Britain's Conservative prime-minister-in-waiting, David Cameron, could become responsible for returning the Socialists to power in the European Parliament, sources told EurActiv, after UK Shadow Europe Minister Mark Francois yesterday (11 March) confirmed that the Tories will leave the centre-right group in the EU assembly.
Since launching their election manifesto in Madrid in December 2008 (EurActiv 03/12/08), the European Socialists have repeatedly attacked the European centre-right, which they hold responsible for the "neo-liberal" economic strategies which they claim are behind the current financial crisis. The PES believes voters across Europe will share this view in 2009, and vote for Socialist candidates in increased numbers.
Intriguingly, the June 2009 European Parliament ballot is the world's first major election to be held since the escalation of the global economic downturn, with the notable exception of the US presidential election, which was won by centre-left candidate Barack Obama.
Mid-term protest vote could shift balance to the left
"There is a strong tradition at European Parliament elections of voters protesting against or punishing their national government parties," a political analyst told EurActiv. As a result, fringe and extremist parties tend to do well at the polls, which often fall mid-term between national elections.
A second effect of this pattern is that when the left dominates European governments, the right increases its representation in the European Parliament, and vice-versa. Currently, centre-right parties dominate in European governments, so if the protest pattern holds true, the PES should be in a strong position to increase its number of MEPs, said the analyst.
Does David Cameron hold the key to Socialist success?
However, according to sources, there is a possibility that the Socialists' fate may ultimately be beyond the control of voters, and could rest in the hands of one of Europe's highest-profile centre-right leaders.
As reported by EurActiv (12/01/09), British Conservative leader David Cameron has pledged to remove his party's 27 MEPs from their "loveless marriage" with the European People's Party (EPP) in the Parliament's majority EPP-ED group.
Yesterday, a Conservative delegation headed by the party's foreign affairs spokesman, William Hague, met Joseph Daul, leader of the EPP-ED group in Strasbourg, and confirmed that Tory leader David Cameron intends to pull out of the EPP-ED and establish a new group in the European Parliament after the 2009 elections.
The prospect of forming a new group is realistic, say analysts, provided that the Tories can find enough suitable partners. Conservative MEP Geoffrey Van Orden, a Cameron ally, yesterday told the BBC that negotiations are ongoing with "mainstream parties of government and serious politicians who are not happy with where they're sitting in the parliament at the moment". The group, it is believed, would be called the European Conservatives.
However, while the formation of a new group would satisfy Cameron's long-standing pledge and still, potentially, afford his MEPs a strong degree of prominence, it could also have significant political implications for the Tory leader.
Should the PES increase its number of MEPs by as few as 40, and Cameron pull his 27 Tory MEPs and their nine Czech ODS allies into a new group, he would be directly responsible for making the PES the majority group in the Parliament.
Eventually, this would also influence the nomination of the new Commission president, as EU leaders will choose a candidate following the outcome of the elections.
A leading Conservative source, speaking to EurActiv, questioned whether Cameron "would like to be responsible as the man who ensured that a socialist led the next Commission with a centre-left mandate, because he had insisted on pulling the Tories out of the joint [EPP-ED] group".
British Labour MEP Glenis Willmott, who chairs her party's delegation in the Parliament, also alluded to this possibility in an interview with EurActiv.
"We could end up being the largest group when we come back in July if the UK Conservatives leave, which they seem committed to doing," she said, adding that this "is bound to have a massive impact on the politics of the European Parliament".
The Conservative source believes that should this possibility arise, Cameron will have no difficulty in back-tracking on the pledge he made in 2005: "Cameron's original proposal was couched in wonderfully ambiguous language, and if the situation changes, he can change his view. If he was told he can either commit to the EU being led by a Socialist for the next five years or decide to stay within the EPP-ED, it would take five minutes to write the press release" authorising the continuity of the joint group, the source argued.
Tory Shadow Europe Minister Mark Francois confirmed yesterday on the influential ConservativeHome website that "this afternoon (11 March) William Hague, Timothy Kirkhope MEP and I met with Joseph Daul in Strasbourg. The meeting was amicable and during the course of it, we confirmed to M. Daul our long-standing intention to leave the EPP and establish a new grouping in the European Parliament after the 2009 elections."
A leading Conservative source told EurActiv that the likelihood of the Tories joining the groupless 'non-inscrits' (NI) in the European Parliament is slim, particularly given that the current assumption in the party is that there may well be a number of BNP candidates elected in June. "If the Conservatives MEPs were sitting as non-inscrits, they would be alongside BNP and UKIP members – that is not an attractive prospect," the source said.
The source went on to say that "there is no ideological advantage or attraction to Conservatives being the leading force within a new group – that's what we started with in 1979" [when the ED group was founded].
"There's absolutely no joy in being a big fish in a small goldfish pool. If you want influence in the EP, you have to be in on the core relationship, which is that between the EPP and the PES," the source concluded.
British Labour MEP Glenis Willmott told EurActiv that "the Conservative group is quite a large part of the EPP. Cameron [UK Conservative party leader] has made a commitment that he will leave, but his MEPs are split on this. Many MEPs would not want to leave the EPP because it gives them a lot of influence".
"They are much less likely to get important positions such as chairs of committees if they are part of a much smaller group. But it will also have an impact on the EPP and it will end up becoming a smaller group in itself. Again, it will not have the same kind influence that it currently has."
"For the Socialist group, we could end up being the largest group when we come back if the UK Conservatives leave, which they seem committed to doing. That move is bound to have a massive impact on the politics of the European Parliament."
As for the possibility of the Tories spearheading a new group, she claimed: "I do not understand the benefit to them. I understand that they are not pro-European and they feel the EPP is too pro-European for them, but they are going to lose all their influence."
"People back in the UK are voting for the Tory party, thinking that they are going to influence European politics. They are not going to be able to influence as much if they are part of a much smaller group."
EPP-ED Group Chairman Joseph Daul told the BBC's Newsnight programme on Tuesday (10 March): "We need to know whether we are with the British Conservatives or without them."
UK Europe Minister Caroline Flint said the Conservatives' move would "put Britain on the fringe of Europe, hurting our standing in the world and undermining British businesses" at a time when countries needed to cooperate to counter the financial crisis.
Edward Davey, foreign affairs spokesman for the UK Liberal Democrats, a smaller British opposition party, told Reuters the move "puts the Conservatives on the lunatic fringe of European politics".
The Conservatives "now have the most isolationist foreign policy of any modern opposition party, just at a time when countries need to be working more closely than ever," he said.