Dr Lee Rotherham – an expert writer on the European Union – makes the case for David Cameron’s decision to take Britain’s Conservative MEPs out of the European Peoples’ Party.
There’s a concerted effort going on by EPP addicts to justify their
need for the needle, and their fear of being weened off their prop. So
far, it’s been possible to identify twelve big fibs that have been
touted as excuses: appropriate, really, given the symbolism of the
twelve star flag. But none of these claims actually stand up. It’s the
same old Euro saga of claims being thrown out as bald facts, and hoping
the media will swallow them whole.
Time then to look at these claims in turn, and see where the truth actually stands.
1. Conservatives will be isolated
The Conservatives are not the only right-of-centre party in Europe. We
have a number of friends across the continent with whom we have a
closer affinity than other EPP members. Were we to leave the EPP, we
could certainly link up with them: indeed, for the best part of a
decade, I have seen senior members of these movements actively trying
to wean the Conservative Shadow Cabinet off the EPP opiate. The Polish
and Czech conservative parties are even in government. It is firmly
within the bounds of realism to anticipate that several other parties,
who have shown an interest in the past, will be amenable to a formal
We can link up with friends who share some basic philosophies: respect
for democracy; Trans-Atlantic friendship; the defence of the nation
state; and the free market. Clearly, there would be differences in
opinion on certain votes. But currently, the Conservatives vote against
the EPP one time in three.
We have to remember a key element of Brussels politics here. Unlike
Westminster, the European Parliament is not a bear pit; it is a
hemisphere. You do not have one political grouping running the show.
Alliances need to be formed. Up to now, the EPP-Conservative alliance
has been a formal one. But once the Conservative parties of Europe form
their own bloc, the EPP will still need our vote. That’s why before
sessions, various reps get round tables to broker deals to get
legislation through. They simply cannot afford to just ignore us.
2. Conservatives have more influence by being in the EPP
Direct influence only appears where individual Conservative MEPs share the philosophy of the EPP. This might occur in certain set areas, predominantly to do with businesses (but even here the shadow of the EPP’s open support for the Social Chapter looms large). But in other areas, it’s because the Conservative MEP is not actually displaying basic Conservative principles, but is following Christian Democrat ones. This is hardly displaying influence.
The ready counter to this is to ask an MEP to name a case where the EPP has backed down on a proposal when invited to, rather than slightly water it down for purely cosmetic display. And then ask how the final Conservative whip went…
3. Conservatives will lose out in the European Parliament by striking out on their own
A lot of work has been done on the mechanics behind this, and can be found in a CPS paper available here.
At the time, the assessment was that there would be a gross (not a net) loss in that Conservatives held two Committee chairmanships, and a British MEP, Caroline Jackson, would have to surrender Chairmanship of the important Environment Committee. But Mrs Jackson has already handed that position over. Conservatives now only hold one Committee, that of Industry. Depending on the size of the new group, it is even possible mathematically that we might actually gain a Committee chairmanship.
With respect to the 18 chairmanships of the permanent Delegations, 2 are currently held by Conservatives. It is therefore probable that Jonathan Evans will lose his position as chairman of the US one. Whether that is translatable to any tangible loss that cannot be replicated by other means is a moot point, however, given the traditional Conservative-Republican and UK-US bilateral links. It would be a real issue if you were, say, French.
James Elles would no longer be in charge of his pet toy, the European Ideas Network, which reportedly has coincidentally just had its budget increased. But then, the Conservatives would have five million to spend on their own support staff and think tank anyway, so no loss there.
Conservatives would also be removed from the Trans-Atlantic Legislative Dialogue. But Eurosceptic MEPs have instead already been linking up with the influential American Legislative Exchange Council instead, as well as with a plethora of key think tanks in Washington.
So overall, in terms of positions that Conservatives would surrender, they have little to lose. Certain individual MEPs, who have been particularly vociferous in opposing leaving the EPP, personally would.
We do not, of course, churlishly for a moment suppose that such reasons lie as the root behind their opposition to leaving the EPP.
Brutus is an honourable man.
But Conservatives structurally have a great deal to gain from the new system. They would finally gain access for starters to the Conference of Presidents, which is the motor at the heart of the EP.
They would also, as leaders of the third or fourth largest bloc, get to speak accordingly in the debate. At the moment, the leader of the British Conservatives speaks eighth. That’s after Nigel Farage for UKIP, and after Roger Helmer, a British Conservative now forced to sit as an independent! Even more embarrassingly, as Timothy Kirkhope is not speaking as a group leader, if Tony Blair comes to visit, the PM can scoot straight off after Roger speaks and leave poor old Tim speaking to an empty platform. By this time, the Brussels press corps have already written their piece and are filing it. It is a sorry, and unnecessary, spectacle.
4. The plan is to link up with the Far Right
This brazen untruth has been killed by research recently published in a Bruges Group paper (see here). When IDS and his team were negotiating with fellow political figures on the European Right, they deliberately and completely rejected any notion of tying in with any group that was remotely suspected of dodgy tendencies, or even had an iffy history.
It may be worth here making a distinction in Europolitics that is often muddied by biased commentators. There are clearly different categories of parties of the Right in Europe – just as there are many different branches of the Left.
There is the Christian Democrat Right, which as we have seen, is not of the Right at all. It is an alternative branch of the Soft Left; a bit like New Labour, and no one is suggesting we link up with them.
Then there are the Conservative parties, like the ODS of Vaclav Klaus, the Czech President. These were always the parties that the IDS team wanted to link up with.
Next there are what one might style the Question Mark Right, where parties have some baggage that guarantees the automatic hostility of Guardian writers. These include parties that had evolved from the Far Right but moved towards the centre, and government. Or parties that have particularly strong views on immigration. These are especially loathed in liberal quarters in their home countries because they break the cosy consensus and actually address peoples’ concerns, making them political forces and therefore a threat. Such opinions are then lazily picked up by foreign commentators unless some bizarre apotheosis occurs (witness the astonishing BBC volte-face on Pim Fortuyn). One or two individuals may be mavericks, there might indeed be bad men in their number somewhere, but the centre of mass of the party falls short of the extreme.
And then there is the real Far Right, the parties whose leaders address gatherings in retirement homes of 80 year old former Stormtroopers. And on top of that the Extreme Far Right, whose ugly membership is made up of people who would like to become the next generation of stormtroopers. An important distinction lies even here. The former can still get invited into government, as in Austria.
The point is, when Owen Paterson was doing the rounds for IDS to link up with the Right, it was with the Conservative Right that he was negotiating. Everyone else got ruled out. So anyone who says that it’s about teaming up with crackpots and Nazis is simply lying.
Before any lefty journo starts pointing out any imaginary specks in the eyes of others, he would do well to pay heed to the mote that juts out of the PES. Some of the characters in the European Socialists group are plain thugs. But it’s not PC to talk about them.
5. MEPs have an obligation to stay in the EPP
Some MEPs claim that being in the EPP was a promise they made on being elected. This doesn’t take into account what promises they made, however, on being selected. It is par for the course in the six months before reselection to peddle in the press how much you as an MEP have been doing a real sterling Eurosceptic job. This time, candidates were invited across the board to comment on their positions regarding the EPP. Feedback from sources indicates that the majority of those now pretending that they have an obligation to stay in the EPP took the line during the selection process that they would abide by the decision of the Shadow Cabinet.
Of course, once elected, MEPs have typically put two fingers up and reverted to type. This is just another example of how individuals can behave differently at parole hearings from when they get back out on the streets.
MEPs have an obligation to their electorate, to their promises on selection, to their Party members, and to their voters, who are overwhelmingly Eurosceptic.
6. The issue of EPP membership is unnecessary and petty
If it is so trifling, then the critics of leaving the EPP shouldn’t be causing party disunity by opposing the policy.
Membership of a political group is one of the tiny number of things that is actually in the gift of a party leader. In opposition, you cannot run departments; you cannot steer government policy; you cannot control the national purse. But you can determine who your friends are and team up with them.
By setting up a Eurosceptic Conservative group in Brussels and Strasbourg, we will also – finally – be lending support to our friends and natural allies on the continent. The machine of integration is against them. Most of the countries of Europe are small, and their political parties mere Davids against the march of federalism. By banding together, they have a chance. But this will only happen with the leadership of a great political party in Europe. Only the Conservatives fit the bill.
7. The EPP gives the Conservatives a good deal
We have already seen how the share of posts for Conservatives within the EPP does the Tories no favours. Less well known is the way that Conservatives were eligible for new funds to promote their "ED" element of the EPP, but that key figures were leaned on by EPP bigwigs who want to see no element of freedom emerging. That was no act of friendship, but one of political dominion. The EPP simply does not respect the Conservatives. They pimp the party.
8. No previous leader ever wanted to do this
As the Bruges Group paper referred to earlier demonstrates, the link was about to be broken in 2004. But IDS got knifed first.
We have been through the whole period of Shadow Cabinet arguing for and against. It was resolved – and then dumped, seemingly as the price for Ken Clarke’s silence in the run up to a General Election. The time to end the ridiculous Clarke veto has come.
9. The EPP are ideological allies
The EPP supports the EU Constitution; the Charter of Fundamental Rights; suppressing whistleblowers; a European police force; the development of an EU army; a single EU border with EU border police; an EU seat on the UN, the IMF and the WTO; a European president; an EU foreign minister; a social market economy; ignoring the votes of the French and Dutch referenda; EU propaganda funding; more powers for the European Parliament (taken from national parliaments); the abolition of the national veto; and a pan-European income tax, to be levied by the European Parliament.
That’s just for starters. A mince pie to anyone who can spot a Conservative policy in that lot.
10. This is an unnecessary move and argument
Take the example of Spain’s Partido Popular, and more recently Portugal’s homonymic one, as well as the attitude of a number of current British MEPs.
It’s scientifically proven. Proximity to the EPP drains your soul. It turns you into a supporter of federalism, either openly or passively. You go native. It saps your will to resist European integration. You might as well go the Matrix route and plug yourself back into the machine.
There was an interesting piece of work carried out five years ago by a Swedish researcher, which calculated that with the expansion of the EU, continental Eurosceptic movements would over the course of time be squeezed by the system. The big two parties would dominate Brussels. The reason behind the workings of the model was that there was no real Eurosceptic bloc, so EU-critical movements in the new member states were marginalized and eradicated by the new elite. But by creating a new bloc to lend them support, it would be possible to invigorate the domestic scene and provide major intellectual, practical and moral support.
In short, a new Conservative bloc would provide respectability for opposing ever-closer union. It would also over time have the potential to develop into a real ideological power. That’s why we have even Lib Dem MEPs showing themselves running scared in the press.
11. Leaving the EPP is extreme, "slightly headbanging"
It is extreme to belong to the EPP in the first place, a group that wants a federal Europe. If submerging your country in a neo-corporatist superstate isn’t "extreme", I don’t know what is.
But then, it would be hard for a former Chancellor like Ken Clarke to criticise the EPP if he has probably read as much of their literature as he did of the Maastricht Treaty.
12. MEPs won’t wear it so best to drop it
Since when have MEPs had a veto over Party policy? The Conservative Party Constitution says explicitly that political direction is determined by the leader. The head of the MEP delegation can expect "consultation". But even this is not guaranteed by the rules. Cameron has got them bang to rights.
If MEPs are unhappy about it, they will have to lump it in just the same way that Eurosceptic MEPs have long had to endure membership of the EPP.
David Cameron made a bold decision based on common sense. A leadership retreat on the matter would send all the wrong signals, and is tactically unthinkable. The sooner Europhile MEPs get to grips with the reality, and concentrate on building up their pension rights and playing golf before retiring, the better.
There’s a new generation of Conservatives available who are more than ready to step in, take over, and fight the Conservative corner in Europe full time, if some of the wishy washy MEP incumbents aren’t.