Should Conservative MEPs join forces with Germany’s new Eurosceptic party, if it wins seats in the European Parliament in the elections to be held in May? The question is prompted by a report in yesterday’s Guardian. The paper seems to have been the vehicle of choice for Tim Kirkhope, the Tory MEP who was quoted prominently in it, and the story was certainly placed there to avert any such alliance.
“Hardline Tory Eurosceptics are embarking on a ‘crusade’ to join forces with opponents of Angela Merkel in a move that would disrupt David Cameron’s plans to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership, moderate Conservatives have warned. On the eve of a major visit to Britain by the German chancellor, who will meet the Queen and address parliament next Thursday, Cameron’s allies in the European Parliament have warned that an alliance with the new Alternative for Germany (AfD) group would damage relations with Merkel. Senior Tories in Strasbourg fear that hardline Eurosceptics would like to team up with AfD after the European parliamentary elections in May. The group, which is pro-EU but anti-euro, is seen as a threat to Merkel’s centre right CDU party in the elections. Timothy Kirkhope, the MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber who founded the Tories’ new European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group in Strasbourg, told the Guardian: ‘Our most vital need is to have good relations with Chancellor Merkel and her party in terms of our reform agenda to Europe. I would not want to have anything happen that might damage that possibility.'”
Merkel would of course be highly displeased if Conservative MEPs were to team up with AfD in Brussels. She was extremely annoyed when Cameron fulfilled the pledge he had made in 2005, during his campaign for the Tory leadership, that Conservative MEPs would leave the European People’s Party (EPP), which includes her own Christian Democrats (CDU).
But it would be quite unreasonable to exclude the possibility of admitting AfD to the European Conservatives and Reformists group. For AfD is not some wild right-wing organisation with which no sane person would wish to be associated. It is painfully respectable, and is sometimes mocked for the large number of deeply serious professors who helped to set it up. In the European elections, its leading candidates are Bernd Lucke, a professor of macroeconomics at Hamburg University, and Hans-Olaf Henkel, a former president of the Federation of German Industries. As another of its candidates put it to me this morning, “AfD and UKIP are not kindred spirits”.
AfD is in favour of the European Union: it opposes the euro because it believes the single currency is an economic and political disaster, which is sowing discord between nations and therefore doing terrible damage to the EU. It took enormous trouble in last autumn’s general election to try to promote a serious debate about the future of the euro among Germany’s political class. Merkel managed to suppress that debate: she appealed to the many millions of conservative-minded voters who would rather not think about such difficult things, and would like to believe that the Chancellor can sort everything out on their behalf.
In the general election, AfD got 4.7 per cent of the vote, just below the five per cent threshold which must be cleared to win seats in the German Parliament. But for the European Parliament, the threshold is only three per cent, and in every recent poll it has exceeded that. German Euro-sceptics who want to register a protest, without actually changing the government in Berlin, may well decide to back it in May. Merkel is lending a sympathetic ear to Cameron partly in order to persuade these Euro-sceptics that they can go on trusting her to reform Brussels, and need not support AfD.
No decision about groupings in Brussels has to be made until after the European elections. But it would be wrong to rule out forming an alliance with AfD. They are people with whom most Tories would be delighted to make common cause. Furthermore, it is worth remembering that although Merkel was angered when the ECR group was formed – with the Conservatives in the European Parliament leaving the EPP to join it – her relations with Cameron have since improved. This isn’t surprising, since Britain and Germany have a shared view of EU reform in some respects. So there is no good reason why a second burst of anger from her, were AfD to team up with the ECR, would last longer than the first.
In negotiations on the reform of the EU, Cameron’s hand ought to be strengthened by the plain fact that most members of his party are insistent on the need for serious change if we are to remain members of it.