David Cameron’s anti-federalist group in the European parliament entered these elections looking a bit shaky. While anti-establishment parties were faring well, the polls for the ECR group were worrying. Cameron took a huge gamble when leaving the centre-right European People’s Party to form a eurosceptic bloc. Some ECR folk feared the group could unravel in the wake of the election.
Daniel Hannan, one of the ECR’s best known MEPs, dismissed the doom laden predictions from “half-clever commentators” (this correspondent included). He was correct; the speculation proved only half-right. The ECR have emerged in a solid position from the vote. It survived and its feathers are well preened for a beauty contest for the leadership of Europe’s eurosceptics. But the dynamics of the group are changing — and it poses some serious political dilemmas for Cameron.
1) The ECR is here to stay….
If it makes no new allies and loses no group members, the ECR will live on. The election results show it has cleared the rather arbitrary seven country official threshold to form a group (there are MEPs from at least 8 member states). At present though, their numbers are down. The ECR is projected to reach 45, a loss of 11 seats. The Tories and the Czech members both suffered at the hands of the electorate.
2) ….with reduced Tory influence
Perhaps as significant is the changing balance of power within the party. The ECR lost its leader Martin Callanan, who fell victim to UKIP in the North East. It is also now not a British-led group, but more correctly a Polish-British led group. Poland’s Law & Justice (PiS) are expected to secure 19 seats, putting them on a par with the Tories (if they don’t win a seat in Northern Ireland).
That is quite a shift given when the Tories were previously more than twice as strong as the PiS. That gives the Poles more clout in demanding leadership roles or committee seats. And given the Poles are supportive of free movement of labour and more positive about EU spending, it could also make a difference on the group’s priorities. Anna Fotyga, Poland’s former foreign minister, is a decent contender to lead the group at some point.
3) The ECR is busy courting lots of new allies
The race is on to now win new friends. The ECR is primarily competing with the Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD) group, led by Farage’s UKIP, who in turn are feeling squeezed by the hard-right European Alliance for Freedom (EAF), a new bloc promoted by France’s Marine Le Pen. At stake are important posts, considerable EU funding and more influence in big parliament decisions. If the ECR reach a threshold of 65 seats, they could win an extra positions (like a second committee chair) and potentially have more sway in deciding who is the European Commission president.
4) And its alliance building is showing promise
The ECR has been courting more than half a dozen new friends. The Independent Greeks look certain to join (the leader’s son works for the ECR already). Callanan probably won an ally when he trekked out to Sofia for the launch of the Bulgaria without Censorship party. Bart De Wever’s Flemish nationalists are half-interested. There are Croatians and Slovakians too.
More controversial are the potential defectors from Farage’s current bloc. These include the Finns (formerly the True Finns) and the Danish People’s Party. Both are anti-immigration and eurosceptic and have said they are open to talks to enter the ECR. The DPP, which stunned Denmark’s political establishment by emerging as its top party, say they have been formally invited join the ECR.
And in a category all on its own is the Alternative for Germany party. Its positions are far from extreme in European parliament terms and its leaders want to join the ECR — but my word would it make Chancellor Angela Merkel cross with Cameron (see below).
5) But some of them come with political baggage…
The criticism of Cameron’s more eccentric chums in the parliament has rumbled on since he decided to abandon the EPP (the criticisms have ranged from unsavoury views on homosexuality to a party honouring the Latvian unit of the Waffen-SS troops). To build its numbers, some within the ECR say it must show forgiving and tolerance.
For instance Morten Messerschmidt, the young and dynamic Danish People’s Party leader in the European parliament, has a 2002 conviction for inciting racial hatred. Along with a handful of youth wing members, he placed an ad that appeared to link multi-ethnic societies with mass rape, violence and forced marriages.
Hannan told Danish television last week that the Messerschmidt he knows would be “very uncomfortable” with such views. “Would you want to be judged on something you did in your 20s?” he said, adding: “if the Danish electorate move on and decide he is a mainstream popular politician, it seems a bit unfair that the rest of us shouldn’t make that same judgement.”
More difficult to explain might be the positions of Jussi Halla-aho, a freshly elected True Finn MEP who was convicted in 2012 of stirring ethnic tensions. Halla-aho said something about the prophet Muhammad that we dare not repeat on a family blog. The True Finns also briefly suspended him from the party after he suggested that Greece’s debt problems could only be solved by a military junta (he retracted the comments).
6) ….and a Merkel sized political health warning
Alternative for Germany (AfD) pose a different dilemma. Is it really smart to ally with to up-start opponents to Europe’s most influential and powerful leader? Merkel struggled to forgive Cameron’s for leaving the EPP. She will be furious, say German officials, if the ECR take in the AfD as a member and give it credibility. AfD would bring 7 seats but might waste a tonne of political capital with Berlin.
7) But, in the end, there may be nothing Cameron can do about it
At a press conference with Merkel in London, Cameron played down the prospects of joining forces with the AfD. But he may have no choice. The ECR group — not the British prime minister — decides on membership applications by a simple majority vote. The Tories do not hold a majority within the ECR. Even some Tories are unconvinced by Cameron’s objections. You have to wonder whether they may quite enjoy the other parties taking charge and inviting in the AfD, whatever the cost to Cameron.