Thursday, 27 February 2014

Are the European Conservatives passing up a great political opportunity?

The Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists have announced that they will not be putting forward a candidate for the Commission presidency in the 2014 elections. As an anti-federalist party, the main reason being given is that participating in the presidency contest will play into the hands of the more federalist parties. But are they giving up an electoral opportunity by giving the "federalist" candidates a free run? And does their main argument fit in with the AECR's general political position?

Obviously the AECR must consider it a good tactical and electoral move. Presumably the AECR is setting itself up to oppose any move by the European Parliament to prevent the European Council from ignoring the contest when it nominates the next Commission president, but their support of a nominee will probably be more dependent on how closely he or she reflects their free market and anti-federalist positions. The biggest advantage is probably the freedom of movement it gives the AECR's member parties, such as the UK Conservatives, in the elections. European elections have typically been viewed through a national lens, and AECR parties will be free to highlight the any embarrassing policies that their opponents may be connected with through their European political families.

The common decision to not run a candidate gives the national parties a good Eurosceptic response to any questions over why they're not supporting a candidate, which could help protect them on their Eurosceptic flank. Finally, the AECR is unlikely to go from fifth to first place in the European Parliament so they are not going to miss out on a chance to actually win the office of Commission President for themselves. Therefore it probably seems to be a small sacrifice for a potential tactical advantage.

Despite these advantages, I think that the AECR have missed an opportunity. While it was left to Daniel Hannan to give the Europarty's reasoning for the decision (that the EU doesn't have a common demos and therefore the contest cannot be democratically legitimate), unlike Hannan the AECR is not for withdrawal from the EU but for a looser, more free trade orientated Union. This means that it's not necessarily ideologically inconsistent to take part in the contest: votes for a common candidate espousing a more decentralised EU wouldn't by definition contradict the demos argument (agreement on an anti-federalist message should logically indicate an unwillingness to identify as a pan-European demos). It's not as if the European Conservatives don't want the European Parliament to have a stronger say over the Commission - they called for reform of the confirmation process of nominated commissioners back in 2010!

Politically, it is a missed opportunity to promote an anti-federalist but pro-free trade message. If the European Conservatives want to revise the free movement of people, then a common candidate will be able to put that opposing viewpoint to the other candidates in the televised debate, and the national parties could draw on their alliance - and perhaps the opinion polls - to argue that their proposals for changing the EU are possible and have support. The European Conservatives don't have a member party in each Member State, but the campaign could raise those issues where they haven't been raised before and it would help set the AECR up as an alternative political home for the more Eurosceptic member parties of the centre-right European People's Party, or put pressure on the EPP to move closer to them politically. When it comes to the televised debates, the AECR is probably betting that they won't attract much attention, but there is a risk that they might, and that the conservative viewpoint doesn't get that air time.

The European Conservatives believe in the single market and the EU as a market (though they are increasingly questioning the free movement of people) but want to return some powers to the national level, so the question is if they can advance that view within the EU. A common candidate could be a valuable tool in campaigning for that version of the EU, while surrendering that political space to more federalist parties actually makes it harder for the AECR to differentiate itself from the out-and-out anti-EU Eurosceptics. Without a credible voice for a more decentralised Union, the European Conservative position will lose support to parties like UKIP. After all, if the EU appears to be captured by the other Europarties, then the supporters of the AECR may increasingly wonder if their approach is worthwhile or if they should just abandon the hope of changing the EU. Not running a candidate is a political move that is more likely to benefit the Hannanite position than the Cameronite one.

I may not be a supporter of the European Conservatives, but their decision not to run a common candidate could be a loss to the quality of the public debate as well as a missed opportunity for the AECR itself.

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