William Hague, Conservative shadow foreign secretary, went on a mission to the European Parliament earlier this week looking for partners with whom to form a new centre-right, Eurosceptic political grouping. If he can find them, he then hopes to persuade his own party’s MEPs to join it. It is a mission fraught with difficulty.
First, there is no credible centre-right alternative to the current Christian Democrats. They vary in tone and nature quite a lot from one country to another, but that’s because each country has a different kind of politics and the same party cannot exist everywhere. Nevertheless, they get on as a group in the European Parliament because of the basic ideas they have in common. A liking for political influence is one of those ideas and belief that it matters is another. How many of them are likely to prefer to join a group with the British Tories?
The right of centre groups other than the Christian Democrats look to be unpromising partners. (I nearly started the previous sentence with the phrase “centre right” but that would be quite wrong.) Would the Conservatives really prefer to share a group with the Polish Law and Justice party that opposes gay rights and proposed closing down the Women’s Committee in the European Parliament? Or the Dutch party that refuses to allow women to become MEPs? Is that really preferable to the German CDU or the French UMP? If so, David Cameron is giving himself quite a lot of explaining to do. It would be a novel definition of modernisation.
The simple fact is, as Tony Blair remarked in his speech today (which you can read here), that support for the EU on the basis of sharing sovereignty really is the mainstream position in Europe. If the British Tories choose to sit outside it, they will not find many partners.
They will not even find much support among their own MEPs. This is the second problem. The terms of their membership of the EPP-ED group do not commit them to support the federalist positions of the Christian Democrats with which they disagree. Many of the grounds of William Hague’s objections turn out to be fictional. I suspect that, given a decent interval, the campaign to create a new group in the European Parliament will be quietly forgotten. Already, the briefings are warning of how complicated it is and how long it will take. That’s how quiet forgetfulness always starts.
This blog avoids taking a party political position, but it can’t make sense for the largest group of British MEPs deliberately to walk off into the twilight. The EPP-ED group affords them positions of influence on committees and in delegations that a splinter group would never offer. I suppose, in the minds of the advocates of a breakaway, influence in the EP isn’t really that important. If your central political proposition is that the European institutions should be weaker rather than stronger, you are not afraid of weakness within them yourself.
No, the puzzle is not why anti-European Tory MEPs are arguing for this policy, but why the Westminster leadership is going along with them.
Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith voiced support for the idea that UK law should always be superior to European law (i.e. that Britain should leave the EU) but his successor Michael Howard made it clear that he disagreed. EU membership was a settled and accepted fact. The mystery then is why the new strategy and positioning of the Tory party on Europe is being guided by MEPs such as Daniel Hannan and Roger Helmer who disagree with its European policy. When William Hague returns from Brussels, perhaps he can explain.