Briefing No 3: June 2006
In our first two special CGE Briefings on the Conservatives and the EPP-ED Group in the European Parliament – published in January and March 2006 – we looked in detail at the nature of the Conservative MEPs’ deal with the Group, and showed how there was no credible alternative to membership, how leaving would mean choosing isolation and foregoing international access, and why the potential new allies are seriously problematic.
In this third Briefing, we focus on the policies both of the EPP-ED Group and of the EPP transnational party – with which the Group is often confused – explaining how they are much more strongly committed to a free-market, Atlanticist Europe than critics claim. We also update readers on recent developments in Czech and Polish politics, which make the formation of an alternative group even more difficult. In a fourth Briefing, to be issued shortly, we will wrap the whole analysis together and answer questions posed by Eurosceptics on the issue.
How does Conservative membership of the EPP-ED Group work?
· The EPP-ED Group – the Group of the European People’s Party and European Democrats – is the largest political group in the European Parliament and has been since 1999. It currently has 263 – or 36 per cent – of all MEPs, coming from 45 parties in all 25 EU member states. (The Socialists are the next largest group with 27 per cent, followed by the Liberals with 12 per cent).
· The EPP-ED Group started life as the Christian Democrat group in the EP, before 1979. The Group has broadened spectacularly over the last two decades. It still includes MEPs from classic CD parties – like Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU in Germany – but now extends not only to the British Conservatives, but to the Spanish Partido Popular (Aznar), Forza Italia (Berlusconi), the Scandinavian conservatives (Bildt), and recently most of the conservative parties of Central and Eastern Europe.
· The EPP-ED Group is not the same thing as the European People’s Party. The latter is a transnational political party outside the EP – a confederation of national parties. Conservative MEPs and the Conservative Party are not members of the EPP. Strictly speaking, they cannot “leave the EPP”, because they are not members of it and never have been. They could only leave the EPP-ED Group in the EP.
· Within the EPP-ED Group, MEPs from parties outside the EPP transnational party – notably the British Conservatives and the Czech ODS – sit as European Democrats, with the formal status of ‘allied’ members. Conservative MEPs joined the group in 1992 as allied members (under John Major); it was renamed EPP-ED Group in 1999 (negotiated by William Hague), to reflect the distinct identity of the ED component.
· As allied members, Conservative MEPs are explicitly exempted from any Group support for a federal Europe and are completely free to advocate their own vision of Europe’s future. Article 5 of the Group’s rules of procedure (negotiated by Michael Howard in 2004) guarantees the allied members a “right to promote and develop their distinct views on constitutional and institutional issues in relation to the future of Europe.” Moreover, a formal exchange of letters between successive Group Chairmen and the Conservative MEPs (since 1999) guarantees the latter the right in effect to diverge from the Group whip whenever they wish. Conservative MEPs follow their own whip on around a fifth to a quarter of votes, mainly on issues of principle involving closer institutional integration within the EU.
· These arrangements give Conservative MEPs what the Financial Times recently called the “best of both worlds”. They are able to shape EPP-ED Group policy like all other members, but are completely free to vote their own whip whenever they choose.
What is EPP-ED Group policy?
Today, the EPP-ED Group is a large, flexible coalition encompassing representatives of virtually every mainstream centre-right political party in the European Union. Around half of these parties are non-Christian Democrat in origin. As such, the Group includes very many who share a conservative philosophy, and increasingly so. A substantial majority supported the Iraq war, favour economic reform, and back tough policies on law and order, for example.
· Nearly all of the EPP-ED Group’s current “Key Group Priorities” (for the 2004-09 Parliament) are fully consistent with Conservative Party policy – such as “generating jobs and growth through lower taxes and sound finance”, “leading the fight against terrorism and crime” or “maintaining a vibrant transatlantic partnership for a strong, united West”.
· The Group’s priorities emphasise promoting competitiveness, completing the single market, developing a more responsible society, offering greater security and choice for the citizen, strengthening the family, preventing abuse of asylum systems and tackling illegal immigration.
· Within the European Parliament, the EPP-ED Group has been consistently the strongest advocate of the Lisbon economic reform agenda. It favours liberalisation of financial services, transport and energy markets, for example, against strong protectionist opposition. Eighteen centrist MEPs left the EPP-ED Group in 2004, to join the Liberal group, arguing that the former’s policies had in general become too “right-wing”.
· On the Services directive, the Conservative MEPs helped broker a compromise which won a big parliamentary majority – an absolute majority was required for passage – for liberalisation in many sectors, including the law, architecture, accountancy, management consultancy and tourism – all of huge potential benefit to British business. The sad reality is that, with the Commission largely disowning its original proposal, the left opposed to it for ideological reasons, and the centre-right partly divided on national grounds, there was no majority in the EP for a more radical position. This is not an EPP-ED problem, but a European political problem. Within that constraint, Conservative membership of the group helped secure the best available outcome.
· In foreign policy, the EPP-ED Group supported the Iraq war, has opposed left-wing critics of the continued Allied presence in that country, favours a strong Atlantic alliance, defends human-rights campaigners in China and Cuba (among other countries), opposed successfully the lifting of the EU arms embargo on China, and helped bring the Zimbabwe issue higher up the European political agenda. It is not opposed in principle to the threat of military action, as a last resort, in relation to Iran’s determination to acquire nuclear weapons.
· The EPP-ED Group is strongly committed to building closer links with the United States. It favours the creation of a barrier-free transatlantic market by 2015, based on an EU-US framework agreement. In day-to-day business, it has built close working links with Republicans in Congress, as has the EPP transnational party (see below) with the International Republican Institute.
· The EPP-ED Group is addressing a wide range of forward-looking policy areas. Recently it established policy groups on topics such as globalisation, wealth creation and employment, demographic change and immigration, and terrorism and internal security. One of these WGs is chaired by a British Conservative, another by a former interior minister of the Aznar government in Spain.
· It is true, however, that the majority of the EPP-ED Group favoured the adoption of the European constitution in its original form, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, but then so did virtually every mainstream political party in Europe. In practice, the EPP-ED Group votes freely on this matter, and there is currently a lively debate within the group on whether and how to proceed with the text, which many people regard as dead.
What about the transnational party – the European People’s Party?
In attacking Conservative MEPs’ allied membership of the EPP-ED Group, Eurosceptics often deliberately confuse the group with the EPP transnational party, which is a separate organisation of which the Conservative MEPs (and other allied members of the group) are simply not members. What is the EPP party and what does it stand for?
· The EPP party has evolved significantly since the early 1990s into a catch-all coalition of the centre-right in European politics. At the time of its 1992 Athens programme, the party was predominantly Christian Democrat and focussed primarily on an institutional agenda. In the last decade, the party’s priorities have shifted to a more pragmatic set of economic and domestic policy objectives, reflecting the mood of European opinion and the growing range of its member parties. With now 73 member parties from 36 countries (inside and outside the EU), there is bound to be a considerable diversity of views on some issues within the bloc: it is certainly no monolith. Nowadays, many of the EPP’s member parties and leading personalities would not consider themselves to be “federalist”.
· Sceptics try to project the EPP as an interventionist force stuck in the economic thinking of the 1950s or 1960s. In fact, very many EPP national member parties have been firmly in the forefront of economic reform in recent years – for example, the Spanish Partido Popular, the Slovakian Democratic and Christian Union, the Portuguese PSD, the Danish Conservatives, or the Greek New Democracy – and the EPP itself is firmly committed to the reform path.
· The current EPP party programme – the so-called “Rome Manifesto” adopted on 31 March 2006 by the member parties at their biennial Congress – specifically advocates “structural reforms in product, capital and labour markets”, and is committed to “ensuring effective competition and completing the internal market”, “easing the administrative burden on start-ups, simplifying the regulatory environment, reducing the general level of taxation” and “promoting a more entrepreneurial culture.” The Manifesto says: “In numerous member states there is still considerable resistance to many social and labour market reforms. It has clearly been shown that those states which tackled reforms early on are visibly in a better position than those unwilling to reform”.
· The most recent EPP party policy statement on economic and social policy, adopted on 8 June 2006 by its Bureau, similarly asserts that “private initiative, free enterprise, competition and free trade are the driving-forces for innovation and economic growth”. It states that “the EPP regards tax competition as the key factor to reduce the overall burden of government spending”, embraces globalisation as “the most powerful single tool to fight poverty ever deployed in human history”, and talks of building up a “transatlantic strategic community to guarantee prosperity and stability in the world”.
· Many leading EPP personalities are standard-bearers for economic liberalisation. For example, Mart Laar of the Estonian Pro Patria Union was awarded the 2006 Milton Friedman Prize by the Cato Institute. José María Aznar played a critical role in modernising Spain on more free-market lines. The out-going Slovakian prime minister, Mikulas Dzurinda, has been the leading proponent of flat taxes in the EU. The political priorities and language of many senior EPP figures are not very different from those of David Cameron. To take those currently in government, Angela Merkel (Germany), Jan Balkenende (the Netherlands), Costas Karamanlis (Greece) and Nicolas Sarkozy (France) all talk about the twin needs of economic reform and quality of life. All these figures (and their parties) are members of the EPP party, their MEPs sit in the EPP-ED Group, and they believe that Conservative MEPs should do so too – so that we all work together, from within our alliance, for common goals.
· Angela Merkel and her CDU/CSU party, far from being uncritical advocates of greater European centralisation, as Eurosceptic critics like to claim, is presenting a modern reform agenda, which most Conservatives in Britain should find sympathetic. For example, she recently told trade unionists: “There is no way round structural reforms. With them, a lot will be difficult, particularly at the beginning, but without them, nothing will succeed.” (24 May 2006,). Equally, when addressing the World Economic Forum in Davos on 25 January 2006, the German Chancellor made the following comments on European regulation:
“We have to review directives which have been in force for decades – and not simply add to existing regulation, but rather ask ‘what has to be abolished?’ Sometimes it is better to abolish a directive than to continue with an old one or create a new one. However, abolishing a directive is at least as difficult as drawing up new legislation. … For today any directive already in the market is valid for eternity … . This has nothing to do with security. On the contrary, I am firmly convinced that Europe is creating insecurity by following this course.”
Update on latest events
Still Poles Apart: Now Prague and Warsaw fall out
As already analysed in CGE Briefing No 2 (March 2006), the proposed creation of a separate conservative group in the European Parliament is confronting a series of very difficult problems. The prospects depend more than anything on the attitude of two parties whom David Cameron and William Hague have specifically targetted as potential co-founders of a new group: the Czech ODS and Polish Law and Justice (PiS). ODS MEPs currently sit, alongside the British Conservative MEPs, as allied members of the EPP-ED Group. Law and Justice members inhabit the small UEN Group, which is heavily influenced by the Irish Fianna Fáil.
Czech election result: victory for the ODS
The ODS narrowly won the Czech parliamentary elections on 3 June; its leader, Mirek Topolanek, is now in the process of forming a coalition government in Prague. Mr Topolanek is a well-known supporter of ODS’s continued membership of the EPP-ED Group, having been very reluctant to commit to any new grouping in Opposition. In this, he has been increasingly opposed by Jan Zahradil, leader of the ODS MEPs, who needed ODS to lose to have a chance of enforcing his view. Ironically, opponents of the EPP-ED link in London were placed in the strange situation of wanting their potential ally to be defeated: an unusual case of political Schadenfreude.
The outcome of the Czech election was in fact a very serious blow to advocates of a new grouping, whether in Prague or London. Immediately following the result, prime minister-designate Topolanek took the opportunity to distance himself decisively from Law and Justice, his mooted ally in any new conservative group in the EP. David Rennie reported key developments (on the Daily Telegraph website):
Topolanek “launched a broadside against the ruling Polish Law and Justice party. In a front-page interview … with the largest Polish newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, he called Law and Justice dangerous populists, and wished aloud that they were not in power in Warsaw. Yesterday, Law and Justice … announced that the Czech insult had forced them to walk away from the planned alliance with the British Conservatives. … Michal Kaminski MEP, leader of Law and Justice in the European Parliament, told me his party would not now be entering into any new grouping with the ODS. ‘Mr Topolanek strongly criticised our government, called our party populist, and said it would have been better if … another party was in power. … It is very hard to understand now how we can co-operate with such a party in the EP,’ Mr Kaminski said.”
Polish allies? The embarrassment factor deepens
Mr Topolanek had clearly decided that association with Law and Justice in Poland could be a major political embarrassment. The latter’s extreme brand of social authoritarianism and economic nationalism has become even less defensible in recent months, following i) the accession of the extremist League of Polish Families and Self-Defence parties to the government in Warsaw (in May), and ii) the continuing ostracisation by the government of Leszek Balcerowicz, the free-market former Polish finance minister – celebrated by both the Ludwig Erhard Foundation and the Heritage Foundation as the key architect of Poland’s economic renaissance – who now serves as President of the Polish Central Bank. The government has been trying to frustrate a number of bank take-overs of which the central bank approves, by undermining competition policy, and then to subject the central bank president to a parliamentary enquiry, in order to discredit him.
The International Herald Tribute, in an editorial (on 12 June 2006) noted that Self-Defence is “a peasant party whose leader openly admires the dictator of Belarus” and the League is an “ultra right-wing” party, one of whose deputy leaders recently “accused homosexuals of running paedophile, drug-trafficking and other criminal organisations” and said that gay-pride marchers should be “bashed with a baton”. The IHT pointed out that Law and Justice’s electoral success depended heavily on populist radio station Radio Maryja, which it styled as “openly nationalist, anti-Semitic and anti-foreigner”.
In early June, in response to the League’s accusation of criminal links, Poland’s state prosecutor announced a formal investigation into all Polish gay groups, setting off a massive political row. In parallel, the Israeli government has formally protested at the appointment of the League’s Roman Giertych as education minister in the Law and Justice-led government. He has a track-record of anti-Semitic remarks and was founder of the All-Polish Youth, whose skinhead supporters deliberately attack gay marches.
Readers will recall that Law and Justice itself, as well as the League, also has a dubious record on this front. As mayor of Warsaw, the Polish President, Lech Kaczynski, banned gay pride marches in the city two years in a row, declaring them to be “sexually obscene” and saying that he was opposed to “propagating gay orientation.” The prime minister, Kasimierz Marcinkiewicz, has described homosexuality as “unnatural”. The President’s twin brother, Jaroslav Kaczynski, leader of the party, has proposed out-lawing gay men from teaching in the schools.
One of the first acts of the government was to abolish its Office for the Equality of Men and Women, responsible for protecting minority rights. In June 2006, the government appointed Piotr Farfal, the former editor of an allegedly anti-Semitic Polish newspaper called Front, as head of its national broadcaster, TVP. As Amnesty International has put it, “it would be a novel definition of modernisation” for the Conservatives under David Cameron to associate with allies of this kind.
Professor David Hanley, a leading academic expert on centre-right politics in Europe, described Law and Justice in European Voice (26 January 2006) in these terms: “Attached to Catholic social teaching and in favour of a generous social régime before financial orthodoxy”, the “viscerally nationalistic and traditional” Law and Justice Party has “attracted many of the old Communist votes. It also bans gay processions and wants Tesco to close on Sundays. Is this really the new, inclusive, laid-back Tories’ natural friend in the New Europe?”
Politics on the outer fringe
In any case, however embarrassing as potential allies, it is interesting to note is that at no stage has Law and Justice actually committed itself formally to joining a new grouping with the British Conservatives, preferring to keep their powder dry. In the absence of both the Czechs and Poles as members of a new grouping, there is no evidence that the search for other allies has made much progress either.
To form a new group, the Conservatives would need to find MEPs from at least four other nationalities, a threshold which is likely to rise to five nationalities next January (with Bulgarian and Romanian enlargement). The prime targets for courting at the moment appear to be the little-known Latvian nationalist party (LNNK), the tiny Italian Pensioners’ Party, and an Irish Independent, Kathy Sinnott, who is well-known in her own country for favouring a world-wide ban on abortion. The LNNK reportedly rejected an overture from William Hague in January, but might be prepared to move if Law and Justice did so. The one Italian pensioner MEP, who currently sits as an allied member of the EPP-ED Group, has apparently indicated his preference to stay where he is. Mrs Sinnott is proving reluctant to be drawn on her future.
A variety of other fringe parties – the Lithuanian Peasants’ Party, the Danish People’s Party, the Swedish June List and the small French Eurosceptic MPF – have also been scrutinised by William Hague, but all seem to have been rejected on the grounds that they are variously left-wing, economically nationalist, potentially racist, or incompatible or embarrassing in some other way.
Overall, it seems that the outlook is not looking particularly promising for those who wish the Conservative MEPs to leave the EPP-ED Group and who hope to put together (what the party leadership said this spring would need to be) a coherent, consistent, credible alternative alliance of mainstream parties on the European centre-right.
This Briefing is a contribution to debate and the views expressed are not necessarily representative of Conservative Party policy.
Conservative Group for Europe (CGE): June 2006.
Author : eurorealist