Within hours of his election as the new party leader, are Tory MEPs heading for a clash with David Cameron?
As a sop to the Eurosceptic right, Cameron had previously pledged to withdraw the Conservative MEPs from the main Conservative group in the European Parliament, the Christian Democrat EPP. Tim Kirkhope, the leader of the Tory MEPs, made sure he was re-elected by his colleagues the very same day - and by an even bigger majority than Cameron - on a mandate to stay in the EPP.
As I said in my blog of Nov 30, this is a clever move by Kirkhope. He can say to Cameron that he, too, has a fresh mandate - to stay in the EPP. Cameron's pledge to take them out does not have the support of the majority of Conservative MEPs - and opposition is growing now they realise that, in all likelihood, they will be sitting in near-isolation on the benches of the independents, next to Jean-Marie Le Pen, Alessandra Mussolini and Robert Kilroy-Silk. Unless, that is, they can find enough allies to form a new political grouping.
Since rule changes (that I drafted) a few years ago, you need MEPs from at least five countries to form a political group. So an attempt to find allies took place this Monday and Tuesday in Parliament, when Dan Hannan - one of the most eurosceptic, pro-withdrawal Tory MEPs - organised a conference in Brussels of what he called a "new alliance against European integration" - the Alliance for an Open Europe. To it were invited a number of potential partners for an anti-EU grouping, ranging from right-wing Polish and Czech parties to an MEP from Ian Paisley's DUP! There were also assorted American participants. Among the keynote speakers was Paul Belien, connected to the extreme-right Flemish Vlaams Belang party, widely considered to be neo-fascist.
No doubt to hide their rather extremist composition, or to try to appeal to less extreme parties, the meeting adopted a remarkably bland (though pretentiously named) "BRUSSELS DECLARATION". Its ten points read as follows (with my comments on each point):
"1. We uphold the values that have always infused European civilisation: personal freedom, private property, parliamentary democracy and the rule of law.""Always infused"? Tell that to the victims of 20th century fascism and communism - never mind the almost total absence of such values in previous centuries. It is, in fact, the establishment of the EU that has helped secure these values permanently in recent decades.
"2. We recognise that the richness of European culture lies in diversity, variety and pluralism."Good - they support the EU's motto, 'Unity with Diversity'.
"3. We fear that, in its pursuit of ever-closer union, the EU is progressively abandoning these values."How? After all, they are among the conditions for EU membership.
"4. We posit a new and better European dispensation, in which power is devolved to the lowest practical level, and in which decisions are taken as closely as possible to those they will affect."This is the principle of subsidiarity, a fundamental principle of the EU which is already enshrined in the treaties.
"5. We acknowledge the special loyalty that citizens owe to their nations, and believe that the primary democratic unit should be the sovereign state."Maybe. But surely not the only one? Isn't it possible to be loyal to both Scotland and Britain? Or to Catalonia, Spain and Europe?
"6. We support a broad and loose European association, in which all European states can comfortably participate."So, they support the EU after all?
"7. We believe that, within the constant nexus of a European free market, states should be free to integrate to the extent that they wish, and in such combinations as they please."How can they miss the fact that countries have chosen to do so through the EU?
"8. We want to limit the jurisdiction of international institutions to cross-border issues."That is essentially what the EU does now.
"9. We look forward to a world without trade blocs, in which European nations take their place as part of the wider Western family."So, a "world" without trade blocs but a "Western" family. It's not very clear what they're after.
"10. We pledge ourselves to work, in our home countries and in the forums and councils of Europe, for the achievement of these goals."Wow!
To sum up, it seems that the strategy of the eurosceptic Tories is to team up with some quite extreme right-wing parties in Europe, but to disguise this through woolly ‘motherhood & apple’ policy statements. Nice move...