Influence reduced as MEPs’ debating time to be strictly limited
Travelling to the picturesque French city for their first week at the parliament's inaugural session after June's elections, BNP leader Nick Griffin and his sidekick Andrew Brons found themselves on the wrong side of the law, having to explain to the police why their car had broken the speed limit. The car was doing about 10mph above the limit and Griffin was fined £50, small change compared to the combined £350,000 a year he and Brons will receive in parliamentary salaries and allowances.
A further, far more damaging, setback for the two "devils" - Griffin's mocking self-description - was their failure to find enough far-right comrades across the EU to form a new bloc. However, the BNP still had plenty of friendly fellow travellers to hang out with. Griffin has been getting matey with several groups. One is Jobbik, the far-right Hungarian party that won 14.8% of the vote in the Hungarian European elections despite its anti-gypsy stance and unpleasant comments about the nation's Jews.
Griffin and Brons even stayed in the same hotel as three Jobbik MEPs. The party, also known as the Movement for a Better Hungary, won nearly as many votes as the ruling socialists, securing three seats in the European parliament. Others involved in talks with the BNP were France's Front National - which won three seats, including the re-election of its veteran controversial leader Jean-Marie Le Pen - Belgium's Vlaams Belang and Ataka, the nationalist Bulgarian party.
Griffin said: "We needed at least 25 members from seven different member states to form a group but we failed and, yes, it is a setback. There is no doubt that we would have been able to wield a lot more influence if we could have formed a group."
Griffin hit the headlines even before he and Brons landed in Strasbourg, following his call for the EU to sink boats carrying illegal immigrants. He also told BBC One's Andrew Marr Show that the EU had created a "super-state that isn't far from fascist".
Accompanied by two burly bodyguards because of what Griffin says have been personal threats, the newly-elected neo-fascists swaggered into the institution they have vowed to abolish.
"If and when the free nations of Europe get their destinies back, perhaps this building could be turned into a monument to the follies of imperialism. We must get rid of this ridiculously wasteful circus," declared Griffin.
British officials had already imposed a "cordon sanitaire" around the BNP and the pair were told they would be banned from a UK government reception, hosted by Glenys Kinnock, the Europe minister. Under new guidelines, agreed by UK foreign secretary David Miliband, Griffin and Brons will be isolated and kept at arm's length from the world of diplomatic socialising.
The pair of BNP MEPs have been placed in seats numbered 780 and 781 for the next five years, close to and just one row in front of the new Conservative and Reformist Group founded by the UK Tories. As they took their seats in the assembly's debating chamber, Griffin and Brons were surrounded by like-minded colleagues: three Hungarian Gypsy-haters, four Muslim-baiters from the Netherlands, a couple of Austrian deputies elected on a platform of anti-semitism, Le Pen and his daughter Marianne, who both believe the Holocaust is a myth, and an assortment of Italian racists.
Glenis Willmott, the Labour Party's leader in Europe, was prompted to say: "This is a sad day for Britain. Two UK fascists are taking their seats in this parliament for the first time."
Richard Howitt, a Labour MEP, said he was ashamed, as a Briton, that the BNP was taking part in the parliament.
However, Timothy Kirkhope, who leads the UK Tory group of MEPs, said he was "not particularly uncomfortable" sitting in the Strasbourg assembly with two extremists behind him. He added: "I'm not happy, but they were elected by the people of Britain."
Griffin, who is expected to sit on the environment committee, appeared unconcerned by all the fuss around him, or by the fact that the Democratic Unionist Party's MEP Diane Dodds abandoned her seat when she discovered she had been put next to Brons. He was equally untouched by news that 90,000 British voters signed a petition stating that the BNP does not speak for them. He said: "We're speaking happily with European nationalists. I even spoke to several German Greens. But there is very childish behaviour from some of the British."
As a "non-attached" member, the amount of speaking time Griffin will be given in debates will be strictly limited, but he used his first speech, during a debate on Iran, to denounce alleged human rights violations against "nationalist dissidents" in Britain.
He accused Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats of routinely deploying "intimidation and violence against nationalist dissidents in Britain". He claimed they were using taxpayers' money "to fund their own militia, which breaks up opposition meetings and attack their opponents with bricks, darts and claw-hammers" and described the Unite Against Fascism movement as an "organisation of far-left criminals".
Griffin told a two-thirds empty chamber that "warmongers" were itching to attack Iran and were using human rights as a new "casus belli". He invoked Elvis Costello's song Oliver's Army to protest against the prospect of British youths being sent to die in Iran.
"Do not leave the war which hypocritical rhetoric will help to justify and unleash to the usual brave British cannon fodder: 18-year-old boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne," he said. "Instead, send out your own sons to come home in boxes, or without their legs, their arms, their eyes or their sanity. Or mind your own business."
However, there were no publicity-seeking tactics - that was left to the UK Independence party. UKIP leader Nigel Farage, whose new desk is next to commission president Jose Manuel Barroso in the debating chamber, plonked a mini Union Jack in front of himself during a debate. Barroso responded by asking an aide to get a mini EU flag for his own desk.
Griffin returned to his home in mid-Wales on Thursday at the end of what had been an eventful first week.
This week, it's back to Brussels, where Griffin's notoriety has already seen Brons and himself banned from Fabian O'Farrell's, an Irish pub popular with Eurocrats, something he says amounts to "a form of apartheid". They say they will be keen attenders at the parliament over the next five years, a prospect that is likely to fill many of their fellow MEPs with dread.