Monday, June 22, 2009

Centre-Right anti-federalists form new political group

The Conservatives have succeeded in forming a new political group within the European Parliament. Tory MEPs led by Geoffrey van Orden MEP have put together a grouping of MEPs from eight different member states - meeting the requirement of having at least one MEP from seven different EU countries. Negotiations over the last couple of days led by Van Orden and the Party's shadow minister for Europe, Mark Francois, have focused on getting commitments from individual MEPs from across the EU27 that they could peel away from the centre-right EPP Group and among new MEPs enetering the Parliament for the first time.

The Conservatives had already secured agreement from the Polish Law and Justice Party which returned 15 MEPs and from the Czech Civic Democratic Party which returned 9 MEPs. The new group includes single MEPs from Belgium, the Netherlands, Hungary, Latvia and Finland.

All member parties have varying domestic political agendas but can claim to be united in their opposition to what they pericieve as federalism. The new Group will be called the European Conservatives and Reformists Group. The Prague Declaration sets out their common values; namely free enterprise, personal responsibility, sustainability, family-values, transatlantic security, effectively controlled immigration, modern public services and greater transparency of EU funds. They will have to carve out a niche for themselves in the Parliament by finding ways of making the Group more distinctive from natural political allies. To this end, they call themselves "Euro-realists" - neither as enthusiastically pro-European as EPP members nor as euro-sceptic as the anti-EU parties such as UKIP.

Already the business community is nervous about the new dynamics of the European Parliament now that the Conservatives have left the EPP. There is a feeling that the EPP - the largest political group in the Parliament - will be effectively a Franco-German alliance and that their approach to business regulation will prevail in the Parliament now that the Conservatives are no longer parliamentary partners. The European Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso (himself a former centre-right PM from Portugal) has already expressed his "regret" at this move by the UK Conservatives.

Nevertheless, David Cameron has expressed a willingness to co-operate with the EPP. This is the first real practical test of his judgement as leader. He will be keen for this to work. If he senses that the Group will be too euro-sceptic for his mainstream members and the wider public to stomach, it wouldn't surprise me if he would effectively hand the whip back to the EPP Group on everything outside the on-going debates on the Lisbon Treaty.

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