Tuesday, 5 July 2016

The 'Brexit delegation' at Trump's convention

The Tory-led ECR group will attend Donald Trump's nominating convention, but Merkel's center-right EPP will not. It reflects the path British Conservatives have chosen to take.

Years before his faustian bargain to offer an EU referendum to maintain his Conservative Party leadership, David Cameron tossed the eurosceptics another bone to become party leader.

In his 2005 campaign to become Conservative leader, he promised to take the Tories out of the main-centre-right bloc in Europe, the European Peoples Party (EPP), and form a new eurosceptic bloc. For years, the eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party had complained that the EPP, which contains the main center-right parties of Europe including those of Germany, France, Italy and Spain, was too 'federalist' in its approach to the European Union.

Cameron made good on his promise in 2009, forming the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) europarty by allying with right-wing parties from Eastern Europe (the unfortunately-named ODS and PiS). It was a move that infuriated German Chancellor Angela Merkel and caused the two to get off to a very bad start when Cameron became prime minister in 2010. 

It also meant that Cameron was excluded from the EPP pre-summits before European Councils during the height of the Greek debt crisis. Because the EU governments were at that time dominated by the center-right, it meant he was not at the table when the real decisions were taken (decisions that excluded the center-left PES and the ECR).

Populist partners in crime

Today the ECR europarty sent out a tweet proclaiming that that it will proudly attend the nominating convention of Donald Trump in the United States this summer. In the same tweet, they asked why the EPP is "boycotting" Trump's convention.
"Boycotting" seems a strange choice of words here, given that ordinarily there wouldn't be an expectation that foreign political parties should attend the Republican Convention.

But even if we call this a 'boycott', it is not unusual that Europe's centre-right, moderate political parties are not attending. After all, all living Republican former presidents and nominees are boycotting the event (both Bushes, Romney and McCain).

That the ECR will attend Trump's convention and the EPP will not says much about where the Conservative Party is headed. The eurosceptic, populist wing of the party has won the day - and formed alliances with the hard right. The ECR's leader in the European Parliament, MEP Syed Kamall, was an enthusiastic backer of Brexit. Pro-remain Tory MEPs were told to shut up. This is not their party any more.

In February I wrote about how Brexit is the British Trump. It is then small wonder that the Brexiteers will apparently have their own delegation at Trump's convention. Trump has said himself that the Brexit movement is part and parcel of his own movement.

It is also small wonder that Europe's centre-right, moderate voices - from the parties of Angela Merkel and Mariano Rajoy - will not attend Trump's coronation.

The Zombie ECR

It strikes me that the ECR and the Republican Party are somewhat in the same place right now. Both are leaderless and divided, and both may fall apart in the coming two years.

Following Brexit, it is unclear whether the ECR can survive, either on the pan-European level or in the European Parliament. In 2014, after that year's European Parliament election, the group dropped its previous objections to letting more extreme far-right and nationalist parties into the group. They welcomed in the Danish Peoples Party, the True Finns, the Flemish separatist NVA and the German far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). 

This gave them so many MEPs that they became the third-largest bloc in the European Parliament, edging out the Liberal ALDE group which saw itself decimated across Europe that year.

Assuming Brexit goes ahead, the 21 British MEPs in the ECR will lose their seats. That will leave the ECR with 53 MEPs from 17 member states - numerically enough to maintain a group. But can the ECR survive without its founding party?

The group is often at pains to stress that it is a union where no one party is more important than the others, but everyone knows its a Tory-dominated party. It's leader is British, its press team is British, its civil servant apparatus is dominated by Brits. 

Who takes control once the Tories leave? The logical contender is Poland's PiS, the controversial hard-right party that currently controls the government in Poland. It has the second-highest number of MEPs in the group, with 18. The next largest delegation is Germany's five AfD members, who have been renamed the 'Alliance for Progress and Renewal' since a recent split within their party (they're still effectively AfD).

Can this rump ECR survive without the Tory leadership? Sources in the Parliament tell me that PiS has never taken a very strong interest in the group even though it joined right from its founding in 2009. The AfD would love nothing more than to take the reigns, but its MEPs remain very unpopular within the group. The next-largest delegation is the Flemish separatist NVA, which is actually a pro-EU party (it still baffles me why they joined the ECR in the first place).

Cameron and Farage's groups unite?

Nigel Farage's Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) group is in a similar situation. The group was founded by Farage essentially as a vehicle for his UK Independence Party. It was always on the threshold of losing its status as a group because it had just the bare minimum of MEPs from other member states required.

But in 2014 Farage decided to ally with Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement in Italy. The alliance was always an uncomfortable one, because Five Star is not actually an anti-EU party. Today the group is made up of 22 UKIP MEPs and 17 Five Star MEPs, in addition to one MEP each from six other countries.

Once UKIP leaves, the group will have only 24 MEPs - one fewer than the 25 required to form a group. So where do the parties of the rump EFDD, which includes the notorious far-right Sweden Democrats, go after Brexit?

Joining the ECR seems like a logical choice. Really, the only thing preventing these two groups from uniting before was the fact that the Conservatives and UKIP could not be in the same group because of their enmity in domestic politics. With the Brits gone, there's nothing stopping these two rump groups from uniting. 

After all, what is the difference between the Sweden Democrats and the Danish Peoples Party? What is the difference between Lithuania's Order and Justice and Poland's Law and Justice (Pis)? 

The ECR, the europarty founded by David Cameron in 2009 as a result of an election pledge, is now out of his control. The populist monster he created is now almost certain to morph into a far-right bloc in the European Parliament. Perhaps it will soon welcome in Marine Le Pen's Front National and Gert Wilder's PVV. 

Cameron is no far-right politician. He is a centrist, the ultimate symbol of the political establishment. But his flirtations with populism have led to a situation where his European political group, and his British party, has been hijacked by extremists.

No surprise, then, that Trump will have a special section of Tories cheering him on at his convention.


Arnaud said...

Excellent analysis, except the NVA is not really pro-EU. They are far from being EU enthusiastic and share completely the "realistic" (as they call it) views of the Tory remain camp.

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