party, in a Monitor interview. "Identity is the core issue in Europe today, and our ideas put us in the center of every major debate about Europe's future.
"Immigration used to be a taboo issue. But with large masses of people not willing to integrate, and with problems getting worse and worse in the cities, it is time to talk," he says.
Though comprising only 20 out of 785 parliament members, the coalition receives $1.5 million in support, and can table amendments.
"With a faction you get money, jobs, you have staff members; you go abroad to other countries; you hold conferences," says Jean-Yves Camus of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris. "It is a way to raise money without having to go to your membership. They [right-wing parties] find it easier to operate. They are less isolated."
One goal is respectability. Many far-right parties now distance themselves from neo-Nazis and skinheads, and eschew the use of symbols like the swastika. Their language is less toxic, though their basic beliefs appear to remain fairly hard-edged.
"These parties have a following greater than the numbers suggest," argues Mr. Camus. "Voters aren't so interested in European elections."
Indeed, boosting numbers is not a main agenda issue right now. The groups say they represent a deeper sentiment, and that the trend in Europe is toward the right. In the past three years, for example, a country like the Netherlands, long regarded as liberal and open, has taken a sharp conservative turn that roughly dates to the street murder of film-maker Theo Van Gogh by a Muslim of North African descent. Amsterdam itself is 45 percent non-Dutch, as Ian Buruma notes in his new book, "Murder in Amsterdam."
Many scholars agree with this trend. European democracies are "now under the influence of a ultranationalist current," argues Pascal Perrineau, a university professor at the Fondation National de Sciences Politiques in Paris. The right is given a boost, Dr. Perrineau says, by East European groups: "In less than a year, we saw in Poland a government with the hardest extreme-right representatives. We saw in Slovakia the building of an coalition with social-democrats, nationalists, and right populists. We saw in Hungary increasing agitation maintained by the extreme right, in reaction to declarations of Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany.
"All these are examples of a rapid populist development, waiting since the end of the fall of the Iron Curtain, but more noticeable when these countries joined the European family," he adds.
Europe's political establishment is implacably opposed to Identity. Last week, in a secret ballot the European Parliament blocked the coalition members from becoming vice-chairs of two committees. Human rights groups are agitated that tax dollars will help promote views variously interpreted as anti-Semitic, anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, and narrowly "pro-Christian." Gypsy or Roma groups say East European parties especially target their interests: "The agenda [of Identity]... is far from promoting a tolerant and democratic Europe," argued the European Roma Information Office.
Other experts say Identity has small numbers, no political clout, and that their presence shows the strength of Europe's liberal democracy.
Mr. Claeys, the vice-president of Identity, calls the blocking in parliament of his group, "a perfect example of discrimination and bias based on old ideas about multicultural political correctness; we were all elected to this body, we have a right to representation."
Camus, author of a recent book on extremism in France, says Europe now has two variants of the far right, "the respectable far-right parties, and the unrepentant extremist far right. In fact, they don't have much difference between them." Several weeks ago, Le Pen's Front National was the first European party to establish a headquarters inside the popular "Second Life" online virtual world. This brought a virtual protest outside the virtual headquarters, with virtual placards, and some participants throwing (virtual) exploding pigs. One protester, Ichi Jaehun, told James Au of New World Notes, which reports on Second Life, that "this nationalist idea that Front National is advocating is something that has spread all over Europe like a virus."
"We had 23 million voters for our party, so I hardly think we are extremists," counters Claeys. He admits his group may struggle. But Identity has opened negotiations with the Polish Family League, and the Northern Italian League, to add members. "We expect by 2009 [the next European-wide election] to be in much better shape."