A European Memorandum to the Harper Conservatives: You have friends on this side of the Atlantic

Canada has deep-rooted ties with European nations, which began with the first settlements from Britain and France, and today includes populations from virtually every country in Europe. Note to Canada’s Conservatives: The majority of European-Canadian communities are mainly in urban Canada and are economically affluent and politically active. In addition, they maintain strong links with their “mother” countries, and many even retain the right to vote in those countries.

In fact, European-Canadians have set up formal or informal political party branches that are linked to their “mother parties” in Europe. Yet, it is unclear if Canada’s Conservative Party has fully tapped into the electoral potential of political party links with like-minded, centre-right European affiliates. Moreover, the Conservative Party has not taken advantage of party-to-party foreign policy opportunities that could strengthen relations with its European sister parties and create domestic electoral opportunities.

Some context: Historically, the Liberal Party was hugely successful in attracting voters from most European-Canadian communities since, until very recently, it was perceived as the party of Canada’s “ethnic” communities. The Liberals were keen to give themselves credit for opening the country’s doors to these communities in the 1960s and 1970s, and they were able to capitalize on this electorally. Liberal governments also used sensitive foreign policy issues to connect politically with these communities. The devastating Liberal defeat in May and the party’s reduction to third place was partly due to the loss of the above-mentioned voters. Also, the Liberal strategy did not include a worldwide partisan approach, in part because the party is a member of the not-so-influential Liberal International. In Europe, its ideological affiliates are few, mostly weak parties that are overshadowed by those from the two pre-eminent political families, the European People’s Party (EPP) on the centre-right and the Party of European Socialists (PES) on the centre-left.

The NDP, in its new second-place position and in its quest to consolidate and even to expand its influence on the electorate, may start taking advantage of its membership in the Socialist International (SI) in order to strengthen relations with important centre-left parties in Europe and on other continents. The SI is probably the most well-known global political alliance and has a strong European arm, the above-mentioned Party of European Socialists. The NDP has always been well connected with the SI, and in 1978, during the leadership of Ed Broadbent, the party even hosted the Summit of Socialist leaders in Vancouver.

An opportune moment for Canada’s Conservatives

In the last five years, and especially during the 2011 electoral campaign, the Conservative Party made significant inroads with European-Canadians and ethnic communities at large. However, the Tories did not fully explore the domestic and foreign policy opportunities that party-to-party relations with like-minded parties in Europe could offer. Moreover, at the current stage of the transatlantic relationship, most Europeans do not perceive Canada as a central player and Prime Minister Stephen Harper remains largely unknown.

Of course, during these five years, Harper had the challenging task of running a minority government. That did not leave much time for him or the Conservative Party to concentrate on international public relations and political party contacts. However, Harper’s recent landslide victory and majority have come at an opportune moment: Europe in 2011 has been swept by a tide of centre-right parties.

Europe is now centre-right: 17 of 27 EU governments

Of the 27 Member States of the European Union (EU), only five are governed by centre-left and left-wing parties: Spain, Greece, Slovenia, Austria and Cyprus. Three more, Denmark, the Netherlands and Estonia, are led by parties from the European Liberal Democrat and Reform party (the European wing of the Liberal International).

More importantly for Canada’s Conservatives to know, 17 out 27 EU governments are led by parties and politicians from the centre-right EPP: France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, Sweden, Finland, Ireland, Portugal, Hungary, Slovakia, Luxembourg, Belgium, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia and Malta.

In addition, two governments are led by parties from the EU-skeptic side of things, the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists: the Conservatives in the United Kingdom and the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) in the Czech Republic.

Moreover, on the European Union level, it is worth noting that three of the four leading EU positions – the Presidents of the European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament – are held by the centre-right EPP.

In sum, that centre-right leaders and parties dominate Europe offers many important political opportunities for Canada’s Conservatives. There is a solid base already in place for building political party relations with Europe since there is a direct ideological link between Canada’s Conservatives and the EPP and its national member-parties. For example, the Conservative Party of Canada is already a member of the International Democrat Union, a global alliance of centre-right parties, of which the EPP is the European wing. In addition, the British Conservatives and the Czech ODS are members of the organization.

Canada’s Conservatives and the EPP have had a number of ad hoc contacts over the last five years. Specifically, its president, former Belgian Prime Minister Wilfried Martens, met Harper three times. Moreover, delegations of both parties met at various like-minded events over the years. In 2008, a few weeks prior to Canada’s federal election, a Tory delegation led by Stockwell Day asked Martens to endorse Harper on camera, which he did immediately in a statement in English and in French.

Political Instruments

Even though Canada’s Conservatives made some efforts in the past, they need to invest more time and resources to secure strong and long-lasting bilateral relations with like-minded parties in Europe. The Conservative Party possesses the ideological ties and the network access to set up strong political relations in Europe, but it still lacks the right political instruments to kick-start such a process. Currently, the party has neither a dedicated foreign relations section nor a party-related entity that can do such work on its behalf.

It appears that in the last five and a half years, bilateral contacts abroad were left to the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, and the Protocol Office, which handles the foreign trips of the Prime Minister and government officials. These may seem like the obvious places to handle foreign relations, but they cannot be involved in partisan affiliations and bridge-building. However, the Conservative Party’s staff should be aware that in Europe such political party contacts are particularly important when dealing with influential leaders, whether it is Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel or others, such as a prime minister-in-waiting like Mariano Rajoy of Spain. Thus, if the Conservative Party would be willing to engage in such a process, it would first need to create an appropriate organizational structure. The Tories should consider implementing at least one of the following models (note: many political parties in Europe have integrated both):

First, the party model. This is the one used by most major parties in Europe, and it can be implemented rather quickly. It consists of setting up an International Office inside the main party headquarters, which is led by a party official along with some support staff. The head of such an office, usually called the International Secretary, functions as the party’s dedicated contact person for all foreign political party contacts.

The International Secretary must travel frequently to other countries since the International Office will regularly receive invitations to participate in party conventions and events of sister parties. During these trips, the International Secretary must network aggressively. The International Office must keep in regular contact with its foreign counterparts and also reciprocate the invitations and invite sister parties to major party events and conventions in Canada as part of a foreign-guests program. Finally, to maximize political synergy, the International Office must have the authority to communicate relevant information directly to the private office of the Prime Minister and vice versa.

Second, there is the foundation model, used, in different variations, both in Europe and in the United States. In Europe, most parties have political foundations linked to them; they perform a broad range of activities including publishing policy studies, training party officials, implementing democracy-promotion programs in countries in transition and so forth. In other words, it is an in-house think-tank.

One well-known political foundation, Germany’s Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, which is linked to Germany’s Christian Democratic Union party, has offices around the world and runs a wide range of democracy-related programs. In the framework of that foundation’s international activities, it also functions as a semi-formal international-relations network office for Chancellor Merkel’s party. In the United States, the International Republican Institute is also dedicated to democracy promotion and has offices around the world but, being a non-partisan organization, has no formal links to the Republican party.

Political instruments

Although Canada has no such foundations, Harper has supported the creation of a Canadian Democracy Promotion Agency, which would be similar to the U.S. and European government agencies that fund democracy-promotion projects such as the ones mentioned above. Thus, if it is set up, then the political foundation of the Conservative Party would, in a short time, be able to create a strong international profile since it would have the ability to form partnerships to work on projects with like-minded political foundations.

Reaching across the Atlantic

If the above-mentioned effort gets on track, Harper will have a powerful political springboard that could place him at the centre stage of transatlantic politics. Importantly, it could help strengthen and multiply the positive image that many Europeans and European leaders have of Canada. On a practical level, it would also help further the goal of an EU-Canada free trade deal, which is something Harper makes no secret of his desire to secure.

There is great sympathy for the Canadian Conservative government in Europe. A few weeks after Harper’s election victory in May, Sweden’s Foreign Minister (and former prime minister), Carl Bildt had this to say on his Twitter account: “I should congratulate [Canada] on Canada Day today. We have a lot in common on many issues…. [Canada is] sometimes more Nordic than American.”

Harper’s next visit to Europe should not be the usual copy-and-paste protocol program formulated by apolitical civil servants. With the help of the Conservative Party, Harper’s next trip to Europe should include meetings with party affiliates driven by a strong political message that highlights Canada as a central partner in the transatlantic relationship.

Harper should consider giving a major political speech to the European Parliament. This is especially critical considering that in recent months, important EU-Canada issues such as the proposed free trade agreement came up in the European Parliament’s debates as well as the issue of Canada’s oil sands. Thus, a speech by Canada’s prime minister could have manifold benefits. Importantly, Harper would be the first Canadian prime minister to address the European Parliament. As such, he would attract widespread international media attention, and he would be recognized in Europe as the statesman who put Canada at the centre of the transatlantic economic and political partnership.

Canada’s Conservatives and Stephen Harper should reach out to their European friends. They and he will be pleasantly surprised by the response and by the political benefit that these relationships will generate, both domestically and internationally.

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