Cameron's group challenges liberals as kingmakers in new Parliament

  
Daniel Hannan and Syed Kamall, leading Conservative MEPs [European Parliament]
Daniel Hannan and Syed Kamall, leading Conservative MEPs [European Parliament]

The European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) this week welcomed several new member parties that could make it the European Parliament's third largest group while weakening its rivals. But what will the group look like?

The party leaders of the ECR met in Brussels on Wednesday evening (4 June), in their first group meeting after the EU elections, to vote on candidate member parties.

The German Family Party, the Slovak Ordinary People and Independent Personalities party, the Slovak New Majority and the Independent Greeks brought one seat each to the group. But the most contentious new members of the Conservatives’ group are the Danish People’s Party (DPP) and The Finns party (formerly True Finns). Together, these two delivered six new seats to the group.

>>Read: Eurosceptic Danes and Finns leave Farage's group

Party sources told EurActiv that this is not the end of the expansion. The Dutch MEP Bas Belder will join next week. Belder’s SGP party tried to become an ECR member five years ago but was rebuffed since, up until 2013, female SGP members were blocked from any executive role in the party.

Germany's Alternative für Deutschland's (AfD) request is still pending approval. That party could deliver another seven seats and would raise the profile of the group even further.

The Flemish nationalist party N-VA is also still considering joining the group. The party won the elections in Belgium and got four seats, but is also in negotiation to join the liberal ALDE group.

The new members bring the group’s total number up to 55 MEPs. If ongoing negotiations end up in a success, that number could even go up to 67. This gives the ECR considerable clout to influence legislation, as a strong bloc on the right side of the spectrum and the third party in the European Parliament.

"We are willing to talk to other parties who share our ideas, especially about reforming the EU," the UK Conservatives' leader in the Parliament Syed Kamall, told EurActiv in a statement.

Kamall tipped as new group leader

So far, the liberal group ALDE held the role of ‘kingmaker’. In the past five years, the liberals were often the decisive faction in reaching majorities on certain bills, and a crucial partner for the two major factions, the socialist S&D and centre-right EPP.

The ALDE party has secured the membership of the Czech party ANO (four seats) and there are a number of other, smaller parties still in play for the liberals. But ALDE's chances of remaining the third largest group are looking slimmer after the ECR’s announcement.

On election night (25 May) the prominent ECR MEP Struan Stevenson predicted their faction could fulfill this role of kingmaker in the upcoming five years. "We're going to see a hung parliament if you look at these results, and we're going to be in a crucial position," he said then.

ECR Stevenson predicts a ‘hung Parliament’

The ECR’s two strongest members are the UK Conservative party of Prime Minister David Cameron and the Polish Law and Justice party (PiS).

Two UK Conservative MEPs, Syed Kamall and Charles Tannock, have submitted their candidacy to take on the group’s presidency. Syed Kamall is the favourite, an ECR source told EurActiv. The MEP from London has a good relationship with the UK's prime minister, David Cameron.

The presidency was held by Martin Callanan, but he lost his seat in the elections. The next president will be a key role as the group grows and gains visibility in the new Parliament.

Slippery slope for Cameron

While lifting the ECR’s profile, the new parties also triggered criticism in the British press. Two of the new MEPs have criminal records, the UK newspaper Financial Times reported. Danish extreme-right figurehead Morten Messerschmidt and The Finns’ MEP Jussi Halla-aho are both convicted for inciting hate or ethnic tensions.

The British Conservative party reacted to the criticism. MEP Syed Kamall told the FT: “There is a clear distinction […] between a party that wants to control immigration and one that seeks to demonise immigrants. The Danish People’s Party is the former.”

According to Johan Van Overtveldt, the Belgian N-VA’s future top MEP in Europe who is leading negotiations with the ECR, the DPP and Finns aren’t a stumbling block to join. “We’re looking into what these new parties signify. I don’t see issues that are completely unacceptable for us at this point. Other groups like the European People’s Party have people like Viktor Orban in their ranks,” Van Overtveldt told EurActiv.

Expansion threatening cohesion

The accession of these new parties also puts a new question on the table: will the ECR group maintain its cohesion and will MEPs support a group line, even when there is friction with their national policy preferences?

Figures by VoteWatch showed that the ECR group had a cohesion rate of 86.65% in the past legislature. This means MEPs voted the same 86.65% of the times.

A snapshot comparison of key votes in the past legislature, using an online tool developed by VoteWatch, showed that The Finns party voted differently in five out of 20 votes. The Danish People’s Party voted differently in 12 cases. The Dutch SGP party differed in stance in eight cases.

Taking into account the limits of this snapshot, it still shows that the challenge of the group’s leadership will be to keep their member parties, now totalling 12, in line to leverage their political power in the European Parliament.

Timeline: 
  • End of June: end date to form parliamentary groups
  • 1-3 July: First plenary session of the newly constituted European Parliament
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