European Parliament elections later this month are likely to see a surge by fringe parties both on the right and left, leaving Vladimir Putin's Russia as one of the potential winners.
Voters across the 28-country bloc are electing 751 members of the European Parliament for a five-year term in elections that run through May 22-25.
Polls suggest voters are set to punish mainstream parties for years of austerity and angst about everything from globalization and immigration to the Brussels elite.
According to the latest projections by VoteWatch Europe, fringe parties to the left and right could double their support compared to 2009 and capture between a fifth and a quarter of the seats in the chamber (see chart below).
This is good news for Moscow. Russia's usual supporters among the far left are expected to gain an extra 16 seats, up from 35. But it is the far-right parties that are expected to receive the biggest boost, doubling their representation to more than 100 members of the European Parliament (MEPs).
The fringe parties on the right vary in their levels of support for Russia but it's clear that they cast a friendlier eye on the Kremlin than the mainstream political parties. Some find common cause with Putin in their dislike for the European Union and the United States, whereas others admire his strong-hand policies toward gays, immigration, and the state's role in the economy
The current European Parliament makeup compared to the projected makeup based on recent opinion polls (click to enlarge)
Although there's no clear proof of financial links between the Kremlin and European far-right parties, it is clear that Kremlin is courting them. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, which might come out on top in France, has visited Russia twice this year and spoken admiringly of the country and its policies. The Austrian Freedom Party (FPO) and Hungary's Jobbik sent observers to Crimea's disputed March referendum on whether the Ukrainian territory should join Russia and praised its conduct -- in marked contrast to the EU's condemnation of the vote as illegal . And the Italian Northern League invited pro-Putin speakers to an event in the European Parliament this year to present an alternative view on recent events in Ukraine.
Peter Kreko, from the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute, has studied the links between Russia and the European far right and points out that this marriage of convenience can have consequences both in Brussels and in member-state capitals.
"I think that there are some advantages on both sides," Kreko says. "For Russia, the advantage can be that a growing radical bloc in Europe can be strongly pro-Russian and articulate the interest of Russia to a wider audience. On the side of the far-right parties the advantage can be that they can have a strong ally, a strong friend. As some of these parties are still pretty marginalized domestically, I think they are happy to have such a strong friend that makes it more difficult to push them aside on a national or even European political scene."
The big question will be whether the far right can create a political group in the chamber similar to what the far left has. Twenty-five MEPs from seven member states are needed. A grouping called the European Alliance for Freedom has already been formed with the support from the National Front, Northern League, and FPO, as well as the Sweden Democrats, the Slovak National Party, the Dutch PVV, and Belgium's Vlaams Belang. They are likely to easily form a parliamentary grouping without even having to count on the support of more extreme parties such as Jobbik and Greece's Golden Dawn.
INTERACTIVE MAP of Europe's fringe parties
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Pieter Cleppe, who monitors the European Parliament for the think tank Open Europe, says that the surge of support for the far right will lead the mainstream parties to team up to prevent the fringes from having any influence on the political process. Instead, he says, the fringe parties will focus on something else:
"What they will manage to obtain from all this is money and that is also what is mostly interesting to all these MEPs when they try to form these groups in the European Parliament," Cleppe says. "However, they won't manage to influence the decision-making in the parliament even if they are relatively big, for the simple reason that the large majority will just refuse to work with them and they won't get any rapporteurships or any influential positions."
With political groups entitled to grants from the European Parliament depending on how big they are, both the far left and the far right can get well over 1 million euros ($1.4 million) a year -- money that can be spent on giving the Kremlin a platform at the heart of the EU.