The floor of the European Union’s cavernous and mostly vacant parliamentary chamber here is hardly known for its lively debatesnotes Landon Thomas Jr tersely in the International Herald Tribune.
At least not until Nigel Farage, the Brussels-bashing leader of Britain’s fastest-growing political party, gets up to speak.
The vast majority of the European Parliament’s 754 members, as they process the torrent of rules and regulations that Europe bestows upon them, are not inclined to question why it is that they are there. The pay and perks are generous for those elected to five-year terms in low-turnout elections throughout the European Union’s 27 member countries. The mission — to extend the sweep of European federalism — is for most a shared one.
But for Mr. Farage, who has waged a 20-year campaign to get Britain to leave the European Union, Strasbourg has become the perfect stage to disseminate his anti-E.U. message by highlighting the project’s bureaucratic absurdities and spendthrift tendencies, and more often than not, to mock with glee the most prominent proponents of a European super state: the head of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, and the European Council president, Herman Van Rompuy.
‘‘I said you’d be the quiet assassin of nation-state democracy,’’ Mr. Farage declared last month as his target, Mr. Van Rompuy, squirmed in his seat just opposite, ‘‘and sure enough, in your dull and technocratic way, you’ve gone about your course.’’
His speeches mix the pitch-perfect timing of a stand up comedian — he once told Mr. Van Rompuy that he had the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a bank clerk — with a populist passion that critics say approaches demagoguery, and they have become wildly popular on YouTube. Now, his United Kingdom Independence Party is on the verge of replacing the Liberal Democrats as the country’s third largest political party behind the Conservatives and Labour.
All of which heaps more pressure on Prime Minister David Cameron, whose ability to negotiate effectively in Brussels has been compromised by rising anti-E.U. sentiment within his own Conservative Party and the country at large. [Don't forget to check out the Professor's post on the removal of the three foster children of a couple of UKIP-supporting foster parents.]
‘‘All of us are selling a product,’’ said Mr. Farage, who before turning to politics worked as a commodities trader. He swallowed from his glass of Rioja, on his way to putting a sizable dent in the bottle of Spanish wine during lunch last month in the parliamentary dining room here. ‘‘But none of these guys ever worked in the commercial sector where they had to sell something,’’ he continued. ‘‘They are ghastly people and neither pass the Farage test: Would I employ them or would I want to go have a drink with them?’’
The very thought of raising a pint with either Mr. Barroso or Mr. Van Rompuy elicits a cigarette-scarred chortle from Mr. Farage. Indeed, with his dapper suits, cufflinks and love of a wine-soaked lunch, Mr. Farage can come across as a caricature of a pasthis-prime, City of London financier — a loudish type sounding off on cricket and the latest bureaucratic atrocity in Brussels that one frequently encounters in pubs in the wealthy suburbs surrounding the British capital.
But as politicians in Europe and Britain are now realizing, Mr. Farage’s ‘‘damn the technocrats’’ rallying cry — raw, profane and borne of genuine conviction — is not so easily dismissed. At least, not at a time when officials from the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank are calling the shots in Greece, Portugal and Ireland. Not when a former European commissioner is prime minister of Italy. And increasingly ineffectual career politicians in France, Spain and Britain are struggling to connect with angry voters.
‘‘What I did not understand was the sheer fanaticism behind the project — there is nothing that will stop these guys,’’ Mr. Farage said, drawing deep on one of the countless Rothmans cigarettes he will polish off during the day. ‘‘But what they have completely missed is the rise of identity politics.’’
That, he said, can manifest itself in the form of the U.K. Independence Party. Or, he continued, it can result in ‘‘desperate people doing desperate things,’’ like the extreme nationalism of Greece’s neo-fascist Golden Dawn party, which has ridden a tide of anger against immigrants and Greece’s worsening economy. Still, there is no disputing U.K.I.P.’s rise in Britain under Mr. Farage.
In the 2009 election for the European Parliament, U.K.I.P. came in second to the Conservatives, taking 16 percent of the vote, and in 2014 many expect it to become the number one vote getter. In British elections, U.K.I.P.’s vote share is smaller, due to its narrow focus on leaving the European Union. It tallied just 3 percent in 2010, not enough to secure a seat in Parliament. According to recent polls, however, U.K.I.P.’s support has shot up to between 8 and 10 percent, putting it about equal with the government’s much maligned coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats.
For Mr. Cameron, currently under attack from the potent euro-skeptic flank of his Conservative Party, which is pushing him hard to reduce what the country pays to the European Union each year, the trend is a disturbing one. In fact, Mr. Farage, who is 48, and Mr. Cameron, two years younger, share common origins.
Both sons of stockbrokers, they grew up in prosperous villages in the heart of Tory England, where skepticism toward Brussels runs deep. But as their later paths diverged, so did their views toward Europe. Mr. Cameron went off to Eton and Oxford, and then straight to the Conservative Party, where he rose to the top as a smooth conciliator, pledging to halt the party wars over Europe that ended Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s political career, and plagued the Tories throughout the Labour ascendancy from 1997 to 2010.
Mr. Farage spurned college for a trader’s life in the city of London in 1982, and 10 years later became radicalized when he witnessed firsthand the ejection of the pound from the Europe-imposed system of fixed exchange rates. He concluded that any power ceded to Europe, be it monetary policy or otherwise, would be sheer folly.
Now, with Mr. Farage on the rise and Mr. Cameron struggling to keep his party, not to speak of his government, united the question of how much Britain gains from being part of Europe has once again come to the fore. Last year, in net terms, Britain paid $16 billion to the bloc. But according to a recent study by the economist Tim Congdon, himself a U.K.I.P. member, if you include the cost of regulation, waste and misallocated resources, the annual price of membership rises to $238 billion a year, or about 10 percent of Britain’s economic output.
Perhaps the most egregious example of profligacy is the very spot where Mr. Farage has found his fame — the European Parliament. As most of the legislative work is done in Brussels, the quite grand building finds itself in use for just two days each month. Analysts estimate that it costs the European taxpayer about $250 million each year to transport 754 parliamentarians, several thousand support staff and lobbyists to this sleepy French city on the German border once a month. Which means that more than three weeks out of every four, this towering edifice of glass and steel remains mostly empty.
Mr. Farage lights another Rothmans and shakes his head at the absurdity of it all. ‘‘I just would like for my grandchildren to read someday that I did my part in saving my country from this lunacy,’’ he said with a weary sigh.