Although the Conservatism has a claim to be the longest-established political tradition in Europe, there were no conventional Conservative parties of any importance in the founding member states of the European Community. The British Conservative party, the Danish Conservative party (founded as Høyre, the ‘party of the right’, in the nineteenth century, and renamed in 1915) and its Norwegian counterpart (which is still called Høyre today) were all to be found in countries that chose not to join the Six in the 1950s and were subsequently prevented from entering in the 1960s by French President Charles de Gaulle. Consequently, it was not until the accession of the United Kingdom and Denmark in 1973 – Norway having rejected the option in a referendum the previous year – that a Conservative political group could be formed in the European Parliament and that Conservatives began to participate in the work of the other EU institutions.
Despite a tendency towards long-term decline, Christian Democracy was comfortably able to retain its position as the strongest political force among the parties of the centre and centre-right in Europe. There was a rather awkward relationship between the two traditions from the start. Lacking a confessional basis, Conservatism tended to be more economically and socially liberal than Christian Democracy, and whilst generally supportive of the process of European integration, this was not usually a central objective for Conservatives, who were less enthusiastic than Christian Democrats about the creation of institutional structures of an explicitly surpranational character. The formation in 1978 of the European Democrat Union (EDU) – a broad association of centre-right parties in Europe – was an attempt by Conservatives and some Christian Democrats (as well as the French Gaullists) to try to overcome such differences, although it was only partially successful. In the same vein, the European Conservative Group (ECG) in the European Parliament chose to rename itself the European Democratic Group (EDG) in July 1979, after the first direct elections to that body, in order to project a more open, less ideological image.
The interaction of British Conservatism and post-war European integration was to prove particularly complex. Although Winston Churchill took a strong stand in promoting European unity in opposition from1945 to 1951- embodied most famously in his Zurich speech and advocacy of a European army – he let slip the chance to take Britain into the new European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), when he returned to office for a second term as prime minister. His Foreign Secretary and eventual successor, Anthony Eden, was firmly set against enmeshing the country in European entanglements. As a result, the British Conservatives’ period of strong pro-Europeanism only began properly in July 1961, when the government of Harold Macmillan, without Labour support, first sought to secure British membership of the Community. Macmillan’s successor but one as leader, Edward Heath, sustained this commitment and finally brought it to fruition in January 1973, as the high point of his ten-year tenure at the helm of the party (1965-75). Heath even sought Conservative membership of the European Union of Christian Democrats (EUCD), although this was rejected. Subsequently, the party joined the Action Committee for the United States of Europe (ACUSE), set up by Jean Monnet. Even after Heath was toppled by Margaret Thatcher, the pro-European momentum of the previous decade and a half continued for some time. However, during Thatcher’s 11 years in government (from May 1979 to November 1990), relations between Britain and its European partners were at best erratic and became seriously strained after her Bruges speech in September 1988 and her resistance to both Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) and German reunification. Significant internal divisions opened up within the Conservative party, leading successively to Thatcher’s own departure from power and a growing ‘civil war’ on Europe, notably surrounding EMU, during the 1990s.
Meanwhile, in the European Parliament, the EDG stood out against Thatcher’s hardening stance on Europe and continued to pursue the logic of closer European engagement. After poor results in the June 1989 European elections, it concluded that the Conservatives could no longer remain an effective force in the Parliament unless they moved much closer to, and ideally merged with, their Christian Democrat colleagues. Rather than attract other parties to join the Conservative cause, the best solution would be to dilute the Conservative identity in a broader, more powerful centre-right, in which they could exercise at least proportionate influence. In the event, Conservative pro-Europeans were able to exploit a brief window of opportunity offered by the early, ‘at the heart of Europe’, phase of John Major’s tenure as prime minister (1990-97), which lasted until sterling’s forced exit from the Exchange-Rate Mechanism (ERM) of the European Monetary System (EMS) on ‘Black Wednesday’ in September 1992. After that, Euroscepticism finally gained the upper hand within the Conservative party.
In May 1992, the British and Danish Conservative Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) joined the European People’s Party (EPP) Group in the Parliament as ‘allied members’. This new alignment suited many (although not all) within the EPP, as it usefully enabled the group to broaden its membership beyond the confines of traditional Christian Democracy. By 1999, it was to be followed by the entry of the Swedish Moderates, Forza Italia and the French Gaullists, so establishing the EPP Group as the largest political group in the Parliament and finally closing off the possibility of any serious counter-force ever emerging to its right. However, back in London, the EPP link took on an almost totemic significance for Eurosceptics – symbolising, in their view, Tory willingness to treat with federalists – and, once the party entered opposition in May 1997, its emboldened right wing vowed to end the arrangement.
The first opposition leader (1997-2001), William Hague, was forced to renegotiate the terms of the Conservatives’ alliance with the EPP in July 1999 – including successfully re-branding the EPP Group as the EPP-ED Group (with ED standing for European Democrats) – in order to emphasise the Conservative MEPs’ distinctiveness and freedom of action. The price he was forced to pay by the EPP was the de facto disbandment of the EDU. The second opposition leader (2001-03), Iain Duncan-Smith, was himself keen to end the EPP link, but rising unpopularity forced him to resign before he had any chance of achieving this. His unopposed successor, Michael Howard, the party’s third leader (2003-05) in four years, pragmatically chose to put the issue on hold. When Howard resigned, after losing the May 2005 general election, David Cameron won the leadership on a modernising platform which (rather incongruously) included a commitment to leave the EPP-ED Group and try to form a new ‘decentralist, free-market and Atlanticist’ grouping instead.
A concession to elements on the right of the party, whose votes he needed at a point when his leadership campaign was faltering, Cameron’s commitment to leave the EPP-ED Group was to cause the new leader considerable difficulty. When he gave this promise, Cameron almost certainly did not appreciate three important shifts in European politics: i) how the growth in the power of the European Parliament meant that departure from its largest political group was by no longer purely symbolic and could seriously weaken Conservative (and, by extension, British) influence on legislative outcomes in the EU; ii) how, following the demise of the EDU, cooperation between the national parties of the centre-right in Europe were now almost entirely routed through the EPP framework; and iii) how, as a result of rule changes within the Parliament, it was no longer possible to form a political group with only two or three nationalities, as in the past – by 2004, the threshold had risen to six nationalities, and it went up to seven in 2009.
An intensive search for like-minded allies began, a process which exposed the extent to which the Conservatives – who had never managed to lock in more than two other national parties even at the height of the EDG – could risk becoming a marginal force outside the catch-all EPP. Two of the few centre-right parties in central and eastern Europe that had not been completely integrated into the EPP family expressed interest: the Polish Law and Justice (PiS) party and the Czech ODS. The first sat alongside Fianna Fáil in the midly Eurosceptic Union for a Europe of Nations (UEN) Group in the Parliament; the second, like the British Conservatives, were still allied members of the EPP-ED Group. An aborted attempt to create a new group in spring 2006 – when Cameron was unable to find the additional three nationalities needed and a majority of Conservative MEPs refused the alternative of sitting as non-inscrit (or independent) members – ended in the ODS leader, Mirek Topolanek, inviting London to postpone the exercise for another three years, until after the next European elections in June 2009. Finally, taking advantage of a stream of small, one-man parties elected at that time, the Conservative-ODS-PiS alliance was able to find sufficient partners to meet the seven-nationality threshold in July 2009.
The resulting Group of European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) now sits as the fifth largest political group in the Parliament. Technically, it is a continuation of the previous UEN Group, but with a new name and a substantially changed membership – for example, Fianna Fáil left to join the Liberals. Analysis by the website VoteWatch.eu suggests that, over the first half of the 2009-14 Parliament, the ECR drifted away from the EPP, voting with it on only 60 per cent of roll-call votes in plenary. (Before leaving the group, Conservative members voted with their EPP colleagues on around 80 per cent of such occasions). By comparison, during the period from July 2009 to January 2012, the EPP voted with the Liberals on 79 per cent, and with the Socialists on 71 per cent, of all roll-call votes.
Copyright: Anthony Teasdale, 2012
Citation: The Penguin Companion to European Union (2012), additional website entry