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The Tories' European dilemma

When he became leader of the Conservatives in 2005, David Cameron pledged to leave the centre right grouping in the European Parliament and to create a new group before the next European elections. But as David Grossman reports, it is proving more difficult to deliver on than anticipated.

David Grossman
by David Grossman

For the modern Conservative party there is no issue more problematic, more likely to result in raised voices and raised blood pressure than Europe.

David Cameron
The Conservatives say the EPP is no longer a suitable home for them

In 2005 when he was standing for the leadership of his party, David Cameron made a bold commitment.

Conservative MEPs, he said, would leave their current grouping in the European Parliament, the European People's Party (EPP).

Instead, Cameron said, they will form a new group.

Nearly four years have now passed and this has proved an extremely difficult promise on which to deliver.

"What we're proposing to do is to break the monopoly if you like…so that for the first time you'd have a group of respectable parties, governing parties or prospective governing parties positing a different kind of Europe", Daniel Hannan, the Conservative MEP told me.

"A question of integrity"

The Conservatives say the EPP is no longer a suitable home for them.

We need to know if we are with the British Conservatives or without them
Joseph Daul, Leader of the EPP

For a start, the EPP wants to see Europe adopting common immigration, defence, and foreign policy.

It wants closer economic integration and is opposed to Britain having a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. All of which makes the average Conservative less than cheerful.

"It's just a question of integrity. You can't say one thing in Britain and then do another thing in Brussels. You lose all credibility if you do that," Daniel Hannan said.

The European Union does not want its MEPs to cluster along national lines, so in order to qualify as a grouping and access euro funding the British Conservatives will have to find MEPs from at least six other countries to join them.

To be on the safe side they would want eight or even more.

Critics of David Cameron's plan say that the only people interested will be from fringe parties that no other grouping will touch.

Christopher Beazley, the Conservative MEP: "Who would we join with? Some sort of mish-mash of mavericks who have no power at home domestically?"

Allies

But David Cameron's point man in the negotiations, Geoffrey Van Orden MEP, says there is no question of the Conservatives cosying up to politicians from outside the reality based community.

Geoffrey Van Orden MEP
Geoffrey Van Orden was first elected to the European Parliament in 1999

"We won't be partnering people that are anti-British, that are anti-Conservative or indeed are out on the communist, fascist, racist extremes or anything like that," he said.

"We'll be talking about mainstream parties of government and serious politicians who are not happy with where they're sitting in the parliament at the moment."

So where will the likely allies come from?

The Conservatives are banking on the Czech Republic and Poland. They have high hopes of the Baltic states and the Balkans and, I believe, have their fingers crossed over Italy and Sweden.

Newsnight understands the working name of the new group is European Conservatives.

Decision time

Whatever they are up to though, the leader of the EPP, Joseph Daul wants David Cameron to get on with it.

"I think that we have now reached the point where David Cameron really does need to decide. The next election is on June 7th and from June 8th the parliament will have a new complexion that will hold for the next five years, and we need to know if we are with the British Conservatives or without them."

If David Cameron cannot get a new group together of course it would be embarrassing, but could the Conservatives still operate outside the EPP?

One Conservative MEP knows what it is like to be a free agent, or "non attached" in the jargon.

Daniel Hannan was thrown out of the EPP for comparing an EU report to the Third Reich:

"My ability to talk on issues, my ability to get involved with legislation has increased tenfold. And so it really isn't the case that you need to be part of a large group, on the contrary your identity tends to be smothered within that."

Declan Ganley led the NO campaign to victory in the recent Irish referendum.

Declan Ganley
Ganley's Libertas party aims to "bring more democracy" to the EU

Now he is planning to run candidates in the coming European elections as the chairman of the Libertas party.

He says the parliamentary groupings are pretty much pointless.

"You cannot operate accountability over this super structure of the EU with a political system designed around the 19th century shape of Europe, and political parties designed around that," he said.

"This is like you and I trying to communicate using semaphore instead of email and broadband."

Difficulties

But Cameron's negotiator in Brussels, Geoffrey Van Orden says withdrawal from the EPP is certainly not the beginning of a new bout of Conservative European isolationism.

"On the far left you've got those that want more European integration. On the right you've got those that want to separate ourselves completely from Europe. The Conservative Eurosceptic position, I think, is in the centre. There are practical difficulties and there are political difficulties in forming a new group, but I'm confident we're going to get there."

The risk with the Conservatives is that internal debate about Europe can easily slide into civil war.

Although there have been some grumblings among some MEPs, there is no evidence yet that the party is returning to the fratricidal bloodlust of old.

But that could change once David Cameron announces what he is actually going to do.

Watch David Grossman's film on Newsnight on Tuesday, 10 March 2009 at 10.30pm on BBC Two.

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