On March 14, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on “strengthening the fight against racism, xenophobia, and hate crime.” The statement stressed the importance of remembering racially motivated atrocities, called for more effective measures to fight hate crime, and warned against extremist discourse.
But at the same time there is a danger of an increase in intolerant speech inside the European Parliament itself. With the parliamentary elections approaching, parties such as the neofascist Golden Dawn, which has risen in Greece since the elections in 2009, are expected to win seats. Though some of the new members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from these parties may have fewer opportunities to speak compared to MEPs from the mainstream parties, their voices will still be heard at the plenary sessions of the next parliament.
Last week Counterpoint released Conflicted Politicians, a new report studying how populist radical right politicians behave in the European Parliament—an institution they often oppose. Using data from VoteWatch Europe, we focused on the two groups in which most of these members are found: non-attached MEPs and the eurosceptic Europe of Freedom and Democracy group.
On one hand, we found that these MEPs were significantly less active at drafting reports at the committee stage than members of the other political groups. On the other hand, they were much more likely to give speeches and ask questions at the plenary sittings. This suggests that populist radical right MEPs focus their efforts on communications rather than the Parliament’s committee work—meaning that what they say is of particular importance.
Although populist radical right MEPs tend to refrain from discriminatory speech at plenary, sometimes their rhetoric does cross a line. In a 2011 debate about Roma inclusion, for example, British MEP Andrew Brons stated, “I think we should find a particular member of the Roma, preferably with disabilities and conflicting sexualities. We could then make this person president of the Commission. He would start by selling this place off and nobody would dare to complain.”
If representatives of groups like Golden Dawn enter the Parliament next year, this rhetoric could get worse. What can MEPs and advocacy groups who work to challenge racism and xenophobia do about it? The report points to three main recommendations.
- MEPs need to be held accountable for what they say. This means that their speeches and questions need careful, regular monitoring and that clearly discriminatory statements need to be exposed and challenged. The monitoring should be thorough and systematic, and the results should be presented in a clear and usable way.
- Monitoring needs to be done carefully. One of the challenges here is that populist radical right politicians sometimes use code words or phrases instead of direct abuse, gesturing at stereotypes and hinting at generalizations. But it is important not to fall into a populist trap; a populist radical right politician loves nothing more than to tell the public that they are being stigmatized for a comment the majority perceive as harmless and open-minded. A clear line should be drawn between rhetoric that is controversial but legitimate and rhetoric that is discriminatory.
- MEPs need to challenge discriminatory statements when appropriate. The research indicated that some members were cautious about responding to the populist radical right’s rhetoric head-on at plenary sittings. But the report also suggests that some populist radical right MEPs tend to see speaking time as a publicity opportunity. When discriminatory rhetoric is used, it is essential to show potential viewers that other politicians will not stand for it.
It is hard to tell what political changes the next European Parliament elections will bring. But if the Parliament wants to send a message to the member states about racism, xenophobia, and hate crime, part of that message could be building ways to address these issues within the Parliament itself. This would provide added weight to its March resolution.