HISTORY - LEADERSHIP - POLICY - PROSPECTS
A SERIES ON PARTY GROUPS IN THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT
PART III: The European People’s Party (EPP)
By Alexander Lipke
A (Liberal-)Conservative History in the European Parliament
Founded in 1976 by mostly Christian Democratic parties throughout Europe, the European People’s Party over time has become the political home in the EU for Europe’s conservative and liberal-conservative national political parties. As of April 2019, after the suspension of the Hungarian Fidesz Party, the EPP consists of 46 parties from 27 Member States. These parties’ elected MEPs come together to form EPP political group in the European Parliament. In the current legislative period, there are 208 European legislators under the flag of the EPP, rendering it the largest group in the European Parliament (28%). Moreover, with 14 Commissioners including the Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, it provides the majority of chief personnel in the European Commission. 8 of 28 heads of states in the European Council are from member parties of the EPP. For 20 years now, the EPP constituted the largest political faction in the EP and has been a major force in European Politics, it’s broad ideological spectrum from centre-right to right certainly playing its part.
The EPP was founded in 1976 as a conglomerate of Christian Democratic parties. Why then, one might ask, is the word Christian nowhere to be found in its official name? Throughout the foundation process, the German Christian Democratic parties CDU/CDU, perhaps in strategic political foresight, argued against Christian to be included in the party name. They did not want to exclude major conservative parties from countries where Christian Democratic tradition may not be as strong as in the founding nations. The first 15 years were marked by successive accession of Christian Democratic parties from new member states, namely Greece (1981) as well as Spain and Portugal (1986). After the political disappearance of the Italian Democrazia Cristiana, which had been the strongest critic of an opening towards non-Christian Democratic parties, the EPP successively welcomed many new members on the centre-right of the political spectrum. Subsequently, after the accession of several political parties and a cooperation with the European Democrat party group, consisting of the Conservative parties of Britain and Denmark, the EPP-ED group became the largest political group in the EP in 1999, and has remained in that position ever-since, even after the ED’s split from the group in 2009. Ever since the party’s political opening, the internal struggle for its ideological direction has continued, culminating in the Fidesz crisis of 2019.
Orban, Fidesz and the political faultlines within the EPP
With its anti-European and anti-Migration right-wing populism, the Hungarian Fidesz paarty spearheaded by Prime Minister Victor Orbán had been a headache for EPP faction leader Manfred Weber for quite some time. On the one hand, with currently 10 seats in the EP, the Fidesz Party constitutes an important factor in Weber’s bid to become the next Commission President this year. On the other hand, following repeated anti-EU slurs from Orbán and his party as well as fears that Hungary may be drifting away from the democratic and constitutional foundations of the European Union, pressure on Weber to take a clear stance against far-right and anti-European tendencies in his party group has gradually increased. After Orbán launched a tax-funded anti-EU campaign in February that directly targeted and demeaned Commission President Juncker and the founder of the Open Society Foundation George Soros, the question of Fidesz’ membership in the EPP became unavoidable for Weber. Juncker himself and 4 EPP member parties openly called for the expulsion of Fidesz by the end of February. Even so, it took Weber and the EPP a whole month to agree on the suspension of the Party from the EPP. Although the party was banned from internal EPP meetings, working groups and votes, the decision fell short of a proper exclusion from the party group. This solution constituted a compromise that is typical for Weber’s political style, and perhaps not unexpected from the leader of a parliamentary faction made up of 46 different parties. Finally, in late March Weber also announced that he would not take up office if he had to rely on the votes of Orbán’s far-right party.
On May 7th, in reaction to this statement, Orbán officially withdrew his party’s support for Weber as the new Commission President, de facto announcing a split from the EPP. The occasion of Orbán’s announcement at a press conference with Austrian far-right FPÖ leader Hans-Christian Strache, as well as his open sympathy for a European right coalition based on the Austrian model, suggest that he clearly considers his party’s future to be outside the EPP. It remains to be seen whether Weber’s lukewarm reaction to Fidesz right-wing agenda and the loss of support will eventually help or harm his campaign. Some analysts suggest that the resolution of the Fidesz question takes a significant weight off Weber and finally allows him to credibly distinguish himself and his party from the far-right. Others interpret the fact that it was Orbán who took the final decision to cut ties as a weakness of Weber’s politics of compromise and point out the EPP’s irresolute and awkward relationship with its members to the right.
Prospects for the 2019 EP elections (05/05/2019): 22,5% (-6,4) = 169 seats (-48)
This brings us to the EPP’s prospects for this year’s European Elections. Against the backdrop of a significant surge in support for right-wing populist and far-right parties in Europe since the last elections in 2015, the EPP, much like the second biggest group S&D, is set to lose a significant number of seats. Recent polls suggest a whooping loss of 45 seats, down from 216 (28,8%) to 171 seats (22,7%). With the further fragmentation of the EP through the influx of many new parties, however, the EPP will likely still constitute the largest faction in the new Parliament. Brexit will have no significant impact on the EPP, since the British Conservative Party’s MEPs are organized in the European Conservatives and Reformists group (ECR), a successor of the European Democrats (ED).
The Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies (CES) has been founded by and is affiliated with the EPP. The CES is the 10th biggest think tank in the entire world. As the official think tank of the EPP, the Martens Centre monitors, analyses and contributes to the debate relating to the policies of the EU, both on the expert and general-public level.
Manfred Weber’s and the EPP’s Policy Platform - Security, Migration, Climate Change
The EPP and Weber want to convince the European voters with a clear message of secure borders and the prevention of illegal immigration into the territory of the European Union. They aim to “break the link between rescues at sea and access to EU territory” and pledge for a common EU mechanism for the resettlement of third country residents, including security checks and selection procedures. In that regard, they believe cooperation with transit countries is essential in the bid to reduce the number of immigrants, citing the EU-Turkey agreement as a success. Moreover, the EPP emphasizes the need to clearly distinguish between asylum seekers and “economic migrants”, raising the need to support Member States in returning migrants who do not have a valid permit more effectively. In terms of defense and security, the EPP wants to pool EU Member States’ military capabilities and promote closer cooperation, falling short of demanding a European Army.
In terms of energy and climate change, the party wants to ensure an effective price on CO2 by holding on to the already existing market-based emission trading system. They want to enable investments and innovation in technological solutions to low-carbon mobility and create an Energy Union where gas and electricity can cross borders without obstacles. Moreover, the EPP supports the introduction of a Digital Fair Tax for internet giants like Facebook and Google. Concerning the further automation of production through A.I. and machine learning, it wants to increase investment to make the EU a leader in these future technologies, while simultaneously making sure that the employability of workers is ensured through life-long learning initiatives. On several occasions Manfred Weber has rejected the idea of a common social security system, including for example an EU-wide minimum wage or a European emergency pension fund.
On May 26th the European Public has the opportunity to determine the direction in which the EU will be heading in the next 5 years. The campaign of the largest group in the Parliament has been characterised by internal commotion and hesitance. With Manfred Weber, who himself has never held an executive office, the EPP nominated a Spitzenkandidat who is known for his capacity for compromise, a trait certainly not irrelevant as the President of the European Commission. At the same time, Weber is by no means undisputed among the leaders of the EU’s 27 Member States, whose nomination he has to secure according to EU law, before he could be accepted by the European Parliament. Even if the EPP will become the strongest force in the European Parliament again, it is therefore not at all guaranteed that their candidate will indeed become the next President of the European Commission.