Consultant: UK’s Cameron ‘cannot afford’ EU isolation

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Tory leader and potential future UK prime minister David Cameron will soon realise he “cannot afford” to become completely isolated in the EU after having “thrown away” British influence in the European Parliament by withdrawing Conservative MEPs from the European People’s Party, Caroline Wunnerlich of consultancy Fleishman-Hillard told EURACTIV in an interview.

Caroline Wunnerlich is managing director of Fleishman-Hillard Europe, a Brussels-based public affairs consultancy. 

How do you expect the election results to change your approach to working with the European Parliament? 

It is obviously important to get to know new MEPs and develop an understanding of which ones will be key to our clients. However, whilst over half of the Parliament is now made up of new members, the number of extremists and fringe parties which many expected to be returned because of current economic turbulence never materialised. 

A sizable vote for the far left and right, or the promised return of over 100 anti-European, Libertas MEPs, would have shaken the Parliament up dramatically, but the parties of the centre won this election decisively. 

Judging from the deals that are being rumoured about the presidency, committee chairmanships and vice-president positions in the Parliament, it seems probable that ‘business as usual’ will largely continue. 

Because of this, I don’t anticipate we will dramatically change our approach to the Parliament. But it will require increased vigilance on building majorities around certain votes. 

How do you envisage the new conservative group set up by the Tories taking shape? Will it work in conjunction with other parties? What do you expect its influence to be on decision-making? 

The new ECRG has started life in a precarious position and unless it is able to both broaden and deepen its support, its future will not be secure. At present, its success rests on the willingness of a handful of individuals whose political judgement has yet to be tested. 

It is clear that there is opposition from some MEPs within the Conservative delegation who would much rather have remained part of the EPP, where they had meaningful influence on the development of legislation. They know that the formation of this new group weakens their individual powers in the Parliament as well as those of their party and country. 

It is hard to imagine what David Cameron’s long-term plan is for his MEPs in the European Parliament. Having withdrawn his members from the EPP, he has thrown away considerable UK influence in key committees, and it is sobering to reflect on the fact that only 13 of the 72 UK MEPs now belong to one of the two largest parties in the Parliament. 

Whilst I don’t anticipate any formal agreement with the EPP, I expect that the ECRG will vote with the larger, centre-right group in a substantial number of votes. Having made the bold move to establish a new group, the Conservatives still have an interest in demonstrating that they can work constructively with colleagues in Europe. If, as expected, Cameron becomes the next prime minister of the UK, he will soon realise he cannot afford to become completely isolated within the EU. 

The new Parliament contains more Eurosceptic, nationalistic and fringe members than under the previous legislature. How do you expect this to change your approach to working with the EU assembly on behalf of your clients? 

Whilst it is true that the number of Eurosceptics, nationalists and fringe members has increased, the important point to note is that these increases were not anything like as extensive as many had anticipated before the election. 

Libertas, the party which gained the most media attention ahead of the election, only managed to get one MEP elected. Its leader, Declan Ganley, a man who had ruffled feathers in Brussels thanks to his central role in the campaign to reject the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland, failed to get elected and has now retired from politics. 

Whilst a new Eurosceptic grouping has been formed – Europe of Freedom and Democracy – it only contains 30 members and is unlikely to make much impact at a legislative level. I predict that the Eurosceptics will continue to punch above their weight in media terms, as they always have been able to, but that their real impact on legislation and the interests of our clients will remain minimal. 

Do you expect any ideological coalitions to emerge in the next Parliament, or do you expect coalitions to be issue-specific? Please give examples. 

The current rhetoric emanating from the principle political groups would suggest that the Parliament will indeed be divided on the basis of ideology. In this case, the cleavage would be between the Eurosceptic elements of the Parliament, and a pro-European ‘grand coalition’ between the groups occupying the ‘centre’. 

An early indication of this willingness to work cooperatively is that Joseph Daul, the re-appointed leader of the EPP, has indicated that he is prepared to honour an agreement to divide the Parliament’s presidency between the EPP and the PES. Adhering to this informal agreement will be a key indication of how, in reality, the EPP sees its ongoing relationship with the PES. 

The scenario of a ‘grand coalition’ to pursue certain legislative ends is given greater credence by the fact that much of the rhetoric of the centre-right parties in the larger member states (notably France and Germany) has been towards prioritising a social-market economy and downplaying the role of competition within economic policy. This emphasis on what can be loosely described as Christian conservatism rather than neo-liberal conservatism is a softer philosophy and more in line with traditional centre-left thinking. 

Such a shift may provide enough common ground for broad agreement on key issues. However, whilst the likes of Germany, France, Spain and Italy may find common cause on this agenda, the views of other major players in the EPP – notably Poland, Hungary and Romania – may not fit so neatly into such a consensus. Given this, tensions between the differing strains of conservatism may arise in the new Parliament and threaten the mooted grand coalition between pro-European groups. 

It would, therefore, be wrong to dismiss the potential for a more pragmatic approach by the EPP that departs from this crude division between pro-European and Eurosceptic. The fact remains that, ideologically speaking, the EPP group will be closer on a number of issues to the newly-formed Eurosceptic ECRG group (e.g. employment & social affairs policy, environment policy, transport policy issues etc.). 

Assuming ALDE support is “locked”, the EPP will have a key choice to make: concede more in the name of a pro-European consensus, or achieve your objectives with uncomfortable bedfellows. It remains to be seen whether political pragmatism replaces ideological principle. 

Do you expect the EU’s priorities to be modified or changed following the elections? Which three or four key words would you choose for a ‘new narrative’ to replace the Lisbon Agenda? 

When looking back at the 2004 elections, certain post-election “buzzwords” were clearly identifiable. “Better Regulation”, “Implementation” and “Competitiveness” constituted the launch pad for the then-new Parliament and new Barroso-led Commission. 

To a great extent, these buzzwords have been turned on their heads. The economic crisis has turned everyone’s attention on the need to regulate the financial sector, and this is a priority for a number of EU member states. This drive for regulation is likely to be a key aspect of financial services policy and beyond. The level to which this regulatory momentum in financial services “migrates” to other policy areas is of course key, but it is hard to see how it would not. 

To inform MEPs and their national constituencies about EU policy issues and the impact of decisions taken at EU level, what communication channels do you recommend to your clients? Do you focus your lobbying and media activities in Brussels or national capitals? 

Lobbying in Brussels remains central to all public affairs campaigns as this is the place where MEPs congregate the most regularly and are likely to form their opinions. 

In our recent Fleishman-Hillard EP digital trends survey of 110 MEPs, an overwhelming majority of them confirmed that personal contact with stakeholders was important in informing their thinking over policy. And where does this happen the most: in Brussels! 

As for media, it remains a crucial tool in formulating MEP opinion. Increasingly, media is moving online and I’ll get to this in a minute, but as part of our work we still believe that traditional media remains important. Getting your message across in a Sunday paper while MEPs are having their morning coffee and croissant is still difficult to beat. 

Nevertheless, most MEPs and their staff will increasingly consult online media to gather information on a topic. And this is where our clients need to be – feeding information to the Brussels press corps, who will in turn inform their counterparts in the capitals to give your story a national slant. And to not ignore the impact of home-grown news, our survey showed that 42% of MEPs believe coverage in national media to be very important. 

The influence of EU online media is also key, with EURACTIV being the outlet with the most MEP readers per week! 

What we want our clients to start thinking is that there isn’t one “lobbying” tactic that dominates. MEPs will still want the traditional face-to-face meeting, but expressing yourself online and in the media helps to reinforce the message and ensure it finds resonance. 

It’s about taking a properly measured approach, and coming up with the perfect blend. And digital communications, through the use of social media and other online marketing tools, is the latest and most important addition to our toolbox of public affairs tactics. 

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