Wednesday, 24 June 2009

European Conservatives and Reformists

The UK Conservatives, Polish Law and Justice Party, and the Czech Civic Democrats have formed a new grouping called the European Conservative and Reformist Group. The new conservative grouping in the European Parliament will be officially formed/recognized on July 14th when the EP holds its first meeting after the elections. Their manifesto/values can be found here.

The news has been well covered in the Euro-Bloggosphere over the last few days, by Nosemonkey, Jon Worth, Julien Frisch, Grahnlaw, to name a few. The ability of the new group to hold itself together over the next Parliament has been called into question by Jon Worth and Nosemonkey after the Finnish member decided to stick with ALDE instead of making the leap to the ECR.

The Group has 55 members, making it the fourth biggest group in the EP, outstripping the European Greens-EFA by a narrow margin. At the same time, in order to fulfill the EP's rules on group formation, the Group has no less than 5 individual MEPs from several countries in order to show some element of the pan-European support necessary to justify the civil service and funding support they will get as a group from the EP.

As Nosemonkey has commented:

"...that’s five individual MEPs that the new group has to keep sweet in order to maintain the requirement for all groups to have members from at least seven member states. They can afford to lose one, and that’s it. Any more and their new group is kaput."


Now, the Tories have come under attack for the strange parties they would likely have to get into bed with to form the new group. This attack hasn't worked out for those who oppose the new grouping because the Tories could point to a few strange MEPs in all of the main EP groupings. I agree, however, with Jon Worth's assessment that it's the percentage of nuts in your party that counts.

Still, there are a number factors which will give rise to arguments that the Conservatives will have a harder time ignoring.

1. Committees:

In the EP, committees count. There parties can play a key role in shaping legislation, and as the fourth largest party, the ECR will only be entitled to 1 committee and 1 sub-committee, and they won't get one of the more prized ones as under the D'Hondt system the bigger parties get the first few picks. It is likely that the Conservatives and the Law and Justice party will get the two chairs as the biggest parties within the group, but in return they may have to give the "independent" MEPs of the group more of the group's speaking time in plenary sessions.

Fewer Committees means less influence. And more speaking time won't offset that.

2. Cohesion:

The new group is unlikely to be cohesive when the loss of 2 "independent" MEPs would result in the collapse of the group. The relevance of the group naturally depends on the cohesion of its vote. If the group cannot muster its votes for common policies/stances on legislation, then it doesn't lend the ECR much weight. It also affects some of the other factors.

3. Alliances:

The Conservatives have said that they will work together with the EPP when they can find agreement. The ECR, however, may not be an attractive partner if it cannot display a good level of cohesion - why bother chasing votes if they'll slip away when it comes to the vote? The EPP may turn back to the traditional alliance with the PES and ALDE out of habit and reliability. The ECR will have influence, however, and it would be a mistake to discount it completely. It is, after all, mainly made up of 3 parties and if they can stick together for votes then an alliance with the ECR on several issues will be worth something - I doubt that the "independents" will threaten dissolution too much if they're satisfied with talking time and office facilities.

4. Opposition:

Federalism or integrationism is hardly ever a part of the work of the EP, given that the member states decide on the level of integration and on the competences of the EU and the EP. Most of what the Parliament does has a left-right divide to it, and this will probably mean that the ECR will end up - or the Tories will end up - supporting the Commission a surprising amount of the time. In other words, they're more likely than not to be a pro-Government party, despite the rhetoric of being the "first real opposition".

This will depend on the PES to a degree - the more the PES can influence legislation, the more the ECR is likely to oppose it. Still, the Commission will be dominated by conservatives for the next five years, and is likely to produce legislation that the ECR will - or could bring itself to - vote for. There will be more regulatory impulses now due to the economic crisis, but Barroso is likely to propose quite weak regulations, and the ECR will probably try to resist attempts by other parties to strengthen Commission proposals. The ECR could end up voting the Commission's way more than its rhetoric lets on.

Also, if (when) the Tories get into government it will be harder to be obstructionist in the EP, since they can hardly build good diplomatic relations by making deals in the Council and then trying to torpedo them in Parliament.


Conclusion:

I think that the ECR will have some influence: it will be periodically sidelined and have occasional moments when it can wield real influence - depending, of course on its ability to capitalise on such moments. The ECR could be quite an "establishment" party, in the sense that it will probably seek to back up the more conservative Council and Commission's position in Parliament, unless it sets out to be purely obstructionist. This could give rise to a strange situation where the "first real opposition" ends up defending Commission positions in times of division in the Parliament.

Finally, the lifespan of the group is hard to tell, but I'd say that it will probably survive at least until the Tories come to power in the UK, since it will be easier to indulge the "independents" while in opposition, and the collapse of the group would be a damaging story the Tories would want to avoid before the election. So failing a group crisis where it would be more embarrassing for the Conservatives to make the sacrifices necessary to keep the group going, I think it will stay alive this side of a UK general election.

7 comments:

  1. Eurocentric,

    A thoughtful post, as always, but a few remarks.

    I believe that the four mainstream parties are going to build the necessary voting alliances among themselves, making it more or less irrelevant how the the European Conservatives vote. Political parties tend to treat defectors as traitors, and the Tories and the ODS have made their utmost to reject the EPP-ED family and its policies. Their action to split and the Prague declaration could hardly be clearer.

    Federalism and integrationism are more important within the European Parliament than most people think, because the EP is the only institution which prepares and discusses publicly and it these questions have a bearing on its own future. The EP is very much part of the institutional triangle, and it is an active player despite its limited powers.

    For example, only recently the EP has prepared about five reports on the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty, while the Council has told us nothing except for a few 'ad hoc' decisions since the Slovenian Presidency.

    Naturally, you are right in that treaty reform is in the hands of the member states, but you could compare the EP to a union monitoring and reacting to management decisions.

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  2. There will probably be a sense of betrayal felt by the EPP and it will likely mean that the time when the ECR will probably be at it's most coherent (the year in the run up to the UK general election) will be marred by a perhaps sourer relationship with the EPP. Still, I can see the EPP using the ECR to wring concessions out of the PES/PASD and to maximize its influence in the EP. The stigma the EPP attaches to the ECR will wear off eventually, though it's hard to say if the ECR will survive that long.

    I agree that the 4 traditional groups will largely control Parliament between them. Most of the time it probably will be irrelevant how the ECR vote - but it will be interesting to see if they end up supporting the Commission and EPP at points when its vote does matter, and if it tends to vote against moves to strengthen legislation (and by default supporting the Commission). I wonder how that could play with their voters (if it ever becomes an issue for them).

    Hopefully in the next election, when Barroso can't be re-elected, the EPP and PASD (or whatever they'll call themselves) will run candidates for the Commission Presidency. When records and policy matter, there might be a more common-sense approach to politics by some of the ECR parties.

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  3. Eurocentric,

    As long as British (and other) voters follow politics in the European Parliament with the same intensity as the Assembly of the Council of Europe or the United Nations, it does not really matter too much to the UK Conservatives as a party what their MEPs achieve, as long as they go through the motions of presenting alternative views.

    Short term the ECR may even exert influence by supporting the EPP in the re-election of Barroso, together with parts of ALDE and right-wingers.

    But have you thought about the signals from Merkel and Sarkozy?

    I believe in clear links between national leaders (party leaders) and European level politics.

    It is as if they had given up hope with regard to Britain. Nicolas Sarkozy seems to have dropped Tony Blair (Gordon Brown) as prospective president of the European Council; instead he has floated the name of Felipe Gonzalez.

    David Cameron and William Hague have promised to become a pain in the neck for the European Union as a whole. We have seen only the beginnings of a fraught relationship.

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  4. You're right that the ECR won't be scrutinized when it comes to policy, and it is probably naive of me to hope that there will be a policy debate and a presidency campaign in the next elections.

    I did skip the Council/leadership relations dimension to setting up the ECR. Cameron and the Tories will loose a lot of influence, I agree, and Cameron hasn't made a good impression of being a statesman even before this with his jaunt to Georgia and reports of Obama describing him as a "lightweight". Cameron will have to bend over backwards to build connections and a reputation in Europe and he has no reserves of goodwill to rely on when he comes to power. So either he works hard to gain their trust (proving reliability by following them) or he obstructs them and risks being further isolated and outvoted.

    But the Tories being in a bad position to influence European legislation isn't something I'm going to loose a lot of sleep over. There will be a more fraught relationship - especially at the start and over questions of institutional reform - but from such a low level of influence, I think the EU can withstand it, and function well enough - under Cameron the UK is likely to be following the Franco-German lead, or dropping out of the game.

    Quite apart from that, though, the politics and policies the Tories champion has gone out of fashion with the economic crisis, and the more Christian Democrat/Social Democrat style of regulation is in fashion. They are the Republicans of Europe.

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  5. Nick Simoncini29 June 2009 22:20

    I must say that I am puzzled as to why people claim that the Conservatives have lost influence because of their departure from the EPP when it is clear that they would never have been able to negotiate the same "package" now that they were able to in 2004.

    Five years ago the Socialists had not just been obliterated in the elections and the EPP *needed* the Tory MEPs. Accordingly, they allowed them to punch above their weight by granting them all sorts of favours. Unless you think that the EPP is some kind of a charity, which I don't think that you do, there is no chance in hell that the Conservatives - who would hypothetically be the fourth or fifth party in the EPP today - would be able to obtain what they were able to obtain previously.

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  6. You're right that if the Tories had remained in the EPP they would be slightly less influential than in 2004-9 (especially given the growth of the UMP in France and Berlusconi's party in Italy). Still, the formation of the ECR will lead to a bigger loss of influence for the Conservatives.

    It's mostly because groups adopt a position on a case-by-case basis - in other words, the Tories would be a part of deciding the biggest's group's position had they still been part of the EPP-ED. The EPP still doesn't have a majority in the EP (just a very clear pluarity), so it's not as if there's a Westminister situation where backbench MP/MEPs can be ignored/sidelined to an extent. Also the obliteration of the PES/PASD was only slightly to the EPP's benefit - the Greens were the big winners in that regard. So some PES/PASD losses are still in the "centre-left's" hands in the EP.

    In the EP a group would have internal discussions to adopt a decision (I have to admit I'm not very familiar with the exact procedure for each group - something I should look up later). Cohesiveness matters here since the greater the voting weight behind the stance, the more influence it will have in the EP. So the Tories, as a sizable block within the EPP-ED, was/would have been influential, since this process tends to aim to be as consensual as possible (to maximize voting weight).

    With the loss of the Conservatives from the EPP, the EPP will move slightly to the left (the Conservatives being one of the most pro-free market of the EPP paties), so in some cases coalitions with the ALDE and PASD will be more attractive (and more certain of a majority) than coalitions including the ECR. So in most cases, it's unlikely that the ECR will exert much influence on legislation in terms of plenary voting and coalition-building.

    Whereas the Tories would have been involved from the start in shaping the eventual policy coalition/compromise, they will probably be involved later on in the game when the EPP needs them (and when some elements will be "settled" to please other coalition partners). It's harder to change deals the later you leave it, so ECR influence is likely to be light apart from times of great division (provided they can guarantee their votes).

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