The archly Eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) is reaching out to its EU neighbours.
The party, currently experiencing a bounce in the polls, is holding its spring conference this weekend (23 March) in its south-west heartland. The keynote speaker will be Slavi Binev, an MEP and new member of the Europe of Freedom and Democracy Group (EFD), the parliamentary group that Ukip is affiliated with in the European Parliament. He is also a former taekwando champion in his native Bulgaria.
Yes; that’s Bulgaria, where Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, has been having a few public relations problems of late, and whose latter pronouncements on the country and its natives, have seen the party draw criticisms from politicians and citizens alike. Two open letters to the press published recently, one by Bulgarian, Ralitsa Behar, the other by British ex-pat Jonathan Taylor, have both sought to take the Ukip leader to task.
“You achieve nothing by your racist xenophobic comments other than to further isolate what was a great nation into a ‘backwater has been,’ wrote Taylor, who suggested that “in protest at your remarks I was going to organise a boycott of British goods but sadly I couldn't find any to boycott.”
Indeed the ongoing spat has been threatening to get out of hand. So much so that a recent visit to Sofia by Ukip MEP Paul Nuttall, on the invitation of Binev, saw the party’s deputy leader attempt to quell local anger about comments by Farage that seemed to suggest Bulgarian citizens are unnaturally eager to come to Britain to exploit its work and welfare system. A press conference given by Nuttall and Binev descended into argument, when members of the far-right nationalist Ataka party, including its leader, Volen Siderov, interjected, accusing Ukip of bigotry and hypocrisy.
Binev came to Ukip’s defence. He was first elected to the European Parliament in 2009 as a member of Ataka, before being a member of the Conservative Party Movement of Success (GORD).
Aside from his links to a party whose political affiliations include the Front National in France, the Austrian Freedom Party, and other right-wing parties in Belgium, Romania and Italy (through the short-lived Identity, Sovereignty and Tradition group), Binev has also been cited in a US State department cable, subsequently released by WikiLeaks, that links the MEP to “criminal activities including prostitution, narcotics and trafficking in stolen automobiles”. Binev has said, as recently as a 7 March article in the New York Times, that all he was doing was aiding Bulgaria in its transition from communism to “blossoming” capitalism.
Of course, suggesting that Bulgarians are a race of criminals waiting to exploit any weak-willed and gullible welfare system is a ridiculous stereotype, not worthy of grown-up political discussion. Unfortunately, the stereotypes remain. Like those expressed by one MEP during a debate at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on 13 March.
“Bulgaria and Romania are rapt with corruption and organised crime,” the diatribe went. “They should never have been allowed to join the European Union. We do not believe it is right and fair to have total open borders for unlimited numbers of people from those countries to come to Britain to work, but also, if they want, to claim benefits. We should not be in a political union with Romania and Bulgaria.”
And the speaker of those sensitive words? Stand up, Mr Farage.