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Last Updated: Monday, 15 January 2007, 04:36 GMT
EU's surprise far-right coalition
By Alix Kroeger
BBC News, Brussels

The first full session of the European Parliament this year gets under way on 15 January, with the inclusion of a new far-right group. To say that it has not been greeted with universal enthusiasm would be an understatement.

Jean-Marie Le Pen
France's Jean-Marie Le Pen led previous far-right groups

"In the sense that it is good to know who your enemy is, I welcome this new group," says British Liberal Democrat MEP Chris Davies.

"We're trying to get Europe to work, while they [the far right] are trying to get it to fail," says a spokesman for the British Conservative Party in the Parliament.

The European Parliament's Green group says the far right represents "the antithesis of the very values this Parliament stands for".

See a national breakdown of the new bloc and its size in the parliament

One insider from the eurosceptic Independence and Democracy group was delighted at the formation of the new group.

"Now we can point at them and say, 'We're not the extreme right-wing nutters, they are.'"

So just what does the new group stand for?

Deny extremism

They say they are in favour of the "recognition of national interests", a "commitment to Christian values... and the traditions of European civilisation", and the traditional family. They oppose a "unitary, bureaucratic European super state".

Jean-Marie Le Pen, France
Alessandra Mussolini, Italy
Andreas Moelzer, Austria

They call themselves Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty - or ITS, for short.

Most of the parties in ITS are vehemently anti-immigration, but they reject the "far-right" label. They say they are near the centre of the political spectrum.

"We got 25% of the vote at the last European election," points out MEP Philip Claeys of Belgium's separatist Flemish Interest party.

"We can hardly be described as extremists."

The leader of ITS, Frenchman Bruno Gollnisch, is awaiting the verdict of his trial on charges of Holocaust denial.

"The fact that I'm accused doesn't mean that I am guilty," he says. "I think history should be free for discussion."

He refuses to be drawn on whether he will oppose plans by the German EU presidency to make Holocaust denial a crime in all member states.

Hostility to Roma

Most parties of the extreme right opposed EU enlargement.

Many of them are opposed to the EU itself. The irony is that it is the accession on 1 January 2007 of Romania and Bulgaria which has given the new group its critical mass.

To qualify as a recognised group, it needs at least 20 MEPs from six EU countries.

Five of the ITS MEPs come from the nationalist Greater Romania Party and one from Bulgaria's Attack Coalition.

Both parties were already at the Parliament as part of their countries' observer delegations before accession and both have a history of hostility to Roma, or Gypsies.

Last year, a Roma MEP, Livia Jaroka, was nominated for an award as parliamentarian of the year.

In an e-mail to the organisers of the award, Dimitar Stoyanov of the Attack Party replied:

"Well, gentlemen, I must disagree with you. In my country there're tens of thousands of gypsy girls way more beautiful than this honourable one. In fact if you're in the right place on the right time you even can buy one (around 12-13 years old) to be your loving wife. The best of them are very expensive - up to 5,000 euros a piece, wow!"

Parliamentary funds

From 1984 to 1989, there was a Group of the European Right, led by Jean-Marie Le Pen of the French National Front.

From 1989 to 1994, it became the Technical Group of the European Right.

After the 1994 Euro-elections, there were not enough far-right MEPs to continue as a group.

Sitting as a group will undoubtedly give the far right more power. They will qualify for funding from the Parliament to pay for staff.

They will have a vice-president who can chair debates and help set the agenda for plenary sessions. They will be able to table amendments in plenary and will have more rights to speak in debates.

And they will be entitled to fill the vice-chairmanships of two committees.

For now, the parties in ITS have set aside their differences to sit as one group but whether they can speak with one voice remains to be seen.

Along with greater funding and power, comes more visibility and members of ITS may find that their new status means they attract opposition from other groups worried about the influence of the far right on the parliament's agenda.

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