Sceptical: yes. Unaffected: no. Surprising EU politics enter the UK debate

Friday, 30. October 2009     0 comment(s)

In most European countries the politics within the European Parliament (EP) come very low on the news agenda. European citizens tend to vote for MEPs on the basis of national political debate – often using it as an opportunity to a ‘give a kicking’ to the party or parties in power in national parliaments. This often means protests votes, or votes for less mainstream parties who might not receive so much support in a national election. In the June 2009 European elections, the success of the Swedish Pirate Party was indicative of this sort of trend. In the UK, like in other more Eurosceptic countries, there is even less interest in the EP itself, beyond the obligatory news stories of sleaze and huge expenses claims made by some MEPs. It is safe to say that very few Brits know about the transnational party groupings within the EP and even fewer care much about them.

Hence David Cameron, leader of the British Conservative Party, probably had felt reasonably safe during his campaign to win that leadership in offering a deal to the Eurosceptic-wing of his party over which transnational party group the Conservative MEPs would sit with in the EP. Traditionally this has been the European People’s Party (EPP), the biggest grouping of mainstream centre-right and conservative European parties. But the EPP was seen as too federalist for the Tory Eurosceptics, so in an effort to gain support in the leadership race, Cameron promised that the Tory MEPs would leave the EPP. Cameron won the leadership and, after the Conservative’s success in the 2009 European elections, they left the EPP as promised. After much negotiation and debate, a new group was set up in the EP called the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). Whilst dominated by British Conservatives, the group also has a strong Polish contingent, a smaller Czech group along with single MEPs from Holland, Lithuania, Hungary, Belgium and Latvia.

As well as raising much resistance within the EP itself, the group has caused little but trouble for Cameron back in the UK. In Brussels the EPP, feeling betrayed by the Tories, has cooperated with the leftwing grouping in the parliament to thwart attempts by the ECR to gain positions of responsibility in the EP. But that is of minor importance for the Conservative Party in the UK, which is getting into full campaign mode before the general elections that will come next spring. In Britain it is the Tories’ allies in the ECR that have caused all the problems. The accusations centre on the Polish MEP Michal Kaminski, who is the chair of the ECR group in the European Parliament, and the Latvian MEP Roberts Zile, another ECR member. Kaminski, from the Polish rightwing Law and Justice Party, has a controversial history of making statements that many see as anti-Semitic and homophobic. Kaminski has made an attempt at explaining his past and apologizing for what he now says he sees as mistakes, but few British commentators, including from the Jewish community, have been convinced. Zile, a former Latvian minister of finance, is from the For Fatherland and Freedom party that is accused by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre of having an “obsession” with paying “public homage to the Latvian-SS Legion”. The British Conservatives have also had to contest this interpretation.

The sudden British interest in the history of various small Eastern European political parties is of course really about domestic UK politics. The story has buzzed through the British political blogosphere this summer, with some coverage in the wider press. Kaminski’s visit to the Conservative Party conference in October became a focus, but it was the British Foreign Minister David Miliband who used the ECR links as a stick to beat the Conservatives with most prominently. Miliband’s speech to the Labour Party conference internationalised the issue, and when Conservative shadow-foreign minister, William Hague, visited Washington last week for a meeting with Hilary Clinton amongst others, the issue came up. American Jewish groups have expressed their concern over the Conservatives' new European allies and Hague is reported to have had to defend the alliance when meeting with Secretary of State Clinton.

Even if the Conservative party’s allies from Eastern Europe were anti-Semitic or far-right, something that considering the domestic contexts of the countries concerned is not quite as black and white as British critics of the Tories make out, they clearly do not reflect the Conservatives' own policies or attitudes. But it does make an important point about the Tory view of the EU. Here it demonstrate that firstly there remains a strong Eurosceptic faction of the party that can makes the leadership jump through these hoops over EU issues. Secondly it shows an indifference, or lack of understanding, from the party leadership over EU matters; thinking they could throw some red meat to the sceptics, without thinking about the implications of such a move. As stated at the beginning, European Parliament politics normally engenders little but apathy amongst the British political class. The fact that it could become an issue of concern with the Secretary of State of the United States of America must have come as a complete shock to the Conservative high command. The Tories still look to have a good lead going into next year’s general election campaign, but they will certainly not want their EU policy becoming a surprise area of debate. Rather, they appear now to be on the offensive warning other EU member states that they would see Tony Blair getting the job of President of the European Council as an act of hostility towards an incoming Conservative government.

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