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What will the Euro elections tell us about Eastern Europe?

Plakat do Parlamentu Europejskiego 2014 Platforma Obywatelska

Photo: Lukasz2 via Wikicommons

The elections to the European Parliament which take place across the EU’s 28 member states between 22 and 25 May are widely seen a series of national contests, which voters use to vent their frustration and give incumbent and established parties a good kicking. Newspaper leader writers and think-tankers got this story and have been working overtime to tell us about a rising tide of populism driven by a range of non-standard protest parties.

The conventional wisdom is that the ‘populist threat’ is all eurosceptic (and usually of a right-wing persuasion) although in some cases the ‘eurosceptic surge’ is clearly a matter of whipping together (and familiar) narrative than careful analysis: how the European Council for Foreign Relations came to think that the pro-business pragmatists of ANO currently topping the polls in the Czech Republic belong in the same eurosceptic bracket as the Austrian Freedom Party, Front national, Hungary’s Jobbik – or even the moderate Catholic conservatives of Law and Justice (PiS) – is very hard to fathom.

But, as a simultaneous EU-wide poll using similar (PR-based) electoral systems, the EP elections also provide a rough and ready yardstick of Europe-wide political trends, ably tracked by the LSE-based Pollwatch 2014 and others.

And, for those interested in comparison and convergence of the two halves of a once divided continent, they a window into the political differences and similarities between the ‘old’ pre-2004 of Western and Southern Europe and the newer members from Central and Eastern Europe (now including Croatia which joined in 2013). Read More…

Czech Republic: scepticism without euro-scepticism?

Malé Kyšice, obecní úřad, evropské volby
Photo: Akron/ Wikimedia Commons
CC BY-SA 3.0

As elsewhere in Europe, elections to the European Parliament on 23-24 May in the Czech Republic will be more of a trial of domestic strength, than a contest over EU issues.

 The EP elections come at a time when Czech politics is still in flux following the ‘political earthquake’ unleashed by national parliamentary elections in October 2013. These saw the eclipse of established right-wing parties; sharp electoral setbacks for the Social Democrats (ČSSD), the main party of the Czech left; and a dramatic breakthrough by the new ANO movement of billionaire Andrej Babiš.

The question in the minds of many observers is whether the Euro-elections – the first national poll in a year that will also see crucial Senate and local elections – will confirm this changed political landscape

 Early indications are that they will.

 Projections by Pollwatch 2014 (based largely on general polling data) suggest that ANO and ČSSD, who have governed together in an uneasy centrist coalition since January, will top the polls with around 22 per cent of the vote enabling each to elect 6 MEPs. Polling by SANEP which asked specifically about the European elections broadly echoes this, but gives ANO a clear lead.

European elections SANEP1 This is good news for Babiš’s movement whose strategy of presenting itself a non-ideological reform movement and hand-picking high profile technocrats and businesspeople as candidates seems, for the moment, still to be paying off. The movement’s EP list is headed by the ultra-credible Pavel Telička, a vastly experienced former diplomat who headed the Czech Republic’s EU accession negotiating team in 1998-2002 and briefly served as a European Commissioner.  Read More…

Getting the name right?

What do you do if you’re a fading historic right-wing party in a small  northern European country with a strong, broadly  social-democratic political culture?

For the Scottish Conservatives, whose  secular decline despite the electoral bounce- back of 2010 in England and Wales is catalogued by a recent IPPR report, the answer would seem be to dissolve and rebrand as a new more modern, more appealing centre-right formation.

That at least is the idea of leadership contender Murdo Fraser (one floated as early 2007)- and one looked at with quiet sympathy by London Tories around David Cameron who basically buy in to the idea the Conservative identity is too toxic and too undermined by social change and the decline of political identities shaped by religion and Empire to be redeemable. Better a strong, autonomous allied party better than enfeebled rump.

But what – assuming Mr Fraser gets his way – would such a party be called?And what would it imply? Perhaps  in time the drawing in of pro-market elements of the Liberals or the SNP.

We know one thing. The new would include the word ‘Scottish’ and not include the word ‘Conservative’. But where to go from there?

Perhaps take inspiration from the Anglosphere?

The  main party of centre-right in New Zealand is the National Party, but that label is clearly not available. in Scotland

Canada has the Progressive Conservatives, but the ‘C’ word is out and Progressive tag (Scottish Progressives? Progressive Democrats?)  alone might be a linguistic modernisation too far, even in this age of political cross dressing. I guess,  still following Canadian politics, the label Reform might be a possibility.

After all, the Tories European Parliament Group – where this new party’s MEPs (if it won any) would sit – is called the European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR). So perhaps Scottish Reform Party? Tory bloggers liked this idea. On the other hand, the label does have vaguely religious echos, which might be a bad idea given Scotland’s sectarian history.

Perhaps the Scandinavian right might offer inspiration.  Sweden has the Moderates (as does Estonia)  but I suspect the Scottish Moderates would not do well and might provoke a few guffaws given the Tories’ history of hot gospelling Thatcherism in Scotland in 1980s.

Iceland, of course, has the Independence Party – a pragmatic  fusion of Liberals and Conservatives , take note – but somehow that might not strike the right note in Scotland… And besides UKIP seems have baggsied the Independence label.

Some Scottish Tories also toyed, it seems, with the idea of becoming the Freedom Party, although this rather in-your-face label has only been successfully used by Geert Wilders anti-Islamic outfit in Holland and the late Joerg Haider’s radical right grouping in Austria and is more associated with European liberal parties.  Beside Scottish Freedom Party, sounds somewhat like a more radical version of the SNP.

Perhaps  Central and East European politics then?  After all, the dissolve-rebrand-and-reinvent formula was tried by a number of discredited former ruling (communist)  parties there.

However,   as even the most rapid Tory-phobe would admit,  we not talking about a bunch of ex- totalitarians, so it’s really the CEE right we should be looking. Here the word ‘Democratic’ seems to be the main label on office (Civic Democratic Party in the Czech Republic, Slovene Democrats, Bulgaria’s Union of Democratic Forces (as was)) – as well as general avoidance of the word ‘Party’.

Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria

So that would leave is with Scottish Democrats or Scottish Democratic Union (handy echoes of the Unionist tag, the Scottish Tories historically used until 1965  and which, oddly, seems a favoured option, despite stressing the English link and having slight undertones of Northern Irish protestant politics)

Unless,  like many a Central European and Scandinavian conservative, they started to think less in party terms and more in terms of alliance-making.  Slovakia had its Blue Coalition, Denmark its Blue Alliance.

Which perhaps begs the question of where the ranks of this new centre-right in this increasingly politically far away country called Scotland would come from.

>Coffee and blue horizons

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Wordle: ECR Prague Declaration
Spring sunshine, view of the Downs, coffee bar across the car park. Sussex University is a virtual Nirvana. But what is the ideological identity of the European Conservatives and Reformists group? Market liberalism in economics reckon my collaborators. Comparision with the moderate anti-liberal declarations of the European People’s Party (EPP) and the market versus civil society fence-sitting the equivalent document for the European Democrats, Liberals and Reformists would suggest so. But what does our old friend Wordle have to say about it?

>British Tories’ Luxembourg allies slip in unnoticed

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As an occasional follower of developments in the British Tory-led European Reformers (ECR) group in the European Parliament, I was intrested to discover that  the latest addition to the ECR fold was Luxembourg’s Alternative Democratic Reform party (ADR) Actually, the ADR joined back in June, but as it has no MEPs and Luxembourg politics is not something that even I- with my penchant for small parties and small countries – don’t follow that closely, it passed me by. 

The ADR is, however, an interesting right-wing populist outfit, which has it origins in 1987 as grouping demanding the same level of pension rights for private sector employees and the self-employed  as for well looked after state employees. It later broadened out its politics into anti-establishment, anti-bureaucracy positions and is, of course, eurosceptic for these kind of reasons. Some Luxembourgois political scientists have seen it as a functional equivalent of a radical right party, which is unlikely ever to emerge in the Grand Duchy due to a rather distinct, cosmopolitan national identity; a great deal of wealth; and norm of having very large numbers of non-nationals (mostly West European EU-ers) as a fact of life. Still, the ADR has managed to raise concerns about immigrants it sees as less desirable, which seems mainly be have been a debate centring on asylum seekers and illegal migration – and some academic studies rather casually lump it in with the anti-immigrant far right on the basis of expert surveys.

The ADR has never been in government – considered something of dodgy outsider by the country’s political establishment – but has been a solid part of the Luxemboourg political landscape for more than two decades with around 10% of the vote. This leaves the ADR potentially well placed to to add an MEP to the ECR  (it missed out very narrowly in 2004 and by a slightly bigger margin in 2009) a grouping already not short of one-member national delegations.

>Tory story

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Our piece on the European Conservatives and Reformers group in Political Quarterly gets the once over from one of the bloggers on Conservative Home. It is, alas, not a very insightful commentary as, as well confusing the Civic Democrats (ODS) with Poland’s Civic Platform in the initial posting and for good measure implying that ODS leader Miroslav Topolánek has just taken over as head of Poland’s other main party, Law and Justice, it spends most of its time on auto-pilot rebutting the charge sheet of media criticism of the ECR summarise dat the start of the article (which we don’t agree with).
I suppose that’s what comes from being in the trenches of the party political blogosphere churning out comment and criticism to keep whatever side you on supplied with ammunition and dutifully toe-ing the party line, or pussyfooting around i (in this case we are asked to belivethat the Tories’ East European allies are a market friendly proper centre-right, whereas similar parties not interested in the ECR embrace like Hungary’s Fidesz are evil populist baddies).

Like a lot of politics lecturers, I know, while it fascinates me, the the whole me good/you bad bullshit world of partisan politics also rather appals.

For the first time in very a long while, I almost feel glad to be an academic…

>Traces of nuts may be detectable

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The mildy controversial article Tim Bale, Aleks Szczerbiak and I wrote for Political Quarterly about the British Tories and their East European allies in the new European Conseravtives and Reformers Group (ECR) European Parliament has just appeared – interested readers based in universities with an institutional subscription to PQ might like to click through here. Otherwise, friends and colleagues, please feel free to drop me an email to ask for an electronic offprint.
The new ECR group, however, looks a bit more shaky than it might have done a few months ago, if the recent interview with Civic Democrat faction leader in the EP Miroslav Ouzký, who pulls no punches in telling Czech news magazine Respekt that the leaving the European People’s Party was a bad move, depriving his party of political clout and was the brainchild of arch-eurosceptic and one time Klaus protege, Jan Zahradil (now the Vice-Chair of ECR). The ECR’s dependence on small one MEP parties, Ouzký says – as we too argued in the article (seealso an East European oriented presentation I did on the subject last year fwith some figures) leaves it vulnerable to collapse.

My co-author, Tim Bale, is also author of new book on the British Tories, which he describes here in a podcast on the Bookhugger site. I had a small enabling role here, as it was recording in my office: a fact obvious by default for anyone who knows it in that Tim is seated in front of the only area not cluttered with untidy piles of books, papers and coffee cups: the space-age window-cum-porthole which sometimes leaves me feeling more like Major Tom than Dr Sean.