Thursday, 12 March 2009

Conservatives to leave the EPP

Cameron is a step closer to his pledge to pull the Conservatives out of the European People's Party (EPP) group in the European Parliament.

In one sense this is an honest move from Cameron. Instead of continuing the charade that his party have any sort of support for the European project, he is being honest and admitting that they would rather be on the fringes, detached from the mainstream of European centre-right philosophy. The EPP is far more federalist in direction than the majority of the Conservative Party would ever be, and they will be more happy detached and isolated from their former group.

However, it is also a disaster in the making for British politics, particularly should the Conservatives win the next General Election. Presuming that they will refuse to link up with the likes of the French National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen and their ilk, the Conservatives are going to be struggling to find enough partners to create a legitimate group. The new rules coming into play for the Parliament require a group to possess at least 25 members from 7 member states in order to be recognised and funded. The number of members should not be an issue, but finding parties from 6 other nations may well force the Tories into working with parties who, while not as extreme as the obvious far-right parties, still possess very questionable views.

One possibility is also that the Conservatives will not manage to find enough partners - they would then either have to beg the EPP to let them back in, or sit on the sidelines completely devoid of influence or input. As well as making a mockery of their party and indeed the country if they were to form the Government, it would also be a betrayal of their voters, who would effectively lose their Conservative representation.

I had thought that Cameron might quietly drop this position in his desire to gain the keys to Number 10 - such a move is hardly going to build up positive relations with other European leaders, and I doubt will be viewed with great respect by other nations such as the US. An isolated UK Government, at the very time when interaction between nations is most required, could have incredibly serious repercussions for the country. It is fascinating to imagine what Ken Clarke is thinking just now. Whilst he might be willing to surpress his own views on Europe in the interests of party stability, will he able to stomach such an abdication of responsibility on the behalf of the Conservative Party, a move which many of their own MEPs have opposed.

Of course, the move might result in some more seats for the Tories at the European elections - anti-European voters will be able to keep their vote with the Tories rather than transferring to UKIP or its ilk. However, the inevitable result will be a decline in the standing of the Conservative Party on the European stage and severe question marks about the appropriateness of David Cameron to lead UK in relations with our European neighbours.


Jonathan van Tongeren said...

I think if you look who they might have in mind as partners, parties that are mentioned here:
for example and if they decide not to include Lega Nord and Dansk Folkeparti, than they would actually have quite a decent centre right group. So, I feel that if there was ever a time that this could succeed, it is now.
If they don't succeed, they don't really have to beg the EPP group that much to get back in, because the EPP Group will be very glad to get the Britisch and Czech conservatives back into fold, because without those MEPs, the socialist PES group might well become the largest after the elections.

Not a Village in Westminster said...

You raise interesting points Jonathan, although I think that the group they would have to create in order to meet the requirements for groups would not be able to exclude groups such as Dansk Folkeparti - numbers of MEPs isn't the problem, it's the inclusion of the 6 nations.

Also (and you will know this better than me) I believe recent polling has been indicating that the EPP Group could well see a significant pick up of seats, giving them a significant distance from PES. In such a situation, should the Tories' proposed MER fail, the EPP would not need to be too open to the Conservatives looking to get back in. And the failure of the MER is not an unlikely proposition - as far as I am aware several of the proposed partners are yet to confirm, with key players such as ODS hinting that their inclusion is not a foregone conclusion.

Really there are three outcomes, none of which I can see as enhancing the Conservative's standing. Firstly the MER succeeds in meeting the membership requirements. Potential numbers put MER smaller than ALDE and not necessarily considerably bigger than groups such as the Greens-EFA if the new members are not electorally successful. There is also the strong chance that there will be at least one or two members of the group with questionable views for a group billing itself as centre-right - this raises the potential for embarrassment and/or isolation. But even if this doesn't happen, the MER is unlikely to be setting the agenda in the Parliament, particuarly if the EPP and PES continue to work together in many cases.

The second possibility is that the MER fails and the Conservatives have to reverse their decision to leave the EPP, asking to be allowed back in. Even if the EPP is gracious/desperate and doesn't attach any conditions or punishments, this will still be an embarrassment for the Conservatives and, I would warrant, hardly conducive to better relations with other European centre-right parties.

The final outcome I can forsee, and probably the least likely, is that the MER fails and the Conservatives do not rejoin the EPP. This would leave them isolated in the Parliament, lacking any form of influence or effect. Considering that they could be the next party of government in the UK, this would be an inconceivable and hugely damaging situation.

As I said in the post, I believe that the Conservatives are being honest in their decision - they are staunchly Eurosceptical (to put it mildly) and therefore their presence in the more federalist EPP-ED is a strange situation. However, they are the main centre-right party of the UK, and to remove themselves to the fringes of European politics would be damaging to the Conservatives, the UK and the European project as a whole.

Jonathan van Tongeren said...

I wrote an analysis of this on my blog, but it's in Dutch, so I'll explain here that I disagree with you in two points:
1. The likelines of succeeding in gathering enough member states and
2. The influence a conservative group would have.

1. The parties that are likely to be willing to join such a group and that are allready frequently mentioned are:

From EPP-ED:
1. Conservative and Unionist Party (UK)
2. ODS (Czech Republic)
3. CDS/PP (Portugal)

From UEN:
4. Law and Justice (Poland, bound to increase number of MEPs)
5. Order and Justice (Lithuania, bound to increase number op MEPs)
6. Union for Fatherland and Freedom (Latvia)

From the Non-Inscrits:
7. Movement for Democracy (Slovakia)

New incoming party:
8. Lijst Dedecker (Belgium, largest party in the polls!)

So, this would put the conservative group at 8 member states, without including Italian and Danish crypto-fascists (Dansk Folkeparti and Lega Nord), while the EPP will absorb the Alleanza Nazionale.

2. If the above mentioned parties were to team up now, they would have around 60 seats. In the elections some are predicted to increase their share of the vote and an incoming party like LDD from Belgium might well join, which could put the group around 70 or over if the others do well in the elections too.
Between the EPP and the PES it may become a close race or maybe not. But the fact is that the conservatives may well succeed in forming a strong group which will have some attraction to right wing parties from Central and Eastern Europe in the ALDE, that aren't quite as liberal as their Western European allies and on conservative parties remaining in the EPP. The EPP knows this and will try (and probably fail) to appear more conservative itself and support some of the initiatives of the conservative group.
At least at the start of the session the conservative group will probably be smaller than the ALDE, but bigger than the current UEN and bigger than the Greens/EFA. It will certainly be able to secure some good positions in the committees and so on. If they are indeed wise enough not to include Lega Nord and Dansk Folkeparti than the conservative group can certainly not be ignored by the others in the EP.
I can understand how this is hard for a Brit to grasp, but not being in one of the two largest groups in not per se being at the fringes.

Tim Roll-Pickering said...

NaViW: I have yet to encounter a voter for whom the group arrangements in the European Parliament affects how they'll cast their vote in the Euros. Whilst UKIP have certainly got votes from people who aren't quite withdrawalist but certainly anti-federalist, I don't think the deciding matter was the Conservative link with the EPP.

Of course nearly all the MEPs from the UK currently sit with similar sorts - UKIP may sit with some unsavoury characters in Independence/Democracy but frankly they've enough of their own to be attacked on.

Of your scenarios, one further complication is that the grassroots membership (next to none of whom can even name seven potential viable members for MER/"European Conservatives") frankly don't care about influence in the European Parliament and believe that sitting as non-inscrits is acceptable (another point where they are strangely silent is saying precisely what non-inscrit Conservative MPs Roger Helmer and Daniel Hannan - who have been the driving forces for this withdrawal - have actually achieved as non-inscrits!). And the membership will believe conspiracy tales off "the EPP" erecting barriers to make MER unviable, so won't be willing to support a return.

Jonathan: Law and Justice may prove to be as much of an embarrassment to the Conservatives as it has to Fianna Fáil, who have been desperate to get out of the UEN in part because of the domestic embarrassment about their allies. What coverage the Kaczyński twins get in the UK is not exactly the best mirror of inclusive Cameroonian Conservatism (their position on LGBT issues for a start is not exactly easy). And parties 5-8 on your list are even less well known here so are an unknown quantity. As I said above, the Conservative grassroots members have been deluded into thinking there are loads of parties like the Conservatives or the ODS out there (not that they've heard much about the ODS either) and that everything is so much easier.

Not a Village in Westminster said...

Jonathan - In regards to the parties, these are still mostly unconfirmed are they not? Certainly ODS has been keeping their options very much open - if they were to stick with the EPP then that could be a very serious blow to the MER. And as Tim rightly points out, sitting with parties such as Law and Justice will create potential for slip-up, let alone if the crypto-facist parties that you mention have to be invited.

In regards to your second point about influence, you may well be right that us Brits fail to possess the understanding of the Parliament's inner workings that our Continental brothers and sisters do, and from this to exaggerate the importance of the main two groups - afterall we are used to the dominance of our big two in the FPTP system for Westminster. However, it is equally false to understate their importance. Throughout its history the EPP and PES have worked quite effectively together in the Parliament in sharing out posts and powers, other than at certain notable impasses. Certainly ALDE, despite being the third largest group, can hardly claim to have driven the Parliamentary agenda, with the other groups less influential again.

The Conservatives joining the EPP will not signify them having no influence at all, but it will certainly reduce it greatly from the potential within the EPP. I suppose it's the old argument of being a big fish in a small pond or vice versa.

Not a Village in Westminster said...

Tim - you are right that this is not a deciding, or even important, factor for most voters - this reflects the apathy towards the European Parliament which is endemic in the UK. I don't think the Conservative link with the EPP was the deciding factor for voters moving to UKIP from the Tories, however I think that it did serve to provide ammunition for UKIP so that they could pry some of the support away. A break from the EPP may serve to toughen up the Tories' anti-European credentials, at the same time as damaging their standing in Europe.

However, I think it is the second aspect of your reply that is the potentially crucial. Due to the FPTP system for Westminster, elections are effectively decided by the middle class voters in a small number of swing seats. Conservative affiliation with a group which appears to go strongly against Cameron's cuddly conservatism could cost him in future. He has put a lot of effort into changing public perception of the Conservative Party and has been very successful with it - media coverage of the views of some of the potential partner groups for the MER could serve to damage this perception amongst key voters.

Jonathan van Tongeren said...

Of course the parties that the British conservatives are trying to team up with are all still unconfirmed. With the formation of a new group everyone always waits until the last moment to cross the last bridge. No one wants to throw his old boots in the bin before having new ones right?
But as I mentioned the UEN group is very likely to fall apart, so some of those parties (ie the Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians) will be eager to join a conservative group.

You mentioned: "Also (and you will know this better than me) I believe recent polling has been indicating that the EPP Group could well see a significant pick up of seats, giving them a significant distance from PES."

I hear this a lot, but mainly from EPP-mainstreamers and always unsourced, so I wouldn't be to sure about it.
In Germany there are fears that the CSU (the Bavarian regional 'wing' of Merkel's CDU) will fall below the federal 5 percent hurdle and set the Germans in the EPP back 9 seats!
Some other EPP parties are also likely to loose a bit (Dutch, Belgians, Austrians), so I would be curious where to find these poll results and in which countries the EPP could pick up seats. For now I just take it to be wishful thinking on the part of some EPP people.
It could also be that the distance between EPP and PES will remain, because both will loose seats. That would be good, in that it would be become easier for smaller groups in the EP to make a difference.

Jonathan van Tongeren said...

I think Law and Justice (PiS) really isn't such a bad partner for the Conservative Party. Of course there have been some unfortunate statements in the past, but this was mainly during the government coalition with a couple of extreme parties (League of Polish Families, Self Defense Party). Law and Justice took over some of the lingo of the coalition partners to eat them out in the last elections, which indeed they did.
And about homophobia and such, PiS is not homophobic, but any centre right party from Poland will object to gay marriage and the whole UN/EU gender new-speak being jammed down their throat, especially by some radicals in the EP, within the Greens and the Liberal groups. If the Conservatives were to look for Central-European partners with stances on LGBT issues that are politically correct in the UK, they couldn't even form a group with most post-communists or even stay in the EPP. Central-European societies simply aren't as permissive.
So there may have been some unfortunate statements, but qua positions the Poles and other Central Europeans in the EPP are the same as those of Law and Justice in the UEN (I am not speaking of others Polish MEPs in the UEN).
Regarding the other parties I mentioned, their being 'an unknown quantity' to most British voters is a plus I think. They are unknown because they have never attracted attention by making statements about Tinky Winky being gay, if you get my drift, but let's be fair to the Poles, Tinky Winky is undeniably gay ;-)

Not a Village in Westminster said...

You better be careful with such statements, or the Tinky Winky Defence League will be onto you! =)

And of course, the fact that British voters do not know about some of the parties being mentioned does not mean they are not important - to be honest, British voters struggle to know who the parties are in this country, let alone abroad!

It will be an interesting development to watch. It is fascinating that the Tories have made their intentions clear so early - this does leave them with potential for egg on their faces, but potentially might give them the chance to lead the debate too.

A case of watch this space I suppose!

Tim Roll-Pickering said...

Erm Tinky Winky was outed over a decade ago!

It's true that most central European parties don't have the best stances, but have they all gone out of their way like the Kaczyńskis have?

I have a suspicion the plan is to hope for too few parties to sign up, thus allowing some kind of get out route but that leaves the "EPP (this time with no "-ED" figleaf) or non-inscrit?" debate to come.

Jonathan van Tongeren said...

I think you misinterpreted me there, Tim. I meant to say that most Central and Eastern European parties have perfectly conservative stances on LGBT issues and the Conservative Party in the UK has politically correct ones. I think on these issues the UK is one of the most liberal and permissive member states in the whole EU. But enough about that. We'll see how it turns out, but I certainly wouldn't rule out that they will be able to form a quite decent and effective conservative group in the EP.