Last year, for the first time, the far-right Alliance of European National Movements (AENM) organised itself into a pan-European bloc, and has therefore recently been allocated almost £400,000 in public funding from the European Parliament. This group includes the BNP, the Front National in France and Jobbik, a far-right political party in Hungary renowned for its racist and anti-semitic views. Of particular concern is the possibility that public money could now end up being used to incite racial hatred.
Under EU regulations, parties must observe fundamental principles such as liberty, democracy and respect for human rights in order to qualify for public funding. While the European Parliament’s bureau ruled last year that there were no indications that the AENM would violate these principles, several MEPs as well as the campaigning group ‘Hope not Hate’ have argued that the alliance was not properly scrutinised and that many of its constituent parties actively promote racism, homophobia and authoritarianism.
Members of the five main political groups, including Liberal Democrat MEPs, have now signed a petition calling on the European Parliament President Martin Schulz to verify if the AENM should be entitled to this funding under EU rules. If it reaches the required 189 signatures (it is currently on 175), an independent panel will then be asked to consider whether the political party truly abides by the fundamental principles outlined above and if it is entitled to receive the funding.
For Liberals, this is a fine line to tread. We are after all a party that expressly defends the right to free speech, and believes that the best way to tackle extremist and racist ideology is to confront it head on. Yet in this case there is an important distinction. This measure would not restrict the right of xenophobic parties to free speech, but rather the possibility for them to use taxpayers’ money in order to promote a racist or fascist ideology.
Of course, any decision to restrict public funding must be based on an independent and objective assessment. It is vital that we prevent a slippery slope in which any parties which do not abide by a mainstream political ideology have their funding blocked. In addition, every party has members who at times make insensitive remarks, including our own. That is why the review of the AENM’s values should be conducted by a politically neutral and independent panel, and should be based only on official party materials such as manifestos and constitutions. If it is deemed that the AENM parties are not fundamentally racist, homophobic or anti-democratic in their ideology, then there is no reason they should not receive funding.
Liberal Democrat MEP Andrew Duff and other members of the Parliament’s Committee on Constitutional Affairs are currently discussing ways to strengthen the rules that govern European party funding in order to make them more transparent, enforceable and subject to strict, objective criteria. This should make it easier in future to determine whether European parties should be entitled to EU funding. However, the underlying principle will remain the same: parties which are fundamentally opposed to the core values of liberal democracy should not be entitled to additional public funding.
* Paul Haydon has recently completed an MSc in European Public Policy at University College London.