By Roger Helmer MEP.
Shortly after I was first elected in 1999, a Conservative Press Release announced that British Tory MEPs would have a new arm's-length relationship with the EPP -- "merely an administrative umbrella" -- and would have full independence. I rejoiced, thinking in my innocence that the vexed EPP question had been resolved. Then I arrived in Brussels to find that it was business as usual. Nothing had changed. My first lesson in politics: announcements in press releases may be less than they are cracked up to be.
So my ten years as an MEP have been dominated by this issue of the Tories sitting in a passionately federalist group. Four years ago I was expelled from the EPP and lost the Conservative whip for a while -- I now have the whip back, though I remain outside the EPP. A year ago, Dan Hannan was also expelled from the EPP in very similar circumstances, though the Conservative delegation, perhaps chastened over my own experience, refrained from withdrawing the whip from Dan. It was Dan's status as a Non-Inscrit member that allowed him to make that magnificent speech on Tuesday attacking Gordon Brown to his face -- the only Conservative to speak in that debate.
Then David Cameron was elected Leader on a commitment to take us out of the EPP. That started out as an immediate commitment, which then became "months not years", and finally became years.
Now, however, the die is cast. A couple of weeks ago William Hague formally advised the EPP that we would be leaving in June, and our plans to form a new group are well advanced. And the predictable backlash from the uber-euro-quislings has begun. Caroline Jackson (SW), retiring this year, launched a sad but vitriolic attack, saying: "It is a serious mistake and will leave the UK even more semi-detached from the rest of Europe. The danger is that it will leave both the Tories and Britain isolated in Europe and the decision is simply not in the interests of either our party or the country". Of course Caroline's MP husband defected from Conservative to Labour a while ago. Caroline says (indecisively) that she is "minded to leave the Party", and will presumably join her husband on the wrong side of the tracks. No quips about rats joining sinking ships, please.
Meantime Chris Beazley MEP (Eastern England) says: "I am terribly sad but I cannot watch my country head for the rocks, which it will do if Cameron becomes Prime Minister and has no allies in the major governments of the European Union." Beazley has not threatened to leave the Party (some would say he did that a long time ago), but he has transferred from the "ED" wing to the main EPP group. The ED/EPP distinction was in any case little more than a label.
There are odd rumours in Brussels that Beazley, who is not standing as a Conservative in the UK in June, may pop up again representing another member state. We shall see.
The error that both Jackson and Beazley make is simple and readily understood. They start from the assumption that the EU is an established political union, and that therefore the only way to do politics in the EU is as part of a pan-European party. So clearly in their worldview, leaving the dominant political party, the EPP, is counter-productive. If however you still take the quaint view, so unfashionable in Brussels, that Britain is or should be an independent nation, then you want our relations with Europe, like our relations with other countries, to be conducted on an inter-governmental basis. Direct involvement with continental political parties is an unnecessary distraction.
The idea that a future Conservative government in the UK would be shunned in the Chancelleries of Europe, would have "no allies in Europe", merely because its MEPs did not sit in the same group in Brussels, is palpably absurd, a ridiculous conceit of MEPs who over-rate their own significance. Indeed European leaders have already seen the way the wind is blowing, and are keen to develop good links with a Conservative Party that looks set for government.