David Cameron, leader of the British Conservative Party, has announced the formation of a new European Parliament group, the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), which will unite 55 Eurosceptic and socially conservative parties from eight member states. The Conservatives will form the backbone of the group with 26 members, including Northern Irish Jim Nicholson of the United Conservatives and Unionists – New Force (UCUNF).
The Conservative party withdrew from the European People's Party-European Democrats (EPP-ED) group (since renamed the EPP) at the close of the 2004-09 parliament, citing policy differences with fellow member parties, notably the French UMP and the German CDU/CSU, both of which favour a federal Europe and closer integration.
Cameron said: "We don't believe in the so-called federal Europe and it has got to be good for European democracy and diversity to have a grouping in the European Parliament with which we agree and can put an alternative point of view".
Mr Cameron pledged to cut the Conservatives' ties with the EPP grouping during his 2005 Conservative leadership campaign, in order to broaden his appeal to the Eurosceptic tendency in his party.
Other parties who have signed up include 15 MEPs from the Poland's Law and Justice Party (PiS), nine from the Czech Civic Democratic Party (ODS), and one each from the Dutch Christian Union, the Latvian Fatherland for Freedom and Conservative Alliance (TB/LNNK), Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) and Belgian List Dedecker (LDD).
The Tories have also been criticised for joining forces with parties on the margins of the political scene, notably the Lithuanian TB/LNNK and the Polish PiS, who in the past have tried to ban gay rights demonstrations in Poland.
William Hague, Conservative shadow spokesman for foreign affairs, defended the Tories' choice of partners, saying that the PiS were "the party of the president of Poland"; Poland is governed by the centre-right Civic Platform, members of the EPP. He added that allies in Finland, the Netherlands and Latvia were part of ruling coalitions.
All members of the new group have signed up to the "Prague Declaration", negotiated in the Czech Republic, which argues for EU reform and opposes federalism. The group will be the fourth largest EP group, just ahead of the Green-EFA, but its apparent strength is built on potentially weak foundations. If just two of the MEPs who are the sole representatives of their members states leave the group, the ECR would collapse, for want of the minimum requirement of members from seven member states.
Meanwhile, the EPP group, the 'victor' of the European elections which took place 4-7 June, with 264 MEPs, has re-elected Joseph Daul as its chair, along with nine vice-presidents.
The former Party of European Socialists, whose numbers fell by over 50 after a poor showing in the election, has been reconstituted as the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, comprising former members of the PES together with the Italian Democratic Party (PD). Outgoing PES chair Martin Schulz was elected president of the new group, together with nine vice-presidents.
The Green-EFA group, which also fared well in the elections, re-appointed Daniel Cohn-Bendit as Co-President, along with former vice-president Rebecca Harms. The EUL-NGL group voted unanimously for newly-elected German MEP Lothar Bisky to be their chair.
The Alliance for Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE) bloc elected former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt leader on 30 June. Outgoing leader Graham Watson will now focus on his campaign to become President of the European Parliament.
Intensive negotiations are under way among members of the outgoing ID group and the UEN group, both of which will struggle to reconstitute themselves, given the higher threshold to form a group, and the fact that the new ECR group has attracted several former members.
Whether far-right groups can co-operate sufficiently to form a political group remains to be seen. Despite the rise of the British National Party (BNP) in the United Kingdom, the Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands, Jobbik in Hungary, and existing factions such as the Front National in France and the Vlaams Belang in Belgium, memories of the ill-fated Identity, Tradition and Sovereignty group, which fell apart amid bitter infighting within months of its conception in 2007, remain fresh.
The final political groups are likely to be formed by the first week of July, in time for the first session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg during 14-16 July, when MEPs meet formally for the first time, to appoint members of committees, the all-imporant fora where legislation is debated and amended, and the president of the parliament and his deputies.
24 June 2009