If we as a party aspire to government, and if David Cameron aspires to lead Britain as an active member of the European Union, it is not a good idea for Conservative MEPs to sit as unattached members in the European Parliament. This outcome has been mooted many times, and is still under consideration by senior people in the party as a worst-case scenario in the event that plans to form a new group come to nothing. However, I fear that such a move would be damaging and counter-productive.
All MEPs standing for re-election and all new candidates have signed a pledge to adhere to David Cameron's direction with regard to the formation of a new group. I am not familiar with the latest developments on the creation of a new group involving Conservatives and our Czech partners, ODS. However, conversations at party conference in Birmingham six weeks ago have confirmed in my mind that sitting as unattached members (known in Brussels as 'non-inscrit') remains one of the options on the table.
Personally, I have never been opposed in principle to leaving the EPP-ED, provided we can develop a group that reflects our party's political interests and that enables Conservative MEPs to retain influence in the parliament. However, I have trouble understanding how sitting as unattached members would enhance our party's standing - and such a move would reduce our influence to zero. Conservatives would be barred from serving as chairmen or vice-chairmen of committeees, tabling or negotiating resolutions of the parliament, submitting amendments to legislation without collecting 40 signatures or authoring any significant reports.
Of course, my argument means nothing to those who so frequently dismiss the European Parliament as at best unimportant and at worst worthless. I have already tried to dispel those assertions on ConHome so I won't try here. But those who are genuinely interested in the work of the European Parliament, from whatever viewpoint, will know that Conservative MEPs enjoy a disproportionately large influence in Brussels, with seven coordinatorships (group spokesmen) - a far higher proportion than any other national delegation. Believe it or not, that's because on the whole we are committed and hard-working, and we are engaged because we know the benefits it can bring for Britain.
Supporters of maintaining the EPP-ED status quo would say that Conservative MEPs can only maintain that influence if we stay in our current group. I'm not entirely convinced - there's no reason why we can't remain a potent force in the parliament if we stick to David Cameron's vision of a new group. However, such a group must have critical mass in terms of the number of MEPs as well as a sufficient number of countries (at least seven) to prevent one single MEP from one country being able to blackmail the group and its resources by threatening to leave, which would trigger the group's collapse. Even UKIP, which is philosophically opposed to the existence of the European Parliament, has been desperate to maintain the integrity of its own group structure because of the influence and resources it provides. This contradicts the claim that sitting as unattached members means nothing.
The issue of influence is not the only matter of concern. Sitting on the unattached benches is, to my mind, unworthy for a party that ought to be in government within two years. Again, die-hard EPP-ED fans would say that we must remain with our friends. There is some strength to this argument but in a new group we should be able to remain friends with centre-right allies in the EPP but also forge new friendships with partners who share more closely our vision of Europe's future. But clearly as unattached MEPs we would be devoid of practical allies altogether, unless you consider Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front as suitable bedfellows for Cameron's Conservatives. I've also heard rumours that sitting alongside various political outcasts in the unattached section would cause some major donors to think twice about continuing to bankroll the party.
David Cameron has given no indication that he intends to alter his policy of leaving the EPP-ED, so there are two apparent choices: non-inscrit or a new group. I would humbly suggest to him that maintaining the option of sitting as unattached members is a political mistake that he may come to regret. As long as such an option is on the table there is bound to be less commitment to forming a new European Parliament group in 2009.
If a new group isn't formed as promised then unattached status may well be the fall-back position. If that is so, then Conservative MEPs will indeed fall back to a position of marginal impact, reduced influence and unworthy isolation. That's all very well for a country preparing to exit the EU, but this has never been the policy either of our party or of David Cameron. Our party leader has given every indication that a Conservative government would engage vigorously within the EU in pursuit of our national interest. Conservative MEPs may be in a powerful position to support that agenda, especially if we do well in next year's European election, but we won't achieve anything much from the sidelines.