Syed Kamall is Chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group and is an MEP for London.
The predictions were dire. Brussel bubble commentators were looking forward to the days when the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) Group, created at the initiative of David Cameron five years earlier, would lose so many seats that it would either dwindle into insignificance or disappear from the Brussels political landscape altogether.
They claimed his experiment had failed. It would be back to business as usual in the European Parliament.
But it did not happen. The ECR emerged from the 2014 European elections as the Parliament’s third largest political group, with more MEPs and much greater influence. Guy Verhofstadt’s Liberals, fanatical supporters of a United States of Europe, had been relegated into fourth place.
Fast forward five years and, as Brexit and new European Parliament elections loom, the Brussels establishment is at it again. According to their narrative, the loss of the British Conservatives will seriously undermine the ECR, so the best it can possibly hope for is to cling on as the fifth largest group.
But just as in 2014, it is looking like these predictions will prove to be wishful thinking by our opponents and all those in Brussels unable to conceive that the public may not share their 1950s vision of transferring ever more power from national governments to the European Union.
The ECR is gaining support from across Europe. Just last week emerging French and Dutch parties announced their MEPs would be joining after the elections.
A stronger ECR group would be good for the European Parliament, since the Parliament would then better reflect the citizens it serves: those who want a moderate, euro-realist voice to be heard loud and clear. Of course, as the current co-leader of the ECR Group I declare an interest. However, I believe the ECR’s achievements speak for themselves.
Since that 2014 election the ECR Group has been ahead of the debate on migration. Initially we were criticised for making a distinction between genuine refugees and economic migrants. The ECR has long argued that genuine refugees and asylum seekers need our help and should be quickly identified, processed and resettled. Economic migrants are deserving of our understanding, but must apply for visas through the proper channels, and not seek to bypass the system by turning up on Europe’s shores.
Now, after several wasted years of attempting to compulsorily relocate refugees to sometimes reluctant member states, the EU has finally heeded our call to seek more consensus on the way forward.
Common sense, pragmatism, and negotiating skill has enabled our ECR MEPs to pilot some of the most difficult pieces of legislation through the European Parliament, too.
ECR MEPs balanced the often conflicting views of environmentalists and business to secure reform of the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme. We led on overhauling regulations following the Paris attacks to ensure terrorists would not find it so easy to obtain semi-automatic weapons. We led on introducing an EU-wide data sharing system to identify suspicious travel movements and tackle terrorism and organised crime. We also led the EU’s main legislative response to the Dieselgate crisis. Not a bad track record.
From a purely British perspective, being one of the largest national parties in the ECR has provided Conservative MEPs with a seat in most of the important negotiations, rather than having to watch MEPs from other countries and with other views represent our interests, as often happened prior to us leaving the christian-democratic European People’s Party in 2009.
In the European Parliament, the ECR alone occupies the middle ground between federalists promoting ever-closer political union on one side, and political groups consisting of parties whose goal it is to break up the EU on the other.
It comprises neither pro-EU fanatics nor anti-EU radicals. Instead, it presses for a reformed, free-trading EU, which does less but better, respects national parliaments, and intervenes only when necessary. An EU that listens to voters, not one that only takes notice when the people’s views accord with its own.
The ECR’s core principles are shared by many voters in the remaining 27 EU countries. If the ECR’s voice was quietened, then those voters’ views on the future direction of the European Union would go unrepresented in Brussels. That would not only be bad for those who want to see a reformed European Union, but also bad for post-Brexit Britain, in whose interests it is for our neighbours and trading partners to prosper.
As the UK prepares to embark on an exciting new future outside the EU, history will record Brexit as one of David Cameron’s chief political legacies. In future years, the ECR Group will increasingly be seen as another.