It is easy to resort to caricature when discussing Martin Callanan, the leader of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group in the European Parliament. A snarling animal at bay, a solitary right-wing UK politician from an industrial left-wing stronghold, leading a rump of political misfits in the Parliament, waging flamboyant war against perceived failings of the European Union, and espousing causes on the brink of extinction, from Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech of 25 years ago to saving the “great British pub”.
It is a harder task to separate the person from the politics, and the reality from the rhetoric. Callanan is a unique product of a unique situation. Thrust into the European spotlight as the leader – the third in three years – of a notoriously fractious political group, he has to play simultaneously to demanding and diverse audiences. In a recent high-profile appearance, his shrill criticism of the president of the European Commission in September’s State of the Union debate might have been a genuflection to his Eurosceptic ECR colleagues, to his constituents back in the UK, or to his patrons in Downing Street – or might simply have been personal exasperation. And the resentment he provokes among MEPs in other political groups seems triggered as much by his attitude as by his arguments. His firm opinions – whether on federalism or exhaust emissions – are couched in language that seems calculated to generate irritation rather than influence.
“The best way to create more employment in Europe would be to create some unemployment in the European Commission”, he claims. He sees “a great deal of faux outrage” in reactions to recent allegations of spying on citizens, and accuses fellow MEPs of naivety: “A display you would expect.” Recent proposals for Europe-wide political parties are “another barmy federalist wish-list”, and he depicts the EU as under siege from a bid to create “a European Union ‘of the NGOs, by the NGOs, for the NGOs’”.
He is not widely loved in Europe. Within the Parliament, responses range from the studiedly indifferent (“I hardly know him”) to the downright hostile (“Who?” or “A strange subject for a profile!”). Nor is he even widely known. Outside the Parliament, the many “who?” responses are genuine, and utterly devoid of irony.
Yet he has survived for nearly three terms as an MEP, and close on two years at the head of his group.
He knows about survival. There was no privileged background to inspire his politics. His engineering degree was not from a university, but from a technical college, and when he moved up it was to become a project manager in the local brewery. In his early years in politics he was the only Conservative councillor in an otherwise Labour-dominated local administration in his native north-east of England. He fought (and lost) three elections to the Westminster parliament, and he is now the only Conservative MEP from his region. “I was used to making my own personal profile as the lone Conservative in the region”, he told European Voice. As one of his close colleagues says: “He is a gritty politician from an area where you have to be gritty to be elected as a Conservative.”
Similarly, he has taken on running the ECR after two unhappy predecessors abandoned the post in unhappy circumstances. This was the group created when David Cameron, newly elected as the UK’s prime minister, dragged the UK Conservatives out of the mainstream centre-right European People’s Party group, obliging them to consort with an assortment of Poles, Czechs and others of strongly right-wing views in order to gain the numbers needed to create a new political entity in the Parliament.
Like many survivors, Callanan can often be short on charm. Close colleagues admit that his frequently abrasive – and occasionally intemperate – manner can easily “rub people up the wrong way”. Those who are more sympathetic put his brashness down to over-compensation for an innate shyness, and interpret his readiness to engage in combat as a virtue. Even some political opponents recognise his energy and involvement in development work in Africa, and accept, as one MEP put it, that “he sometimes has a good idea if he doesn’t sleep right through a meeting”. He has put his weight behind reform of the Parliament – notably the single-seat issue – and brought in transparency obligations about expenses among his Conservative colleagues. But those who are less sympathetic accuse him of being obstructive or difficult to work with.
1961: Born, Newcastle upon Tyne
1985: Electrical engineering graduate, Newcastle Polytechnic
1986-98: Project engineer, Scottish and Newcastle Breweries
1983-86: Councillor, Tyne and Wear County Council
1987-96: Councillor, Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council
2010-12: Leader of the UK Conservatives in the European Parliament
2011-: Chairman, European Conservatives and Reformists Group
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He is unapologetic about “representing the people who elected me” and “speaking on behalf of the group”. He says his focus is policies rather than people (“unlike Nigel Farage”, he says of the populist MEP who is the leader of the UK Independence Party, which is frankly Europhobic). He claims good working relationships, even across a political gulf, with the senior figures in the other major political groups in the Parliament and in committee. “We don’t agree on the politics, but we often have a cup of tea or a drink in the bar together,” he says.
He also rejects the label of ‘Eurosceptic’. “The ECR is Eurorealism”, he states. “It has a carefully thought-out agenda and views that are gaining wider acceptance across much of Europe.” He likes to draw distinctions. The ECR is not a tool of the UK Conservatives, he maintains. Cameron takes a close interest, but “it is not my job to be their voice – the group has members from 12 countries”. Similarly, “the European Union is not Europe”, he insists, dismissing blinkered nationalist approaches. “I frequently tell young people to learn languages and travel”, he says – and is himself studying German. What he is against, he says, is the EU’s sclerosis and a fortress mentality that is making it uncompetitive at international level.
He is most at ease when talking of his native north-east, where he returns most weekends to his wife and son, and to which his attachment is clearly detectable – in his accent, his associations (a devoted supporter of Newcastle United, he went to school with Paul Gascoigne, one of the club’s most famous former players), and his continuing links with local politics. That is where, when he had more time, he enjoyed hobbies such as restoring classic cars (an enthusiasm he shares with Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the liberal ALDE group in the Parliament).
But – as he made clear in the State of the Union debate, and with characteristically heavy humour – he wants everyone to know he is happy in his post. “In fact I think I am one of the few people here who do not actually want to do your job”, he told Jose Manuel Barroso.