Madrid congress provides forum for delegates from EU centre-right parties

Political groups play crucial backroom role in European politics

Think Fine Gael Ardfheis , European-style. This week close to 3,000 delegates are descending on Madrid for the European People's Party congress, a meeting of centre-right parties from across Europe. The late-night sing-songs and Guinness may be replaced by tapas and cava, but the vibe is still the same.

The congress is a chance for its politicians to regroup and engage in some collective back-slapping as the EPP reflects on its status as the EU's largest political family.

EU political groups play a crucial backroom role in the world of European politics. Before every European Council meeting, closed-door meetings of leaders are often the forum where positions are formulated, as prime ministers line up along ideological lines.

Since the financial crisis, pre-eurogroup meetings of finance ministers have become increasingly important. When Greece found itself on the brink of a euro zone exit this year, key decisions were taken in the pre-eurogroup meetings of EPP finance ministers, as Germany's Wolfgang Schäuble and his ideological partners such as Finland's Alex Stubb and our own Michael Noonan staked out a common position. Similarly, at the European Commission, commissioners from various political groups meet ahead of their weekly college meeting.


Contentious debate

The political group formation can also be the site for more contentious debate.

During the EPP's private meeting with Angela Merkel earlier this month, MEPs challenged the German leader over her handling of the migration crisis, prompting an emotional response as she defended her policy, according to people in the room.

Simultaneously, the role of the political groups in the European political landscape has become more politicised. The launch of the controversial Spitzenkandidat system during last year's European Parliament elections, which saw EU political parties nominate candidates for the European Commission presidency, marked a turning point in the relationship between political groups and the commission.

The decision by the EPP to back Jean-Claude Juncker, and his subsequent appointment, signalled an uncomfortable politicisation of the EU's executive arm. Juncker himself has vowed to lead a "more political" commission. Both Juncker and European Council president Donald Tusk are addressing the EPP congress.

The fact three EU commissioners are in the running for EPP vice-president jobs today could signal even closer links between the commission and the centre-right group.

Irish politicians of all hues have traditionally invested in their relationship with their larger European political families. As evidenced by the tensions over the nomination of Minister of State for Europe Dara Murphy as EPP vice-president, EPP membership matters for Fine Gael, and particularly Taoiseach Enda Kenny. When Fine Gael was on the opposition benches, he travelled to Brussels for EPP meetings, cultivating relationships with fellow centre-right leaders including Merkel.

Labour has also prioritised its EU links over the years, though the party has no MEP in the centre-left Socialists and Democrats group, having failed to win a seat last year. Former leader Eamon Gilmore's S&D credentials are likely to have stood him in good stead when he was appointed EU envoy to the Colombian peace process, an appointment made by EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, a fellow S&D member.

Fianna Fáil has suffered somewhat from its affiliation with the liberal group Alde, the smallest of the big three political families, though the defection of the party's only MEP, Brian Crowley, to the European Conservatives and Reformists group last year has left the party without any representation there.

As members of the Confederal Group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left group, Sinn Féin's three MEPs have maintained a high profile since their election last year. Luke "Ming" Flanagan is in the left-wing group, while Nessa Childers and Marian Harkin are the Irish representatives in the S&D and Alde groups respectively.

Nonetheless, behind the canapés and working-sessions at the EPP congress in Madrid, the party is facing internal tensions, and not only between German CDU MEPs including EPP party president Manfred Weber and the German chancellor over migration. Of larger concern is the problematic presence of Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orban.

Hungarian PM

His lurch to the far right, demonstrated by his clampdown on media and internet freedoms, apparent support for the death penalty and hardline approach to refugees, has become a distraction.

Membership of the EPP gives Orban the comfort of belonging to a larger political family and an opportunity to grandstand on an EU political stage. How the EPP squares its European values with Orban’s politics will be a challenge.