The evolution of the EPP’s discourse through its electoral manifestos



04.12.2019   | Sofía de Haro & Luis Bouza

The discourse of the European People’s Party (EPP), the main force in the European Parliament since 1999, shows some important evolutions in the tone of the discourse and in some policies since the last two legislatures, but it is characterised overall by a striking continuity in the policy issues. Contrary to some perceptions, the current focus on border control and migration is not a mere reaction to the migration crisis of 2015 – 16 or to the growth of nationalist populist forces in the EU since 2014. Instead, the EPP has contributed to making migration and border control a central issue in the EU political agenda since at least 2009. The 2009 manifesto already proposed to strengthen FRONTEX – the EU border control agency – and implementing a Blue Card System, an admission system focusing on the selection of skilled migrants. In the 2019 manifesto just published this week, the EPP continues a turn towards the securitization of migration by addressing migration issues under the heading «A Europe that protects its citizens» and addressing Africa’s demographic growth as a threat.

That being said the comparison mainly shows a strong continuity in core issues. Whereas the 2009 elections manifesto focused on prosperity, security, climate change, demographic challenge and European Union unification in the world stage, the 2019 manifesto focuses on protecting citizens, preserving Europe’s way of life, delivering opportunities and empowering citizens. Topics such as common defence and fighting irregular migration have been regularly present in the EPP programme along the years, even though the 2019 manifesto removes direct references to a common army and improvement of the European police capabilities in favour of references to national police and a European Border and Coast Guard.

Whereas the 2009 reserved an entire section to address demographic problems and boosting family-based policies to tackle it, it was the last time the EPP dedicated a whole section to this problem in its programme. That being said the 2019 programme refers to the EU’s demography problems in comparison to demographic threats in Africa and devotes an entire sub-section to protecting families.Although climate change is explicitly mentioned, it is no longer under a specific header. The party commitments emphasises the need of ensuring an international climate protection agreement that is legally binding, whereas the manifesto bids to build a real energy union. On a concrete policy issue, whereas the 2009 manifesto considered nuclear energy as an option to reduce emissions this policy is no longer considered in the 2019 manifesto, reflecting the EPP’s main party, German chancellor Merkel CDU, U-turn on the issue after the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Interestingly the manifesto appears more critical with Green parties than with social democrats, as it considers «Green narrow-mindedness that categorically rejects trade, hinders economic growth and fails to include large parts of our societies» a threat on the same level as populists.

The issue most mentioned in the 2014 programme was the economic crisis. Fostering private investment appeared as the key  for growth and job creation. The manifesto for May 2019 promises to deliver 5 million new jobs by promoting innovation and free trade agreements, albeit promoting an industrial policy and protecting strategic sectors. The 2019 programme however emphasises the success of the Juncker plan, whereas in several other policies the manifesto takes a distance from Juncker’s policies and priorities. Areas where Jean-Claude Juncker has supported initiatives by Macron – a Europea army and European Universities – are watered down rather than presented as EPP policies.

As in 2014, the 2019 manifesto programme presents the EPP as heir and holder of the founder father’s values. It addressed some democracy and rule of law issues that are also expanded in the 2019 manifesto, addressing for the first time concerns about national political parties. The 2019 manifesto still refers to rule of law and corruption problems in national politics, but these are presented as external issues in relation to the Balkan accession. Similarly, the manifesto promises to fight fake news and antisemitism as external threats. The 2019 manifesto follows by acknowledging the need to make European politics closer to the citizens. The manifesto strongly endorses the spizenkandidaten process – based on the principle that running as a candidate for a European party family is a requisite for candidates to head the Commission – and proposes to end the Commission’s monopoly on legislative initiative by granting this to the Parliament as well.

For the rest the EPP’s manifesto for 2019 also shows a number of striking innovations. Firstly it uses strong language against a darker international context: «In times of Russian hybrid warfare, China’s new military ambitions and instability in our neighbourhood, Europe must increasingly take its military security into its own hands. Moreover, insecurity is also increased by US President Trump’s questioning of the transatlantic partnership». Secondly, the manifesto takes a clear turn towards defining and protecting Europe’s «way of life» and identity by bidding to «to protect our European way of life by preserving our Christian values and fundamental principles». The manifesto also bids to end accession negotiations with Turkey. Whereas the EPP has in the past advocated for the recognition of a Judaeo-Christian heritage, such an explicit reference to «Christian values» must be explained by competition by EPP members – such as suspended Hungary’s Fidesz – and right-wing populists such as Salvini.

As for the social democrats, the EPP manifesto is also telling of the dilemmas of the party and party family. Should it strengthen its discourse on migration and identity in order to compete with right-wing populists? Or could that further reinforce its competitors on its right? To the centre, does it have incentives to cooperate with Macron and new liberal forces? Alternatively, does it rather stand in favour of the statu quo rather than in favour of more EU integration? Whereas the EPP has systematically pushed for integration, its 2019 manifesto is much more insistent on subsidiarity and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merkel’s successor in the CDU, has reacted to Macron’s open letter by rejecting European centralism. Finally, will the EPP analyse its failure at disciplining Orban’s Fidesz and revert its policy of including as many partners as possible or will it be tempted to gain new members following the realignment of right-wing forces and possible dilution of the Conservatives and Reformists group following Brexti?