Neil O'Brien: The moral case for breaking the EPP consensus
Neil is Director of Open Europe
The row over the Conservatives’ attempt to form a new group in the European Parliament is heating up quickly. The current consensus among most journalists is that the move was a rashly-promised sop to eurosceptics in the party, which Cameron must surely now regret.
If the Tories want to make a success of the policy, they will have to turn this consensus around soon.
The main criticism is that the Conservatives might
end up sitting with “extremists”. Most
of this criticism focuses on the Tories possible allies in “Law and Justice”,
the ruling Polish conservative party.
Poland is a socially conservative and seriously catholic country, where the 1960s only started happening in the 1990s. As such it’s no surprise to find that Law and Justice have policies which would be considered way off colour here. For example, Law and Justice have discussed banning the promotion of homosexuality in schools and backing the death penalty.
So are Law and Justice too hot to handle? It’s certainly worth putting things in a bit of perspective. For example, Labour currently sit in the Party of European Socialists with two deputies from the Polish Samoobrona (Self Defence) party. Their leader Andrzej Lepper started the party after beating up a tax collector who came to his farm and has been convicted of five offences including assault.
Lepper has also praised Hitler and made several
anti-semitic comments. He noted that “the
most dangerous nation for the Poles is
the Jewish nation” and said that “Everyone wants what is good for Poland, just like Hitler wanted what was good for Germany.” He even went on to argue that “It was after
the seizure of power by the Nazis in
Nor are his MEPs much nicer. One of the MEPs sitting with Labour is Bogdan Golik, a former shipyard owner. Last Christmas Golik was accused of raping a prostitute. The woman in question seemed to have a good case, and even showed police a cellphone belonging to Golik to back up her claims. However, according to the official Polish Press Agency, Golik cannot be investigated because of his status as an MEP. When asked to comment on the allegations Andrzej Lepper laughed in the presence of journalists and asked: "How is it possible to rape a prostitute?"
Two wrongs don’t make a right, but it’s important to understand the context. Law and Justice are trying to “drain the swamp” and change the (rather toxic) Polish political scene into something more western European. Some Law and Justice strategists are pretty open about their plans to crush extreme parties like Samoobrona, partly by hugging them close. They talk about creating a “fourth Polish republic” with greater stability and less corruption. In that respect the Polish centre-right are in a position very similar to the Spanish centre right in the early 80s. In Spain it took all kinds of compromises and more than a decade’s work to create a broad mainstream centre-right party and gradually squeeze out the guilty men of the Franco years.
However, this rather academic point is likely to be lost in the heat of the coming row. If the Conservatives are going to win this argument they will need to raise their sights and focus on the original point of setting up a new group – the need to build an alliance to reform the EU. The case for reform should be a neat fit with the Cameron agenda. If you back localism in Britain then it doesn’t make sense to transfer more power to remote EU institutions.
The case for reform is also a powerful moral cause for my generation. If you want to help developing countries, obviously you need to look at reforming the organisation that runs our trade policy and half our aid budget. At the moment the trade policy which the EU runs in our name imposes extremely high tariffs on some of the world’s poorest countries. For example the people of Malawi, where the average income is just 70 pence a day, are forced to pay an EU tax equivalent to 12% of everything they export to us.
Take another example. Having caused an economic and environmental catastrophe in our own fishing waters, the EU has just bought fishing rights from Morocco off the Western Sahara, in clear violation of international law. Neither the US or the UN recognises the Moroccan invasion of the Sahara. But that hasn’t stopped the Commission cutting a deal. So much for the ethical foreign policy we were promised in 1997.
You could go on. You might ask whether it is acceptable that the EU budget hasn’t been signed off for eleven years. You might ask why the Council of Ministers is the only legislature in the world outside North Korea to hold its discussions mainly in secret. You could ask why the European Commission was recently allowed to reappoint the head of the anti-fraud agency, despite the fact that all representatives from all member states voted to replace him, because of his abject failure to clamp down on corruption. The truth is that the case for reform is obvious. But making it happen will require political courage.
Michael Gorbachev recalls in his memoirs that perestroika had to “crash-through or crash.” The Tories seem to be in a similar position in their attempt to create a new group. Some people hope to cause David Cameron maximum agony over the attempt to forge a new group, in order to ensure that the Conservatives say nothing more on Europe for the next three years. But giving into this would be a tactical mistake. Given the number of people itching to write stories to the effect that the Tories have returned to 1990s-style euro rows, the Conservatives need to redefine the whole way they tackle “Europe”. The best way to do that is not to shut up, but to grasp the nettle. That means making it clear that the new group is the first step in a longer campaign to turn around a European Union which is currently both failing, and morally bankrupt.
Related article: Daniel Hannan MEP - Leaving the EPP will be truly revolutionary