Briefing No 1: January 2006
1) The Conservative MEPs’ deal with the EPP-ED Group
The Conservative MEPs sit in the large centre-right EPP-ED Group in the European Parliament. The terms of membership give our MEPs the advantages of being part of by far the largest political group – in which nearly all major centre-right parties sit – whilst guaranteeing freedom to pursue their own policies on all subjects, notably the European Constitution.
· The Conservative manifesto for the 2004 Euro-election committed the MEPs to stay in the EPP-ED Group for the life of the current European Parliament. It stated that “Conservative MEPs will remain allied members of the EPP-ED parliamentary group for the duration of the 2004-09 legislature.” Every candidate signed a personal letter to the then Party Chairman (Liam Fox) undertaking to sit in the Group for these five years. The Euro-manifesto said that the EPP-ED Group link “provides us with a powerful platform to promote our distinctive vision of Europe, while at the same time allowing us to work constructively with all parties of the European centre-right against the threat posed by the left”.
· The Conservative MEPs joined the (then) EPP Group in 1992 under John Major, and have been ‘allied’ members ever since. Their membership was renewed in 1999 and 2004, under terms negotiated by William Hague and Michael Howard. By convention, the question in which political group our MEPs sit is decided jointly by the Leader of the Conservative Party and the Leader of the Conservatives in the European Parliament.
· In 1999, the EPP Group was renamed EPP-ED Group, at Conservative request, to reflect the distinctive identities of its two components: members from both EPP and non-EPP parties. The ‘European Democrats’ are the allied members of the Group; they currently include the British Conservative and Czech ODS MEPs, and members from two other parties.
· As allied members of the EPP-ED Group, the Conservative MEPs are completely free to promote their policies on Europe and to vote their own whip. A written agreement signed in 1999 means that our MEPs can follow the Conservative manifesto at all times and diverge from the rest of the Group as necessary (which they do on around a fifth of parliamentary votes).
· Although the EPP component of the EPP-ED Group largely favours a European Constitution, the Group’s rules of procedure explicitly recognise the positions of different members on institutional issues, and assert the right of each to advocate and promote their views on them.
· Most Conservative MEPs want to be in the EPP-ED Group because membership is critical to delivering on the Conservative manifesto. Only by shaping the policy of a large centre-right political group can they influence what happens in Brussels in a positive way. This they do actively. On their own, our MEPs only represent four per cent of the EP, and would be marginal. Both we and our allies benefit from our combined strength in confronting the left.
· Through the EPP-ED Group, Conservative MEPs hold a wide range of key positions in both the Group and Parliament as a whole: as Group spokesmen, committee chairmen, rapporteurs on key EU legislation. As the second largest delegation in the biggest group, they get many more such posts than if they were sitting in a small, peripheral group, or as independents.
· Whilst enjoying the freedom of allied members, our MEPs participate fully in all EPP-ED Group discussions – and have an equal part in defining Group positions on all parliamentary business. By winning the argument inside the EPP-ED Group, they can and do use the powerful throw-weight of that group to get the EP as a whole to support them. In short, Conservative MEPs get the best of both worlds: they influence and very often shape the position of the largest group, without being bound by it.
2) What is the EPP-ED Group?
What exactly is the EPP-ED Group in the European Parliament? Who sits in the group? What does it stand for?
· The EPP-ED Group stands for the Group of the European People’s Party and European emocrats. Since 1999, the EPP-ED Group has been the largest political group in the European Parliament. It currently has 267 – or 37 per cent – of all MEPs. The Socialists are next largest group with 27 per cent, followed by the Liberals with 12 per cent.
· The EPP-ED Group is not the same thing as the European People’s Party. The latter is a transnational political party outside the European Parliament – a confederation of national parties. Conservative MEPs and the Conservative Party are not members of the EPP or involved in developing any policy positions it takes. They cannot “leave the EPP”, because they are not members of it and never have been.
· Within the EPP-ED Group in the European Parliament, MEPs from parties outside the EPP – notably the British Conservatives and the Czech ODS – sit as European Democrats, with the formal status of ‘allied’ members of the group. As such, they are able to shape Group policy like all other members, but are completely free to vote their own whip whenever they choose.
· The EPP-ED Group started life as the Christian Democrat group in the EP, before 1979. The Group has broadened spectacularly over the last fifteen years. It still includes MEPs from many classic Christian Democrat 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 (like the ODS).
· Today, the EPP-ED Group is a large, flexible coalition encompassing representatives of virtually every mainstream centre-right political party in the European Union. The Group’s 267 MEPs come from no less than 45 parties in all 25 countries within the EU. Around half of these parties are non-Christian Democrat in origin.
· The EPP-ED 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. Nearly all of the EPP-ED Group’s current “Key Group Priorities” 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”.
· As EPP-ED Group membership has widened in recent years, its advocacy of practical economic reform and greater security and choice for the citizen has increasingly taken centre-stage. They emphasise promoting competitiveness, completing the single market, developing a more responsible society, strengthening the family, preventing abuse of asylum systems and tackling illegal immigration. Eighteen centrist MEPs left the EPP-ED Group in 2004, to join the Liberals, arguing that the former’s policies had become too right-wing.
· In this context, Conservative MEPs have been able to establish a strong track-record of success in promoting their key objectives. They have recently played a central role, for example, in ensuring cohesive centre-right support for the EU’s liberalising Services directive, and then in securing EP endorsement for what is a measure of enormous potential value to British business.
3) No Credible Alternative: Leaving means Choosing Isolation
If the Conservative MEPs leave the EPP-ED Group, the party would be choosing isolation. Simply stated, they have nowhere else credible to go. There are serious political and practical barriers to forming a new, separate group. In the absence of a viable alternative, they could well have to sit as independents, with a selection of unhappy bed-fellows. Even if a new group could be formed, its potential allies would be few and frankly flimsy.
· To start with, it seems very unlikely that any other parties would leave the EPP-ED Group to join a new conservative group. Nearly all the pro-market, Atlanticist centre-right parties in Europe are already locked into the EPP-ED Group. They were not necessarily ten years ago, but they are now. For example, the other European Democrats (or ‘allied’ members) of the Group – such as the Czech ODS and Portuguese Popular Party – want to continue within the Group. The ODS leader, Mirek Topolanek, is a strong supporter of Group membership, and the Portuguese PP have just applied for full membership of the Group.
· Next, possible partners to the right of the EPP-ED Group are thin on the ground. There are two political groups, but both have serious problems attached:
= the Independence and Democracy Group (of 36 MEPs). This group contains the UKIP MEPs, as well as the French MPF members (de Villiers), who are very anti-American and opposed to economic reform. Joining with them would be politically inconceivable.
= the UEN Group (of 27 MEPs). This group contains the ex-Fascist party Alleanza Nazionale from Italy (Fini), as well as Fianna Fáil from Ireland. Both of these parties are strongly pro-CAP and the latter would certainly not want to be overwhelmed by an influx of dispossessed Conservative Brits, just as it fends off electoral pressure from Sinn Féin at home. Only the Polish Law and Justice party (within the UEN Group) might be a potential ally, but apparently they have ruled out leaving, following their recent electoral success in Poland.
· In the old days, as a fall-back solution, the Tory members could have formed a separate Conservative group more or less on their own (as they did from 1979 to 1992). This is no longer possible: the EP’s rules of procedure now require any group to have at least 19 Members from at least five nationalities (rather than two nationalities before).
· In the absence of four other nationalities in a new group, the Tory MEPs would simply have to sit as independents – or “non inscrits” – alongside people like Jean-Marie Le Pen and his National Front, the Vlams Blok, Alessandra Mussolini, Robert Kilroy Silk (who left UKIP) and Ashley Mote (who was expelled from UKIP for alleged misdemeanour). Previous Conservative Party leaders have explored all the options several times. Given the realities of the situation, it is hardly surprising that William Hague and Michael Howard both concluded that the EPP-ED Group link was the best option available. The simple fact is that there are very few parties who want to create a new conservative grouping outside the EPP-ED Group: they prefer to stay in the largest political force in the European Parliament and try to shape it in their own image. So should we.
4) Leaving the EPP-ED Group means foregoing International Access
Leaving the EPP-ED Group would mean that the Conservatives would lose access to circles of influence across the whole European and international stage – for example, the Conservative Party leader would no longer be invited to centre-right leaders’ summits in Europe.
EPP-ED Group membership gives the Conservative MEPs – and the Conservative Party – access to a series of links which the EPP-ED Group and the EPP transnational party, as the widest political force in Europe, have been building up over many years. Departure from the Group would automatically exclude or seriously weaken access to these multilateral and bilateral linkages.
· > European Ideas Network: Membership of the EPP-ED Group offers British Conservatives a key role in the major international think tank of the centre-right in Europe, the European Ideas Network. This was set up to encourage new policy thinking among decision-makers and opinion-formers across the EU; it is wholly funded by the Group. The network has over 500 members – politicians, businessmen, academics, think tankers and journalists – from nearly 30 countries, including several members of the Shadow Cabinet in London. Among leading members are Carl Bildt, José María Aznar and Alain Madelin. It involves over 30 centre-right think tanks and representatives of most of the 45 parties in the EPP-ED Group. The IRI is also a member. The kinds of topics it is discussing – on demographic change, globalisation, public-service reform – are precisely ones Conservatives want to address. Leaving the EPP-ED Group would make continued Conservative involvement in the EIN effectively impossible, denying us a key role in such new policy thinking across the EU.
· > Centre-Right Summits: Attendance by the Conservative Party leader at the EPP transnational party’s regular summits of centre-right leaders provides important evidence of the party’s place in the mainstream of European politics. All Conservative leaders since William Hague have attended these summits, alongside major figures (both prime ministers and party leaders) such as Angela Merkel and Silvio Berlusconi. Invitations are extended to leaders of parties (whether in government or opposition) represented in the EPP-ED Group. Leaving the Group would mean the Conservative leader would lose one of his few opportunities to operate at an international level.
· > Republican links: The EPP-ED Group has been developing strong political links with the US Republicans. The Group leadership now visits Washington annually for a dialogue with Senate and House leaderships and key committee chairmen – from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist down – as well as with senior Administration officials. The Group sent a large delegation of MEPs to the Republican National Convention last year. In parallel, the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the EPP transnational party are developing a programme of joint events, the first of which took place recently. If the Republicans do not find the EPP-ED Group or EPP party problematic as allies, why should the Conservatives?
Linkages of this kind offer the Conservatives international influence in Opposition, provide evidence of our having friends in Europe and more widely, and serve as a key defence against Tony Blair’s attack of Tory isolation in Europe. Accepting that parties such as the German CDU/CSU, the Spanish Partido Popular, Swedish or Danish Conservatives – or a panoply of new centre-right parties from Central and Eastern Europe – are not our allies in Europe, would in effect be saying we have no allies at all. Departure would provide an image of Conservative isolation and marginalisation that Labour would relish.
This is a contribution to debate and the views expressed are not necessarily representative of Conservative Party policy.
Conservative Group for Europe (CGE): January 2006
Author : eurorealist