After yesterday’s confusion – with one MEP leaving and another joining, exposing this new British Conservatives-led group as a fairly fragile alliance – now we again have renewed concerns being voiced: This time from among the British Conservatives themselves.
Many Tory MEPs were decidedly unhappy about David Cameron’s pledge to pull out of the EPP – knowing, as they do, that being a sizable part of the largest bloc in the European Parliament (partnered with various sensibly mainstream parties, such as those headed by Sarkozy and Merkel) gave them significantly more influence than being the largest part of a far smaller grouping (partnered with various less than loveable minor parties).
Indeed, just about the only Tory MEP to be vocally supportive of ditching the EPP was the strongly anti-EU Daniel Hannan – the eloquent internet celebrity, whose verbosity and intellect masks an attitude towards the EU that wouldn’t look out of place in UKIP. Why was Hannan so keen to ditch the EPP? Well, they’d already ditched him – he was effectively forced out in February 2008 after (fairly admirably, to be fair – though he certainly milked it) standing up to a point of principle over parliamentary procedure. Plus, of course, the staunchly anti-EU Hannan tends towards the withdrawalist take on the EU, and so even the relatively mild acceptance of European integration shown by the EPP was a bit much for him.
Hannan, however, would seem to have the ear of similarly strongly eurosceptic Shadow Foreign Secretary and deputy Tory leader William Hague – him of the ill-chosen “Ten days to save the pound” campaign back when he was Tory leader in 2001 – and it would seem to be Hague who is the guiding hand behind Tory EU strategy. In the last few weeks, Hannan was even sent off around the various member states to talk to (and campaign for) potential partners for the new group. The other Tory MEPs appear to be almost entirely ignored by the Cameron/Hague leadership.
Had they listened to the concern of the majority of their MEPs at the time rather than just Hannan, however, perhaps the Conservatives wouldn’t now be in such a pickle. Not only has the party already come under attack for the unsavoury nature of some of its new EP allies, but now even its own MEPs are starting to voice their concerns in public:
“Despite what David Cameron has said there are already indications that some of the members have links with extremist groups and I feel very, very uncomfortable with that,” [Conservative MEP Edward McMillan-Scott] said. “I know the party has made inquiries but I will make my own investigations into the background of these people.”
The other Tory MEPs are currently giving every indication of continuing to back the leadership in Westminster, and to be prepared to push ahead and make the best of this new group. But for how much longer? Rumours are already circulating of deep disquiet within the Tory ranks in Brussels – while outside observers continue to look on in amazement, scratching their heads at the reasoning of a major political party from one of the EU’s largest and most influential member states, that’s near certain to be in power domestically within a year, which has decided to make friends with small opposition parties with extremist views and a bunch of random individual MEPs, when it could be hobnobbing in the EPP with the most influential political leaders on the continent.
On a diplomatic level, this Tory strategy still makes no sense to me. What exactly are they hoping to achieve by teaming up with this bunch of suspect no-marks? Or is it as simple as the Tories have given up on the EU, and are prepared to sacrifice influence and friendships on the continent to try and win back the floating eurosceptic voters they need if they are to have any hope of securing a decent majority in a domestic general election? Because although it’s true that they can achieve nothing unless they’re in power, in the current global economic climate they’re also going to have a tough time achieving anything substantive without strong and willing European allies.