BRUSSELS, Belgium — How many blonds does it take to revolutionize Europe's far-right politics?
Geert Wilders, the platinum-coiffed leader of the Netherlands' anti-Islam Freedom Party, and Marine Le Pen, France's flaxen-haired National Front supremo, believe they have the answer.
The pair linked up last week to announce the creation of a new coalition of "patriotic movements" opposed to immigration. They exhorted voters to join them in a campaign to roll back the European Union’s influence and restore power to national governments.
"Today is the start of the liberation of Europe from the monster of Brussels," Wilders said, referring to the city that hosts the EU’s headquarters.
On a continent where economic crisis has shaken old political certainties, that anti-EU rhetoric has become a vote-winner.
Polls show Wilder's Freedom Party and Le Pen's National Front could emerge as their country's largest parties for the first time in next year's elections to the European Parliament.
Euro-skeptics also hope to do well in Britain, Germany, Italy and elsewhere among EU's 28 member states, where citizens are expected to use the May 2014 election to protest against economic woes that many associate with the EU and the euro currency.
"Wilders is very important right now,” says Andy Langenkamp, political analyst with ECR Research in the Netherlands. “He started out as anti-Islamic but has found a new focus that is anti-euro and anti-European Union. That works because the Netherlands is in crisis economically speaking. We are feeling the pain of the euro crisis."
On Monday, Austrian far-right leader Heinz-Christian Strache announced that his group, also called the Freedom Party, would sign up to the new nationalist coalition along with other far-right parties from Slovakia, Sweden, Belgium and Italy.
Strache said the rightists would fight for "the conservation of the cultural identity of the people of Europe against mass immigration and the Islamization of Europe," as well as resist the EU’s development as a "centralized superstate."
Together, Strache said, the rightists will form a "third force" in the European Parliament to rival the traditionally dominant center-right and socialist blocs.
That prospect has sent a chill through Europe's political mainstream, raising fears of a powerful far-right faction in the EU assembly that could disrupt the parliament's work, hold back European legislation and further undermine battered public confidence in the EU's institutions.
"Just as the Tea Party has turned Congress into a paralyzed, self-hating institution, an alliance of anti-European Union parties could give Europe its own version of 'gridlock' if they win enough of the popular vote in next year's European elections," Jan-Werner Mueller, professor of politics at Princeton University, wrote in Britain's Guardian newspaper last month.
Although such concerns are real, the far right may yet struggle to impose its will on Europe even if voters do turn out to prefer the blonds this time around.
Efforts to forge a united, transnational force from strongly nationalist parties have foundered in the past due to differences over ideology and domestic interests. Xenophobic parties find it difficult to team up with foreigners by their very nature.
Already, the parties seeking to forge a new rightist coalition have ruled out bringing in the leading ultranationalist groups in Greece and Hungary, whose views are judged too extreme.
Conversely, the euro-skeptic Alternative for Germany Party and the United Kingdom Independence Party, which advocates Britain's withdrawal from the EU, have both rebuffed invitations to link up with the far-right alliance.
Although he shares their distaste for European integration, UKIP leader Nigel Farage has sought to distance his party from the taint of racism and religious intolerance attached to Wilders and Le Pen.
"We don't intend to get into bed with any of them," Farage told Britain's Daily Telegraph. "Whatever Marine Le Pen is trying to do with the National Front, anti-Semitism is still deeply embedded in that party and for that principled reason we are not going to have any thing to do with them now, or at any point in the future."
However, Farage left open the possibility the UKIP may vote with a future far-right Euro-skeptic faction in the European Parliament to block EU legislation.
Even among those parties lined up to join the far-right coalition, there are deep policy differences that could prove fatal to efforts to forge a single bloc.
Strident opposition to immigration from Eastern Europe expressed by Wilder and Le Pen is unlikely to win them many friends among nationalists in Poland, Romania and Bulgaria.
While Wilders combines his anti-Islam campaign with vigorous support for Israel, the French National Front is still struggling to shed its reputation for anti-Semitism.
Party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, the current leader's father who remains the National Front's honorary president, is expected to play a leading role in next year's European election campaign. The senior Le Pen has been frequently denounced for anti-Semitic comments, notably his claim that Nazi gas chambers were "a detail of history."
On economic policy, too, the two parties come from different political cultures. Wilders' Freedom Party campaigns strongly for free markets while the National Front seeks trade barriers to protect French companies from global competition.
Wilders defends the Dutch tradition of gay rights against the social conservatism he says Islamic immigrants have introduced to the Netherlands. Front National supporters played a leading role in an unsuccessful mass protest campaign against the French government's bill to legalize same-sex marriage earlier this year.
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"The structure of these parties, their strong focus on a single leader, on domestic politics coupled with a nationalist rhetoric; the real differences that exist between them on economic policy and a whole raft of political issues — apart from migration and opposition to European integration — means their shared political capital is actually very limited," says Thomas Klau of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
"It will be extremely unlikely that they will build anything like a sufficiently cohesive, sufficiently effective transnational political force to mount an efficient political operation in the European Parliament, beyond activities that are essentially of a rhetorical or disruptive nature," he said from Paris.
In the longer term, however, Klau acknowledges that success in next year's vote and a increased presence in the European Parliament could provide a major step forward for Wilders, Le Pen, Strache and other far-right leaders seeking to bolster their political legitimacy and put themselves forward as a real alternative to traditional parties.