So David Cameron is finally starting to make good his pledge to take the Conservatives out of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament, as covered by the FT Brussels blog, Richard Corbett and Iain Dale. There’s of course a lot of bluster about the whole thing, and plenty of inaccuracies too. Here’s an effort to set things straight.
Firstly, the Conservatives are part of the EPP-ED Group in the European Parliament, and they will leave this group. The Conservatives are part of the ED (European Democrats) adjunct to the group, meaning that where the EPP and Tory manifestoes diverged at the 2004 elections the Tories are not obliged to follow the complete group line; in practice the Tories vote with the EPP on 80-90% of legislation currently.
The Conservatives are not part of the European People’s Party so they would not be bound by a common manifesto for the EP elections as agreed by the EPP party. So strictly speaking the Tories are leaving the EPP-ED Group in the European Parliament, not leaving the EPP. This may sound like a technicality but in Brussels it’s rather significant as the size of a group (not a party) determines the allocation of the important jobs in the European Parliament, and the degree to which the Tories are bound by EPP policies has been over-stated.
This leads us on to what the Conservatives will lose by leaving the EPP-ED. All the juicy jobs in the EP – President, Vice Presidents, Committee Chairs, Rapporteurs – are dished out according to the size of a political group. UK Tory Neil Parrish is currently Chair of the Agriculture Committee – he only has this job because the Tories are part of the EPP-ED. Essentially by leaving the EPP-ED the Tories would limit their ability to influence legislation in the EP as the positions of influence would be allocated to other centre-right MEPs.
Cameron of course intends to create a new political group as a replacement for the EPP-ED. This needs 25 MEPs from 7 Member States (not 6 as has been widely reported – those are the old rules), and there is a complete lack of parties in other European countries that believe in the same sorts of things that the Tories do. ODS from the Czech Republic are cited as the most likely allies, but its leader Topolanek says the party has not ruled out the possibility of staying in the EPP. The party’s founder, Vaclav Klaus (President of the Czech Republic) is a climate change denier – does that fit Cameron’s environmental policies?
Other possible Tory allies are even more unsavoury – Law & Justice (PiS) from Poland, the party of the Kaczyński twins, has a questionable record on issues such as gay rights and statements about the death penalty. Lega Nord and the Dansk Folkeparti are even more unsavioury. LabourList is even tougher on this, but they get their facts wrong – ODS are in the EPP-ED currently, while PiS, Lega Nord and Dansk Folkeparti are all members of the UEN Group in the EP, a group that is essentially nastier and more conservative than the EPP-ED.
So is it better for Cameron to team up with a bunch of weird traditionalists and regionalists in the EP, or keep his MEPs in isolation in Brussels? On balance he should probably do the latter if – as seems obvious – he cares only about presentation in London rather than about influence in Brussels. MEPs without a group can speak and can vote, but cannot become committee chairs and are highly unlikely to be rapporteurs.
Essentially this is a battle between symbolism and influence, and symbolism looks to have triumphed.