Friday, April 3, 2009

Cameron's boomerang

It hardly keeps Malcolm awake at night, except for the occasional snigger, but David Cameron's self-impalement on the issue of the European Parliament is worth a passing thought.

The story so far:

When campaigning for the Tory leadership, the only firm pledge Cameron made was to withdraw his MEPs from the EPP-ED group, "within months". That, in itself, tells us a great deal about the state of play in his Party.

The EPP-ED is/was the most effective of the trans-national alliances. The Tory problem is that the EPP is Euro-friendly, and believes in a common electoral system, European defence forces, a EU Constitution without national vetoes, an EU seat at the UN (rather than national representation) and an EU income tax (which means tax-raising powers for the European Parliament): all of that is anathema to Tories, let alone the ultra Europhobes.

Even so, both of Cameron's immediate predecessors could live with the EPP:
  • William Hague went on record: "I simply cannot afford to have my political opponents in the House of Commons suggesting that I am isolated from the mainstream Conservative parties on the continent of Europe."
  • Michael Howard committed himself to "consolidate close co-operation between Conservative and Christian Democratic Parties and the EPP, particularly in the light of European integration".
There is some evidence (admittedly from the Sunday Times) that the reaction among Tory MEPs to Cameron's ex-cathedra utterance was fury, which may have been orchestrated (or, at least, "leaked") by none other than William Hague. Fortunately for Cameron, that discontent was subsumed by the flannelling demand for a Referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Remember, that bit of Tory policy was primarily for internal consumption: the pledge may not be renewable after a General Election, no matter what the Irish result eventually is.

"Within months"?

What is it, some forty months later?

The trap-door is now due to spring after the June elections. Then, in Cameron's scenario, the newly-elected Tory MEPs will enter a new conservative grouping. So far, so good. However, a recognised group in the European Parliament will need to have 25 MEPs from at least seven countries. The Tories may well make the first of those qualifications, but seem not to have any hope at all of the second.

So far it seems that Cameron has rounded up some strange potential bed-fellows. As last week's Economist summed it:
The full list of allies is secret. One, the Czech Civic Democrats, has just lost power at home; and its founder, Vaclav Klaus, is noisily sceptical about climate change, a cause dear to Mr Cameron. Detective work uncovers more presentationally tricky cases. The international secretary of the Latvian Fatherland and Freedom Party, Janis Tomelis, recently met William Hague, the Tory shadow foreign secretary, to discuss an alliance. As it happens, the party’s leader in Strasbourg, Roberts Zile, is a mild-mannered economist. But his party includes hardline nationalists who attend ceremonies to commemorate a Latvian unit of Waffen SS troops. Latvian nationalists insist that these were patriots fighting the Soviets, not Nazi war criminals. Good luck explaining that distinction in a British election campaign.
At one stage, Ireland's Fianna Fáil were touted as coming into the tent. Now, sorry, says Malcolm: you're having a laugh there! In fact, FF are bunking from:
that ragtag European Parliament group, the Union for Europe of the Nations (UEN). It has applied to join the European Liberals and is expected to become a member of its political faction in the European parliament after the June elections.
Fine Gael seem not too unhappy to stay with EPP-ED.

At the moment, Cameron's MEP crew include the mouthy Daniel Hannan and the largely-detached ultra-sceptic Roger Helmer: both sit with the Non-inscrits. The core-membership here was the scary "Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty" right-wing nationalist group, until it collapsed with the withdrawal of the xenophobic, homophobic, anti-semitic fruitcakes from the Greater Romania Party. That leaves the Non-inscrits trying to hold their noses while sharing space with Le Pen's French National Front.

However, consider this, from Michael White (as shrewd a political observer as any) in this week's New Statesman
Some Labour MPs fear the breakthrough grouping this June may be the British National Party, whose nostrums may appeal in hard times. At his now notorious Tory chairman’s reception on Monday night (no ruckus when I left), Eric Pickles warned against Labour bigging up the BNP threat and dismissed ministerial talk of them getting four or five MEPs.

But two, perhaps, he conceded.
Now, think hard: where would that lot go? So, Cameron's funk-hole with the Non-inscrits is blocked.

Back to square one?

One of Cameron's recent repositionings (they come round at the regular Monday Press conference) was highly instructive:
Mr Cameron said the new grouping would "work closely with the EPP on all sorts of areas where we agree", adding: "We will be happy neighbours rather than unhappy tenants."
What that decodes into is that Cameron has already given up real hopes of having a separate, stand-alone conservative group. The best he can hope for is a sub-let from the EPP-ED franchise (perhaps something as trivial as a re-branded name). That might get him off his hook. In terms of prestige, though, it would only become sellable if the German Christian Democrats were prepared to forgo their numerical precedence and a British Tory was elected as president of the group:
Each Group appoints a leader, referred to as a "president", "co-ordinator" or "chair", who decides which way the Group should vote in Parliament. The chairs of each Group meet in the Conference of Presidents to decide what issues will be dealt with at the plenary session of the European Parliament. Groups can table motions for resolutions and table amendments to reports.
Ooh, er, matron! The screens!

That only leaves the one further difficulty. No matter what, the EPP (or its successor) reflects the thumping majority of its MEPs: it is and will remain generally pro-EU. The British Tories are most definitely not of that persuasion. Then there is the rest of the Parliament's Rule 29, with which a lot of mischief can be made:
a Group['s] ... MEPs must have a common political affinity.
Cameron's Euro-difficulties may just be about to start.
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