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The European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) are now the third largest party grouping in the European Parliament and the only one which openly promotes ideas and values associated with conservatism. Despite this, ECR has been largely ignored by political scientists, journalists and other policymakers in Brussels – dismissed as merely a short-term Eurosceptic faction dreamt up by British Conservatives. This book can be considered the first major study of conservatives in the European Parliament, focusing on their Euro-realist political ideology, activities and achievements. It covers the origins and developments of the group: David Cameron set it up as a gesture to the Eurosceptic wing of his party, but this decision would go on leave him increasingly isolated as United Kingdom Prime Minister in the European Union as he was no longer part of the important European People’s Party (EPP) network. Other chapters focus on the role of ECR member parties, including Law and Justice (PiS) from Poland, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) and the Danish People’s Party (DF), and concludes by analysing the policy activities and achievements of ECR Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). While it is conceded in the book that ECR’s claim to be an ‘honest friend’ to the EU is perhaps disingenuous, its aim of promoting Atlanticist values linked to free-market economics and NATO constitutes a unique selling point in Strasbourg, and deserves to be more widely acknowledged.
Chapter 1 outlines the focus and scope for the monograph: the European Conservatives and Reformists parliamentary group. In particular, it introduces the main topic for analysis – reform of the European Union – in order to place the research on ECR into a wider context. This includes an overview of the recent political and economic crises in the EU and subsequent growth in Euroscepticism, nationalism and populism. The rise of ECR to become the third largest party grouping in Strasbourg reflects broader trends in public opinion favourable to reforming the way the EU functions. The chapter then proceeds to locate the study further within the scholarly field of comparative European politics, with a literature review, and a discussion of Conservatism and its unique relationship with Christian democracy. ECR’s departure from the European People’s Party represents a hitherto underresearched development in the study of modern-day conservatism. The chapter concludes that the activities of ECR merit this type of analysis due to it being the only vehicle for Anglosphere conservatism in the EU.
Chapter 2 provides a history of the development of ECR, with a particular emphasis upon the United Kingdom’s difficult relationship with the European Union. It is hard to escape the role of Britain in the EU when looking at the activities of ECR, regardless of whether ECR’s future now fully includes the British Conservatives. The chapter contains statistical analyses of voting behaviour from the period around the 2014 European Parliament elections in an attempt to uncover more about why David Cameron originally decided to set up the group. ECR, in its marketing, policies and staff, is essentially the British Conservative Party uploaded to European level, so any context setting must include a detailed account of the UK’s historically antipathetic relationship with Brussels. This chapter also argues that Cameron’s decision to create ECR ahead of the 2009 elections was the central factor in starting the process of Brexit – it displayed a ‘tin ear’ on the part of the British Conservatives to the etiquette and sensitivities of how Brussels functions, and the important role of the European People’s Party which transcends organisational party politics in Strasbourg.
Chapter 3 moves on to analyse the core concept of Euro-realism and tries to locate it against the backdrop of the ideologies of other European party families. Is it merely a simple concept based on ‘common sense’, as ECR leaders would suggest, or is there more substance to it? How does it relate to nationalism? And does it intentionally also make allusions to realism in international relations? It is argued in the chapter that Euro-realism is above all else primarily a form of conservatism, and not simply another form of Euroscepticism, as the very limited literature on the party group has thus far claimed. Conservatives have been associated with the cause of European reform for many years, and Euro-realism articulates those activities on the centre-right quite effectively in a new way, and also using vocabulary that is much more at home in English-speaking political systems such as the UK and US. Linked to this, there are also questions marks over the extent to which ECR can really be regarded as a type of ‘honest friend’ for the EU, which is sometimes implied.
Chapter 4 looks at the important member parties of ECR, in particular what might be considered the ‘big six’ – from Poland, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Germany, Denmark and Finland – excluding the British Conservatives, who ought to be categorised separately. Historically, Law and Justice from Poland (PiS) have provided large numbers of MEPs in the European Parliament, while the Civic Democrats (ODS) from the Czech Republic, though smaller in size, have been key to developing the Euro-realist concept. Both these parties have been around since the start of ECR’s development back in the early 2000s, although they too have changed and developed over this period. These Central and Eastern European politicians have been joined from 2014 onwards by New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), a civic nationalist party from Flanders, and the Liberal Conservative Reformers from Germany (LKR), who started out as Alternative for Germany (AfD). Radical right parties from Denmark, Finland and Sweden are also controversially members of ECR.
Chapter 5 discusses the leadership of the ECR party in Brussels and Strasbourg, and evaluates the framework and organisation of the group. How are policy decisions taken and how does this compare with the other factions linked to the Parliament? In particular, who are the key personalities in ECR, and how do they operate with reference to the arms of the party family, especially ACRE (Association of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe), the wider global conservative network, as well as New Direction: The Foundation for European Reform, the group’s increasingly active think tank? One crucial aspect explored in much greater depth is the extent to which the party leadership merely tolerates the more nationalistic sentiments of the MEPs from Poland, Denmark and Finland – and not just with regard to immigration and multiculturalism – and the extent to which it actually even tacitly endorses some of those views at times? A unique feature of ECR is that it allows a considerable number of free votes in the Parliament, in order to reflect its respect for member state independence – but this can also seem convenient at times.
Chapter 6 looks at policy activities and achievements in EP 7 and EP 8. How successful have ECR MEPs been in delivering on their election promises, particularly with regard to the three freedoms they promote – ‘free countries, free markets and free people’? Analysis of participation rates, roll-call voting and other measures of influence and engagement will hopefully shed some light on how united the group is in the Parliament itself. This can be crucial when distinguishing between the nominal power of parties and their so-called ‘real power’ in votes based on actual attendance. Key policy areas include reform of the EU, as might be expected (although it is not clear that this can be considered an actual policy area in the conventional sense), trade and business, but also family values and issues surrounding the concept of social capital which ECR sometimes promotes. Important too is the sincere stance that the group takes in foreign policy on cooperation with the US, NATO, and other transatlantic organisations and institutions. These areas will provide an analysis of how ECR operates and functions when it comes to the practicalities of Brussels politics which its MEPs claim to dislike so much.
Chapter 7 concludes, attempting to sum up this first scholarly account of the European Conservatives and Reformists. The book aims to be an accessible but fine-grained introduction to ECR, the third largest group in the Parliament and its most prominent critical voice. Political science research looking into the way politicians – in this case, conservative politicians in Europe – try to influence political processes and achieve policy results can be useful for many reasons. Archival work carried out at Churchill College, Cambridge is also included in order to show that ECR’s activities are a continuation of British Conservatives’ attempts to reform the European integration process for decades – the cause of European reform has been synonymous with the Conservative Party since the 1970s. The chapter also looks to the future and analyses the prospects for the ECR group in the context of the 2019 European Parliament elections. There is every indication that the group will continue to function and operate in the European Parliament, despite many predictions of its demise, but its political philosophy may become less conservative and more nationalist due to a shift in balance of party membership.