This blog has reported before on the commitment by the Conservative party to leave the EPP in the European Parliament, and also on William Hague’s recent speech on his party’s view of Europe. Since then, the bid to leave the EPP has reached a conclusion. (You can read about it here.) At first sight, it looks rather clever.
To recap, David Cameron promised, when a candidate for the leadership of his party, that Conservatives should say the same thing in Brussels that they say in London, and that therefore Conservative MEPs should not be members of the EPP. There were profound differences, he said, between them, and it made no sense to sit together.
William Hague, shadow foreign secretary, was despatched to Brussels with the mission of making this happen. But easier said than done. It is actually quite hard to set up a new group in the European Parliament, and sitting as independents did not appeal. There was a lot of scepticism about whether this could be done, or whether David Cameron would be forced to break the very first promise of his leadership.
On first scrutiny, he has handled this rather well. His plan is to create a new group in 2009, but to stay with the EPP until then. That way, the MEPs who refused to break their manifesto commitment to the EPP are able to keep it, but the party is inoculated against the charge of saying one thing in Brussels and a different thing in Westminster.
The price of this, of course, is that they are forced instead to say one thing in Brussels and mean another. At a stroke, the 27 Tory MEPs have become lame duck members of the EPP. Their ability to wield influence in the group must surely be diminished now that they have handed in their notice to leave.
Of course, it is not clear what will happen to them when they do leave. They have a joint agreement with the Czech Civic Democrats (read it here), but to create a group in the European Parliament needs five parties, not two. Where will the others come from? You can be quite sure that the EPP will be fighting back, trying to dissuade any potential defectors. (I am sure they have been doing this, already.) If it were possible to find the other three parties needed, it would probably have happened already. So the Tories have traded the certainty of influence now for the possibility of influence later.
Think forward to the 2009 European elections. What if the party groups finally get organised to put up candidates for Commission president? There will be a EPP candidate, a socialist candidate, a liberal candidate, and so on. Whom will the Tories support? Will they nominate their own? They could hardly support a Christian Democrat, having just walked out of the party group. The Conservatives would be silenced, just as the moment of democratic decisions finally arrived. If that really is the plan, it suggests that losing influence in Europe doesn’t bother them very much.
On the plus side, the issue has disappeared from British politics. And that, surely, is what he wanted above all. David Cameron made a promise, and he has kept it. He said he would leave the EPP in months and not years, and that timetable is kept: 42 months, to be precise.