When people go hunting through recently history for an explanation for Brexit, one thing that they often highlight is David Cameron’s decision to withdraw the Conservatives from the European People’s Party.
This is the main centre-right bloc in the European Parliament, and counted as members both Angela Merkel’s CDU and Nicholas Sarkozy’s UMP (since rebranded as Les Républicains).
Cameron promised to leave in order to stave off Eurosceptics during his leadership bid, eventually forming the European Conservatives and Reformists bloc.
For many, this was the first great misstep, the downpayment on a danegeld which the Tory leader would keep paying until he finally called, and lost, the referendum. It also seemed to put new distance between the British right and their moderate counterparts on the continent.
Yet today’s Independent reports that the EPP has just adopted, as official policy, a proposed ban on all Islamic veils. Max Weber, the group’s Parliamentary leader and a CDU member, spelt it out: “We want a total ban of face covering in the EU.”
Another resolution passed at the conference was a call for welfare access to be tied to as-yet-unspecified “mandatory integration requirements”.
Now this might be little more than posturing: such matters are currently outside the EU’s remit, and even formal EPP decisions don’t bind associated parties on domestic issues. But reading this sort of talk coming out of the supposedly moderate and socially acceptable face of the pro-European right seems a little ironic, for a couple of reasons.
Not only does it leave this pro-Brexit, Conservative government on the liberal high ground – Theresa May said during a debate on such a ban that she believes ” that what a woman wears is a woman’s choice” – but because it seems bizarre that if some of the biggest parties in the EU are willing to consider policies like this they didn’t make more of it during the Brexit referendum.
Part of the Remain campaign’s handicap was that it had no tough language on immigration to counter-act Vote Leave, which proved decisive. Being able to tout a European plan to force people claiming benefits to assimilate to their host country’s culture sounds like just the sort of thing which might have cut through to some Brexit voters.
Whether or not you think it’s a good policy, it really does seem bizarre timing – unless, of course, it represents a lesson learned after Brexit.