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‘Useless’: European conservatives refuse to field lead candidate in June’s election

Members of the European Parliament for the ECR group vote during a plenary session in Strasbourg,
Members of the European Parliament for the ECR group vote during a plenary session in Strasbourg, Copyright Alexis HAULOT/ European Union 2023 - Source : EP
Copyright Alexis HAULOT/ European Union 2023 - Source : EP
By Mared Gwyn Jones
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The right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) party has confirmed it will not field a lead candidate in June’s European elections, spurning the process as "useless."

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In a press statement on Wednesday, the party said that its decision was based on its long-standing position that the so-called Spitzenkandidaten process is not fit for purpose. 

It came after the adoption of the party’s electoral manifesto in Strasbourg on Tuesday evening, in a meeting chaired by its president, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, and attended by former Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

The Spitzenkandidaten process, which sees each major political party field a lead candidate to preside over the European Commission, was scuppered in 2019 when Ursula von der Leyen was parachuted to the role despite not campaigning.

It has led many, particularly hard-right conservatives, to pronounce the process as dead.

“In declining to nominate a candidate for the top position, the ECR is sending a strong signal that the party remains true to its line that it was never in favour of the Spitzenkandidat system,” the party’s statement reads.

It adds that von der Leyen’s own party, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), advocated for the process before deviating from it, “showing that the whole approach is useless.”

Czech MEP Jan Zahradil, who ran as the ECR's Spitzenkandidat in 2019 and now serves as the group's vice-president, said on X: "I fully endorse the decision not to go for it this time."

"In 2019, the “spitzenkandidat” system failed. Now it is only (a) redundant EP muscle-flexing exercise, going beyond Treaties, trying to overplay Council," he added.

But sources from within the party, speaking to Euronews on condition of anonymity, said that the group’s 20 member parties had significantly varying views on the move, with some delegations advocating for a lead candidate to spearhead the party’s campaign ahead of June.

The ECR party brings together 20 hard-right, conservative parties from across the bloc, including the likes of Italy’s ruling Fratelli d’Italia, Spain’s Vox and Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party.

It is projected to win around 75 seats, seven more than currently, in June’s ballot, buoyed by the popularity of Italy's Fratelli d'Italia, whose leader Giorgia Meloni has forged a close relationship with von der Leyen and earned the respect of Europe's centre-right.

The centre-right EPP has not ruled out a potential agreement to cooperate with the ECR in the next legislature. But the EPP's red lines on potential partners mean it would be unlikely to do so if the ECR were to welcome Viktor Orbán's Fidesz party, which is currently without a group in the European Parliament and rumoured to be in talks with the ECR.

Green Deal, migration in focus

In the statement, the party also says that the Green Deal - a package of wide-ranging legislation designed to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent - "is to be turned on its head"

"The ECR wants to support a more balanced and localised climate strategy that does not forget ordinary people, prioritises socio-economic well-being, and ceases to neglect the concerns of farmers, breeders and fishermen, citizens, and businesses," it adds.

The Green Deal has in recent months come under fire after a wave of mass protests among European farmers who feel excessive environmental demands are squeezing their profits. Political parties have heavily capitalised on their discontent to gain political points ahead of June's ballot.

But despite farmers across the bloc also bemoaning the negative impact of free trade deals on their livelihoods, the ECR also says it will advocate for "better global trade relations with a wide range of partners, and diversification to reduce excessive dependencies and strengthen competitiveness."

On migration, seen as one of the party's priorities, it calls for "a comprehensive border security strategy covering all possible points of entry, including air, land, and sea borders."

The party's MEPs predominantly voted in favour of the recent Pact on Migration, narrowly endorsed last month by the parliament, despite rebellion from their Polish members.

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The manifesto is also expected to call for reducing Brussels' powers and upholding national sovereignty.

“Our first objective will be to defend our nations against the attempts to strip them of powers. ‘Do less, do better’ is our mantra," Meloni said during Tuesday's meeting.

Morawiecki said ECR stands for "a Europe that is made up of nations" and rejected a "shift towards a superstate with its capital in Brussels."

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