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The European Conservatives and the ‘main parties’

The discourse of European Union politics frequency takes the EU main parties as those which support progressively greater European integration. However, the multitude of views on the course of the EU and the success of a centre-right European group critical of integration challenge this definition for being too narrow. How we define European ‘main parties’ must reflect the reality of the European mainstream and, in light of current politics, it should include a greater diversity of perspectives on the EU’s future.

European flags at the European Parliament, TPCOM, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

European flags at the European Parliament, TPCOM, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In EU politics, political actors are often categorised as belonging either to the ‘main parties’ or parties of the extremes. This division presupposes the main parties to be situated in the political centre, surrounded by more dramatic alternatives on both the left and the right. While such definitions depend on individual points of view, the European main parties have traditionally been considered to be those in favour of solving the EU’s greatest challenges through more European integration. However, as I have argued, the notion that unqualified integration is always or nearly always the optimal avenue for addressing European policy questions is not an entirely centrist viewpoint.

In the European Parliament, the political groups (made up of one or more European parties) have equally been incorporated into this logic of an enlarged middle and peripheral outliers. The centre is often set as the EPP, S&D, ALDE and Greens/EFA groups in the Parliament. Frequently left out is the ECR, which has increased in size from tied for fourth largest party with the Greens/EFA in 2009 to third largest party following May’s elections and the resulting group formations. In the context of the ECR’s success, it’s time to re-evaluate the definition of the EU’s ‘main parties’.

The European Conservatives and Reformists group was established in 2009, precipitated by the withdrawal of the UK Conservative Party from the centre-right European People’s Party. The parliamentary group is mainly comprised of MEPs from the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists (AECR), plus some members from other European parties. Its political orientation has been guided by economic liberalism and a limited approach to European integration under a doctrine of Eurorealism.

In the aftermath of the elections, the ECR has made some of the biggest gains of any group in the Parliament. Its number of MEPs has increased from 57 in the outgoing Parliament to 70 in the incoming one (all figures as of time of writing). Now the third largest group in the EP, it has benefited from both a decline of popular support for the Liberals (ALDE), which fell from 80 to 67 seats, and an aggregate increase in its own members (see Figure 1). Despite the group’s success in Europe, the UK Conservatives have lost their near majority (45%) and they now contend with the Polish Law and Justice Party and an enlarged conglomeration of smaller parties in the ECR.

Figure 1: ECR national parties and MEPs in 2009-2014 and 2014-2019

Member State Party MEPs 2009 MEPs 2014 Status in 2014
Belgium Libertarian, Direct, Democratic Party 1 0 Lost all seats
Belgium New Flemish Alliance 0 4 New to group
Bulgaria Bulgaria Without Censorship 0 2 New to group
Croatia Croatian Party of Rights Dr Ante Starčević 1 1 Returning to group
Czech Republic Civic Democratic Party 9 2 Returning to group
Denmark Danish People’s Party 0 4 New to group
Denmark Miljøpartiet Fokus 1 0 Lost all seats
Finland Finns Party 0 2 New to group
Germany Alternative for Germany 0 7 New to group
Germany Family Party of Germany 0 1 New to group
Greece Independent Greeks 0 1 New to group
Hungary Modern Hungary Movement 1 0 Lost all seats
Ireland Independent 0 1 New to group
Italy Conservatives and Social Reformers 1 0 Lost all seats
Italy Forza Italia 1 0 Lost seat
Latvia For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK 1 1 Returning to group
Lithuania Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania 1 1 Returning to group
Netherlands ChristianUnion 1 1 Returning to group
Netherlands Reformed Political Party 0 1 New to group
Poland Law and Justice 7 19 Returning to group
Poland Poland Together 4 0 Lost all seats
Poland Independent 1 0 Left group
Slovakia New Majority 0 1 New to group
Slovakia Ordinary People and Independent Personalities 0 1 New to group
United Kingdom Conservative Party 26 19 Returning to group
United Kingdom Ulster Conservatives and Unionists-New Force 1 1 Returning to group
57 70
Note: MEPs 2009 reflect the final composition in the outgoing Parliament. MEPs 2014 reflect numbers and parties in the incoming Parliament as of time of writing | Source: European Parliament Election 2014 and Burson-Marsteller Europe Decides

With the reduction in the number of Conservative MEPs from 26 to 19 and the increase in Law and Justice MEPs from 7 to 19, the Conservatives will not always see their positions carried through in the group. The most high-profile example of the change of dynamics was the admission of the Alternative for Germany party, which took place despite the strong objections of the Conservatives. While any longer term shift in the politics of the group remains to be seen, it is already clear that Law and Justice will likely expect a greater role in governing the grouping.

The expansion of the ECR has included some parties more right than centre-right, which may also bring challenges in maintaining group cohesion. European Parliament groups are unlike those in national parliaments, as individual members and national constituent parties have greater freedom to decide independently. Nevertheless, a degree of harmony is essential for maintaining the group’s power and influence.

This matters in particular for the ECR for, as the third biggest group, it has acquired the capacity for more influence in the leadership of the Parliament. The EPP and S&D may well attempt to continue their cooperation with ALDE, for instance, and bypass the ECR – so much will depend on how the groups decide to work together in the new assembly. In any case, the ECR will certainly have a more substantial profile in the Parliament, with additional speaking rights and more senior roles. In the last Parliament, the ECR had one Vice President and one Committee Chair, compared to ALDE’s two Vice Presidents and two Committee Chairs. It is possible the ECR may acquire more in this Parliament (although its lead on ALDE of 3 seats is far less than ALDE’s lead of 26 on both the Greens/EFA and ECR in the last Parliament).

So, what are the implications of the ECR’s success for how the ‘main parties’ and their groups are defined? It’s important to put the ECR’s numbers in context. Between them, the EPP and the S&D have 412 out of 751 MEPs (55% of all members). The ECR has 70 MEPs (9%), followed closely by ALDE with 67 MEPs (also 9%). In this light, we can see that the ECR’s position has increased, but it continues to be surrounded by strong pro-integration groups.

However, is it still fair to say that ‘the main parties’ support the Spitzenkandidaten process or ‘the main parties’ want to progressively integrate the Member States in all or almost all policy areas? I would argue certainly not (if it was ever the case). It’s clear that we must expand the definition of the European mainstream to reflect the diversity of views expressed in EU publics. The mainstream can and should include more varied perspectives on the necessity, focus and depth of European integration.

A critical approach of how the EU operates and efforts for genuine reform of the EU are essential parts of the mainstream debate on the future of the European Union. At the same time, cooperation and compromise remain as important as ever to addressing the problems which the EU and its Member States face. We should take account of the realities of EU politics and recognise the range of opinions on how the EU works and how it should work. The start of the next European Parliament is a perfect opportunity to broaden the definition of the ‘main parties’ to reflect the actual state of the European mainstream.

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How to cite this article:

Salamone, A (2014) ‘The European Conservatives and the “main parties”’, Britain’s Europe (Ideas on Europe), 27 June 2014,

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