Monday’s Financial Times (12/5/14) ran a piece claiming that David Cameron’s centre-right grouping in the European parliament (EP) is under mortal threat. It’s central thesis was that the Tories will struggle to obtain enough support in the new EP to form a political group. However, informed analysis, based on data from www.electio2014.eu indicates that it is UKIP that is more likely to be isolated in the EP than the Tories, , writes Tim McNamara.
The FT and the UK-based think tank Open Europe are quite right about the centrality of political groups to the EP. They point out that it’s financially important to be in a viable political group, with generous funding from the Parliament central to being able to propagate their political views, not only in Brussels but also in the Member States. The funding pays for staff, facilities, resources and a stand-alone research institute.
In order to achieve being a formal group in the Parliament, the 25/25 rule applies. In that any group must have at least 25 MEPs from a minimum of 25% of the EU’s 28 Member States. Up until now both UKIP (part of the Europe of Freedom & Democracy – EFD) and British Conservatives (part of European Conservatives & Reformists – ECR) have been able to form sustainable alliances.
The FT’s analysis would be correct if based on the membership criteria as laid down in 2009. However, what will help the Tories’ ECR group survive is that the UK Conservatives will be much more ‘relaxed’ as to which parties can join their group. In 2009, the Tories then leader in the EP, Timothy Kirkhope, said “We have rejected approaches from parties such as the Danish People’s Party (DPP) and the Lega Nord because of their unacceptable views in a number of areas.”
In a major policy change led by Martin Callanan MEP and Daniel Hannan MEP, the unreformed DPP is now a target of the Tories to be part of the ECR. Furthermore, after the 22-25 May election date, Cameron’s conservatives will no longer be the dominant political party in the group. Poland’s Law & Justice party (PiS) will have parity with the Tories in the group and the PiS’s view on membership criteria will have to be taken into account.
What has ‘put the cat amongst the pigeons’ is the likely formation of a new right-wing group that will draw away MEPs from both. The European Alliance for Freedom (EAF), comprises of the French National Front, The Dutch Freedom party, the Belgian Vlams Belang, the Austrian Freedomites, the Swedish Democrats, the Slovak National party and the Italian Lega Nord. It would be no surprise if the Tories allies in Latvia (the TB/LNNK) also joined the EFA. It is on course to have at least 38 MEPs in its group. It is also not beyond the bounds of possibility that other MEPs may join.
Both the Slovak National party and the elements of the Lega Nord are currently aligned with UKIP but it looks like they won’t be after the election on May 22. It is probable that the Lithuanian Order and Justice party will also leave UKIP’s EFD and join the group led by Marine le Pen in the right-wing EAF.
Farage’s party also looks like losing the support of the the True Finns party (now called simply the Finns Party) and the Danish People’s Party to the Tories’ group. This could leave the EFD group possibly with representatives from just three Member States: namely UK, Greece and France.
The existentialist threat to the Tories’ group the ECR is electoral failure rather than defections. The ECR stands to lose its MEP representatives in Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, Hungary, Italy and Lithuania. Leaving it with a group of only four Member States (plus possibly an MEP from Slovakia). Their Czech representation (ODS) is also very close to losing all of its nine MEPs, although one may survive.
However, it is definite that they will be able to recruit MEPs from Germany (Alliance for Deutschland). They also want to woo MEPs from Finland (Finns’ party) and Denmark (Danish People’s party). Leaving them with MEPs from eight Member States. The Tories are also working very hard to recruit the Belgian N-VA party, a populist Flemish separatist party.
UKIP will be looking around for allies across the EU. It will have no problem reaching the de minimus limit of 25 MEPs ( +/- 23 MEPs from the UK alone). It will also hope to pick up individual MEPs, although it might have to offer positions of influence and disproportionate financial support in order to succeed.
One promising area will be Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement from Italy. The movement is made up of populists, including eurosceptics. As it claims not to be a party but a movement, it’s future MEPs almost certainly will be tempted to join more than one group. Both the ECR and UKIP’s EFD should be able to garner support from this ‘movement’.
Other smaller parties as well as a few individuals will be elected to the new Parliament. It is from amongst these that the ECR, the EFD and the EFA, as well as the leftist GUE/NGL, will try to recruit MEPs.
Europe’s extreme-right should be marginalised, with only Hungary’s Jobbik, Greece’s Golden Dawn and Germany’s National Democratic party having a core presence. It’s highly unlikely that Belgium’s Vlams Belang will be tempted to join such an alliance, partly because the far-right won’t be able to form a group and therefore will have little influence. The UK’s British National party will lose its 2 seats. The Bulgarian Natsionalno Obedinenie Ataka (Attack) party is on course to win one seat and may be attracted to such a grouping. The main problem for the far right though will be passing either of the 25/25% de minimus rules.
The Financial Times article may have rightly caused panic at Conservative Party HQ and in David Cameron’s office but the Tories in Europe still have plenty of room for manoeuvre as they loosen the qualification criteria for the ECR group.
It is UKIP that faces a more difficult, though not impossible, struggle to form a group.
Tim McNamara is head of the Peercourt consultancy firm. He was previously political editor at the European Commission