The European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) Group in the European Parliament held its constitutive meeting in Brussels on 19 June.

The group was founded in 2009 by the then powerful Conservative Party of the UK. It represented parties from eight countries with a membership of 54 MEPs.

After the 2014 European Parliamentary elections, the group became the third strongest group in the European Union’s only directly elected EU body.

In this year’s European Parliamentary elections, however, the fruit of the conservatives was less than what they hoped. Brexit inflicted a major blow, since the British Conservatives experienced a humiliating defeat losing 15 of their MEPs and winning only four seats.

What is more, far-right parties from Denmark and Finland defected to the new far-right Group Identity and Democracy (ID). Although many of the member parties held onto their seats in the European Parliament, and the leading Polish Law and Justice (PiS) won eight more seats (only the Belgian New Flemish Alliance suffered electoral defeat), the ECR has now only 63 MEPs and ranks sixth among the groups in the European Parliament.

All the while, the ECR group has been flirting with far-right parties. And today, ahead of the final Brexit act, the far-right parties share power with the traditional conservatives in the ECR’s leadership.

Three years ago, and in an act of political courage, expelled the German AfD, which now is a founding member of ID.

But far-right parties existed as members of the ECR, despite the fact that did not play a leading role.

Now the situation has radically changed.

New members

The ECR enthusiastically accepted four new members – one from each country, the Netherlands, Spain, Greece and Germany. But of the four, only Germany’s Family Party is an old conservative group. The other three support ideas typical of the far-right.

For instance, the Forum for Democracy (Fvd) emerged suddenly in the Dutch regional elections held March 2019, becoming the strongest party in the country. But in the European Parliamentary  elections, its performance was not as successful. It managed to win only three seats, one less than that of Gert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (Pvv) in the 2014 ballot. The only achievement of this new far-right contender was that Pvv remained out of the European Parliament.

The Fvd is a chauvinistic  and a vociferous climate change denialist, while some of its leaders are accused to making racist comments.

The Fvd’s accession was immediately followed by the withdrawal of two Dutch conservative parties, which were old members of the ECR. The Christian Union will join the EPP while the final decision of the Reformed Political Party (SGP) is expected soon.

The popularity of Spain’s VOX party also increased during the last period. Its political rhetoric incudes a potpourri of anti-Islamism, anti-feminism and ultra-nationalism. In many aspects, the party appears to be inspired by the ideas of the country’s Francoist dictatorship. However, the party won only three seats – much less than the polls foresee.

Meanwhile, it’s the Greek member that could put the ECR’s credibility as a defender of Christian values into question. Its only MEP is a telemarketing star, best known for his adoration of Vladimir Putin and for his special sale of “letters written by Jesus Christ”!

A month before the European elections, the Fratelli d’ Italia party also became member. The FdI is the direct heir of the neofascist Italian Social Movement (MSI). It won five seats in the European Parliamentary elections.

Another two parties of the ECR’s “old guard” are known for their far-right and racist positions. The Sweden Democrats, which won three seats (one more than in 2014) and the Bulgarian IMRO with two seats.

The new leadership  

The balance of forces between the conservatives and the far-right is also well respected within the new leadership of the ECR Group.

The party re-elected the Polish professor Ryszard Legutko, a known conservative intellectual, as co-chair. But he will be joined by another co-chair, Italian Raffaele Fitto, who was elected to the list of  Fratelli d’Italia.

Raffaele Fitto was elected in 1999 as a member of Silvio Berlusconi’s party Forza Italia. In 2015, he walked away from the EPP to create the Conservatives and Reformists, joining ECR. In December 2018, Fitto declared an alliance with Fd’I. While a representant of the Fd’I Fitto is a conservative with lengthy experience in the European Parliament. One fact remains: the ECR’s leadership is penetrated by a far-right party.

ECR appointed six vice-chairs and two co-treasurers as well. In addition to the conservative Daniel Hannan (Conservative Party), Assita Kanko (New Flemish Alliance) and Roberts Zile (the nationalist National Alliance in Latvia) were also elected Peter Lundgren (Sweden Democrats), Derk Jan Eppink (FVD) and Hermann Leopold Tertsch del Valle-Lersundi (Spanish VOX).

The two co-treasurers are Polish Kosma Złotowski (PiS) and Angel Dzhambazki of the Bulgarian IMRO – Bulgarian National Movement (IMRO-BNM).

Dzhambazki became widely known in July 2017 thanks to an online petition calling on the European Parliament to sanction him for alleged “aggressive anti-Roma propaganda” in the parliament, in the media and on social networks.

IMRO is known for its hate speech against Roma in Bulgaria. In January 2019, the leader of the party who is Bulgaria’s Defence Minister Krasimir Karakachanov, issued a harsh statement against Roma in his country. He said they have become arrogant and that society can no longer tolerate them.

“The truth is that we need a comprehensive programme to solve the Gypsy issue. People will not tolerate a part of the population who have only rights and do not want to understand that they have duties as well and must respect the law,” said Karakachanov.

According to local media reports, he also called on his government to stop listening to Brussels officials and human rights activists.

Any “good news”?

Despite the ECR’s enlargement toward the far-right it is argued that all those parties chose the “safe waters” of the Conservatives that offers a democratic alibi. As regards the Identity and Democracy Group, it is still considered too toxic for its extremist ideas. Remaining in the ECR, they are all part of an active parliamentary life while ID’s members will become too isolated.

But the risk for the ECR to fall into far-right positions is still valid. The departure of the Conservatives will leave the Poles, Czechs and Flemish to preserve ECR founding principles which could be Eurosceptic but not anti-EU.