Friday, March 20, 2009

The Conservatives in the European Parliament - A History

I've done a few posts about the European Parliament lately but one other thing I've noticed that is not so well known about is the actual history of the UK Conservatives' groups in the European Parliament. So here's my best attempt to briefly detail it:

When the UK, together with Ireland and Denmark, entered the European Economic Community (as was) in 1973, the European Parliament was not directly elected but instead appointed by national parliaments. Upon entry the UK Conservatives and the Danish Conservative People's Party (Det Konservative Folkeparti) jointly formed the "European Conservatives" group (the first point of confusion as a lot of names get recycled). In 1979 direct elections to the Parliament began and at the same time the number of seats were increased, benefiting the European Conservatives no end. After the elections they had 64 members, albeit very lopsided with 61 from the UK (including the solitary Ulster Unionist) and 3 from Denmark. The group at this point renamed itself "European Democrats" (another name that would be later recycled).

However the group's numbers then went into decline over the next decades, not least because of the deteriorating position of the UK Conservatives in the Euro elections. In 1984 the UK Conservatives won 45 seats, the Ulster Unionists 1 and the Danish Conservatives 4. With the accession of Spain, the group was joined by the Spanish People's Party (Partido Popular). Up until 1989 the group was usually the third largest in the European Parliament, behind the Socialists and European People's Party.

But 1989 saw a dramatic downturn. The Ulster Unionists held their seat, but the Danish Conservatives dropped to 2 and the UK Conservatives fell to 31. The Spanish People's Party switched to the European People's Party. The result was that the 34 member European Democrats fell to the fifth place in the Parliament, now also behind the Liberals and Communists/Far Left, and only four seats ahead of the Greens.

This prompted the UK Conservatives to reconsider their options, as many believed that being in a small grouping on the fringes of the Parliament would make it impossible to achieve their goals, and so during the last years of Margaret Thatcher's leadership an application was made to join the European People's Party. However, in a move that will now surprise many, it was the EPP who were sceptical about the move. The initial application to join was rejected, because the European People's Party is a Christian Democrat grouping and was sceptical about taking on non-Christian Democrat parties. The situation became more intense with the Danish Conservatives also seeking entry to the EPP, leaving the UK Conservatives potentially ever more isolated. However the prospect of narrowing the gap between the EPP and the Socialists appealed and in May 1992 the UK Conservatives were admitted as associate members of the grouping in the parliament, without joining the wider Europarty federation.

The UK Conservatives' number of MEPs plummeted in the 1994 elections, dropping to just 18 MEPs. (The situation was enhanced by the UK then being the only country to not use proportional representation. It was the result of this that was a major factor in making the Socialists the largest grouping in the Parliament.) Meanwhile back home the Conservative Party was getting ever more Eurosceptic, whilst at the same time demands for a widening of party democracy meant that the party's link with the avowedly federalist EPP was starting to come under pressure, although I can't recall it being much of a factor in the 1997 (MPs only) leadership election.

In 1999 the UK changed voting systems for the parliament, with MEPs from Great Britain now elected by regional lists (although Northern Ireland retained the Single Transferable Vote). With the Labour government suffering severe unpopularity and the Conservatives getting a boost a reversal in numbers would have come in any case, but now the delegation was doubled with several new MEPs who questioned the link with the EPP from the outset. However the viability of an alternative grouping was doubtful, especially as the election as a whole saw the EPP overtake the Socialists to become the largest grouping for the first time since direct elections. UK Conservative leader William Hague also felt that it would not be advantageous in domestic politics to be isolated from the main centre-right parties in Europe. Consequently he negotiated a compromise arrangement whereby the "European Democrats" were formally revived and the overall grouping became a nominal coalition of the EPP and the ED. It was also hoped that with the forthcoming expansion of the European Union the ED subgroup would pick up further parties from new member states.

However this arrangement did not satisfy everyone and a low level campaign against the EPP link rumbled on in the UK Conservatives. Once again I don't recall it being a factor in the 2001 leadership election, the first to have the grassroots members voting, but at the time it was the position on the European single currency that was the main point of interest and litmus test for Euro issues in the party. Iain Duncan Smith investigated trying to revive the European Democrats as an independent separate grouping, but could neither find the numbers nor get the support of the party's MEPs. In 2004 the UK Conservatives ran on a manifesto that included sitting with the EPP, but the ED subgroup picked up very few new members - from the new states only the Czech Civic Democrats (Občanská demokratická strana - ODS) came on, whilst the group was also joined by the one member Italian Pensioners' Party (Partito Pensionati) and the two member Portuguese Social Democratic Centre – People's Party (Centro Democrático e Social - Partido Popular - CDS-PP).

At the same time the growth of the internet has transformed the way in which the UK Conservative grassroots discuss issues, and this has been seized to the full by those campaigning against the EPP link. In the 2005 leadership election the candidates were asked their stances on the link, with Kenneth Clarke supporting it, David Cameron and Liam Fox opposing it and David Davis declaring he would leave it up to the MEPs (I can't remember Sir Malcolm Rifkind's stance). However, although a few MPs did make something of the issue, it wasn't that major to the leadership campaign and the precise wording of what was actually pledged by Cameron seems more elusive than the missing Doctor Who episodes.

David Cameron was elected leader and intense speculation and arguments soon broke out about what to do in the European Parliament and what promise to follow. Several UK Conservative MEPs declared that they would defy a withdrawal and stay with the EPP, in line with the 2004 election manifesto. The grassroots had been spun a tale of how there were many "Atlanticist Eurosceptic Conservative parties" just waiting for the UK Conservatives to take a lead and soon a viable alternative grouping would be formed. This has proved elusive in the 2004-2009 parliament, enhanced because a 2006 agreement with the Czech Civic Democrats stated that a new group would not be formed until after the 2009 election, because of domestic Czech political requirements. The issue has become ever more a litmus test for the Eurosceptic grassroots, many of whom place far more priority on ideological consistency than on influence and access to posts in the European Parliament.

Now recently the UK Conservatives have formally lodged notice with the EPP of their intention to no longer sit with them after the 2009 elections, and together with the Czech Civic Democrats, the Polish Law and Justic (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość - PiS) and whichever other parties can be scraped together for a new grouping. It remains to be seen if this group will get & keep the numbers to be a recognised grouping in the European Parliament...


Manfarang said...

Denmark was part of the Axis. Throughout the rest of continental western Europe the word conservative was dirty.

Denis Cooper said...

Very interesting blog article, thanks.

However it's not just a question of whether a new group "will get & keep the numbers to be a recognised grouping in the European Parliament", but also how quickly the rules will be amended to require a group to have more members, and from more countries, in order to be officially recognised.

Some of those who pressed for the most recent change, to a minimum of 25 members from a minimum of 7 countries, had a point about the costs associated with extending official recognition to a large number of groups. Not a strong point, but nonetheless a point.

But that only applies to the first criterion, a minimum of 25 members, which effectively puts a cap on the total number of groups which can gain official recognition, and therefore on the total associated costs.

It could be loosely compared with the requirement that each UK parliamentary candidate must put down a deposit, and while there may be argument about what amount the deposit should be, there is little argument about the principle.

However the second criterion, that the members of each group must come from a minimum of 7 countries, is not about limiting costs, but instead about corralling MEPs into multinational, or more accurately transnational, groups.

It's no great secret that this is the real objective - for example, for many years it has been stated in Whitaker's Almanack that:

"The Parliament's organisation is deliberately biased in favour of multinational political groupings"

and to that end, in 1999 the rules were:

MEPs all from one country - minimum 29 to form group
MEPs from two countries - minimum 23 to form group
MEPs from three countries - minimum 18 to form group
MEPs from four or more countries - minimum 14 to form group

As in the last case the number of MEPs needed to form a multinational group was half that needed to form a single nation group, potentially doubling the total number of groups, it's perfectly clear that cost was not (and is not) an important consideration.

This is, in fact, a system of institutional discrimination on grounds of nationality, contrary to the prohibitions on such discrimination in the EU treaties.

All of which, within the microcosm of the EU Parliament, accurately reflects the way that the EU as a whole operates.

Economics trails a long way behind politics on the scale of importance; "fundamental principles" and "European values" may be either rigorously imposed, or casually set aside, as seems most convenient; the paramount aim always being to further the process of "ever closer union", gradually manoeuvring the disparate nations of Europe into a single transnational or (it is claimed) supranational structure, whether they like it or not.


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