The UK’s Conservative Party has been a leading force behind the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) Group in the European Parliament since its founding in 2009. And it’s all thanks to its history, government role and reputation.
It was only in the summer of 2017, following Brexit talks revealing the UK’s exit from the European Union was irreversible, that the second biggest force in the ECR came to the fore. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) is now at the front line. A prominent figure from PiS, Ryszard Legutko, who served for years as vice-president, became co-Chair of the Group.
But with the 2019 European Elections looming, the future of the ECR may be under threat.
During the next Polish parliament, PiS will likely secure 15 seats (or even more). This is thanks to the continuous attacks by prominent EU Commissioners – a tactic that is igniting sentiments of national pride among the Poles.
As such, the role of PiS in keeping ECR alive will become instrumental. Will PiS be able to convince other parties from at least six countries and attract 25 MEPs to lead a new ECR into the next European Parliament?
After all, and given the hostility towards Warsaw’s PiS government expressed by the major European parties (EPP, Social democrats and Liberals), the party has a tremendous need of a parliamentary Group.
And so does the Polish government.
Today, despite the prominent role of British Conservatives and PiS, there are several other parties in ECR that also have solid positions in the political arenas of their countries. Some will try hard to re-elect deputies in their parliaments, others will not face any problem and a couple will disappear from the European political scene.
Is there a ‘Le Pen option’?
During the orchestrated attacks against the Polish government by Brussels and some European leaders, PiS was assimilated to the National Front of Marine Le Pen. Many media still hold the view that in the post-ECR era (after the 2019 elections) there is a possibility of cooperation between PiS and Le Pen’s Europe of Nations and Freedom.
Is it possible? While there are many shared views, the differences are greater and rather principled.
Anti-immigration and anti-Islamic rhetoric are bastions in the daily activity of parties belonging to both ECR and National Front – except for the UK Conservatives, of course.
Nationalism is another common sentiment.
But PiS is not a far-right party. In addition, it is in favour of the EU while its Euroscepticism has frequently surpassed Europhobia. Le Pen’s European group is openly against the EU and the Euro currency.
Last but most importantly: Le Pen and comrades express their friendly feelings towards Putin and Russia and are ready to support any anti-European declaration or action comes from Moscow.
PiS understands what Russia aggression means for Europe and it is – as Poland – a pillar of the European defence policy.
It is also important to note that some far-right parties, such as the DF in Denmark, the IMRO in Bulgaria or the Sweden Democrats, prefer the ECR (the two first) and the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) Group. The Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) Group it is too toxic, even for xenophobic audiences.
For some parties, 2019 elections will be painful
The German Liberal Conservative Reformers (LKR), which has five MEPs today, will not be represented again in the European Parliament. The party was a splinter of the Alternative for Germany (AFD) party when the far-right tendency took the control in 2015.
While only 20% of AfD membership followed the moderate Eurosceptics, the majority of MEPs took a clear position against the far-right turn of AfD. Germany’s Liberal Conservative Reformers (LKR) was a valuable partner inside ECR, it quickly disappeared from the German political scene.
The Finns Party, which has two MEPs today, will probably face some problems in the next European elections. The party suffered a painful split in 2017 that will condition its future. In 2015 general elections the Finns came second with 17.7% and 38 MPs and took part in a three-party government coalition. But in 2017, the election of a new leader, MEP Jussi Halla-aho, who represents the more rightist and radical part of the party, put the coalition under threat.
The leaders of the other parties excluded any possibility of collaboration with the new leader. As a result, 20 MPs, including the party’s historical leader Timo Soini, left the party and formed a new one securing the government coalition. Since then, the Finns Party has only – on one occasion – measured its electoral force during Presidential elections of January 2018 in which its candidate came third with a 6.9%.
Another problematic partner is the Direction Italy (DI) which has two MEPs both elected with the lists of Forza Italia (FI). Then political disputes pushed the actual leader of the party, Raffaele Fitto, to leave FI and form a new political party and join ECR. But the electoral system in Italy, as well as the extreme polarised environment, presents a gloomy future for DI. It is for this reason that Fitto has supported (since December 2017) the electoral list of Silvio Berlusconi. But, it is not certain whether DI will succeed to elect any MEP in the new European Parliament. And even if it does, it is not certain if it will join ECR again.
Solid players in national scenes
And now some good news: it appears that some potential partners of PiS will not face any problem in the next European Parliament elections.
The New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) is not only the strongest party in Flanders, but also the backbone of the Flemish government. It participates in ECR with four MEPs and has a moderate conservative line.
The Czech Civic Democratic Party (ODS) is a historical liberal party founded by Vaclav Havel in 1991. While in opposition, it is the second largest party in Czech Republic with 11%. It is also one of the oldest members of ECR and has two MEPs.
The Danish People Party (DF) is considered by many a far-right party, due to its vehement anti-immigrant and anti-Islam rhetoric. But this does not seem to bother the rest of ECR members. The party knew how to exploit the rising Islamophobia in Denmark and is in a constant electoral rise. In 2014 European elections it obtained 27% of the vote and sent three MEPs to Brussels.
It will probably be easy for the two Dutch religious parties to re-elect one MEP each. The Christian Union (CU) and the testimonial Reformed Political Party (SGP) have solid traditionalist bases which secure them a stable electoral result.
It will be quite easy for the National Alliance in Latvia (LNNK), which is the fourth largest party and a government coalition partner since 2011, to re-elect its one MEP.
A “favorable wind” is blowing towards the Bulgarian IMRO-BNM. While openly anti-Roma and anti-Turk, it is part of the government coalition of PM Boyko Borisov with two deputy Prime Ministers. The party had a slight retreat in March 2017 general elections, in which it participated leading a far-right United Patriots coalition, but it is rather certain it will re-elect its one MEP.
Another possible partner could be the Sweden Democrats (SD), which is actually a member of Nigel Farage’s EFFD Group. SD is as far-right as DF, but both avoid to be identified as such. After the 2019 European Parliament elections, EFFD will cease to exist and the SD will search for a new home. SD had a high score in 2014 general elections and placed third in the political scene. But, the polls suggested the party suffers a certain retreat with its historic low last November with 14.8%. Nonetheless, the party will manage to send at least one MEP in Brussels.
A new ECR?
Following all the above, PiS will have the necessary number of partners in order to form a new ECR. Negotiations will be tough since the party lacks the reputation the Conservatives enjoyed. In favour of its efforts will be the fact that, for most potential partners, the EPP is too far and ENF too toxic.
They all need a home. For many of them it is the only way.
If PiS manages to keep ECR alive and become its real leading force, Poland and the Polish government will be less isolated and less vulnerable to attacks.
Of course, even though the new ECR will not be as strong as it is today, it will remain a strong voice.
Theodoros Benakis is journalist and writer.