For years, populism has sat at the top table of the heads of state and government of the Union, feeding itself on community funds and has turned the European Parliament into the great media platform for broadcasting eurosceptic rhetoric. European populism could not have reached the levels of representation and influence that it currently holds without the money or the political instruments offered up by the quite same European Union that it wants to destroy.
Access to European funds is key to understanding the gestation and rise of Eurosceptic populist forces. As recently as 2016, the Movement for the Europe of Nations and Freedom (MENL), led by the National Front of Marine Le Pen, received 1.55 million Euros as part of the annual European Parliament grants to cover up to 85% of the expenses linked to the European political agenda of the EU forces. Another group from the European Parliament, the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD), led by the British Eurosceptic party UKIP, received 1.4 million Euros.
Although these contributions can only be used for expenses related to their European legislative work, repeated cases of corruption have exposed the fraudulent use of these funds by UKIP members.
Furthermore, Marine Le Pen has recently been involved in a judicial scandal, denounced by the European Anti-Fraud Office, which demands the return of 339,000 Euros of European contribution which, instead of being used for hiring assistants in Parliament of Strasbourg, were allocated to contribute to the funding scheme of their own party.
Even the summit of populist "patriotic leaders" -in the words of Le Pen- held in the German city of Koblenz in January 2017, to announce the political assault that these xenophobic and eurosceptic forces hope to achieve in the different elections during the year, was also paid for out of European funds, according to sources from the European Parliament. However, regardless of access to finance, to what extent have they managed to transform European parliamentary politics?
FOR POPULISM, STRASBOURG IS A TV SET
For these populist forces, the Strasbourg Chamber is more a television set than a work area. In general, most of the MEPs in these formations -whether they are members of the Le Pen group, the Nigel Farage group or as independents- present a poor balance of parliamentary work and participation in the committees where legislative proposals are debated. However, its capitalization of the interventions in the Chamber, through the accumulated speaking time that the regulation provides to all the parliamentary groups in the debates, has been so successful that they have achieved the ideological imposition of its pro/anti Europe axis at the same level as the traditional Right-Left. The emergence of these populist forces and their electoral expansion in the midst of the European economic crisis with its consequent application of unpopular austerity programmes that increased the geographical divisions between member Countries - brought the major groups of the Chamber (PPE, S&D and ALDE) closer together, an almost uncritical consensus as opposed to the eurosceptic rhetoric that was imposed from the margins of the political debate.
If the community metaphors described the European Parliament for years as a two-headed monster -an ideological and a national one- this evolution of populist rhetoric would have led to the emergence of a third, delineated by the pro- or anti-European axis.
However, if the European Parliament is the media instrument, the real scenario of political influence is played out in the Council of the European Union. The European loudspeaker allowed many of these populist forces to become relevant agents in national politics in their respective countries. Eurosceptic, populist or clearly xenophobic parties govern today in Hungary and Poland, are part of government coalitions as in Finland, or are key agents in the French, Dutch or Danish political scene. It is from this decisive role, supporting governments, influencing political agendas or becoming real alternatives of power, that populism -and its strategy of opposition to European integration- today manages to make its mark both on national politics and on the threatened European construction.
The Eurosceptic UKIP would be the most paradigmatic case of this indirect power thanks to which Nigel Farage managed to drag the British Conservatives into the call for the referendum on the European Union, without having ever held a single seat in the Westminster Parliament.
THE EU'S SCAPEGOAT
The same European construction has created the necessary conditions to make the Union the recurring scapegoat in the multiple crises that seize Europe. Individual countries retain essential competencies in migration policy, social coverage policies, culture and education. However, Brussels has borne the brunt of citizens' discontent in response to a lack of European reaction to the arrival of refugees from the Syrian war, social inequalities resulting from strict economic policies -dictated by the EU- or by an identity malaise on which the populist forces have erected their anti-European rhetoric.
The old tendency of national governments to use this abstract and depersonalized idea of Brussels to avoid responsibility for unpopular measures approved in their councils of ministers has acquired a new dimension today.
The communitarian method is being questioned by those governments and political parties that cling to the national sovereignty discourse, the rhetoric of "regaining control" and put on the table specific proposals of re-nationalization of competences or democratic control over decisions.
Populism is not limited to "fighting the EU from within," as its slogan says, but it has done so with all the weapons that the Union itself has put at its disposal.