He may have promised to do it years ago, but it was only yesterday that UK opposition leader David Cameron officially started the process of taking the Tories out of the European Parliament's centre-right grouping, the European People's Party. And with that, the Tories' 'slow walk from Europe' has begun.
Cameron's intent, which he outlined in his 2005 campaign to become the Conservative Party's leader, is to form a new European party that would be more hostile to the federalist viewpoint. The EPP is the largest of seven Europarties in the parliament. It's the main centre-right party standing astride the Party of European Socialists, the main centre-left grouping. Both parties are more or less federalist in their platform.
Since he came to power Cameron has been attempting to take the conservatives in a strongly Eurosceptic direction, something fraught with danger since the party is split over the Europe issue. As time has gone on the inconsistencies between Cameron's platform in the UK and the EPP's platform has become politically awkward for him. For instance, the EPP was opposed to the UK having a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty while Cameron was loudly calling for one. The EPP also wants more common European policies on the economy, immigration, defence and foreign policy - while Cameron seems to be opposed to any expansion of the EU's remit.
However forming a new Europarty is no easy task, something Cameron is probably well aware of judging by how long he's waited to make this move. But the reaction in Brussels to the decision can best be described as bemusement. At this moment it's unclear how Cameron will form this mysterious new grouping, when forming a Europarty requires MEPs from at least six countries. Given his level of interest in European issues is fairly low, it's unlikely he or his advisers want to spend a lot of time on the issue. The move may just be designed to score political points at home, but it could leave the Tories sitting out in the cold in Brussels following the June parliamentary elections, politicians without a party. And that scenario would mean less of a voice and less power for the UK in Brussels. Both the Labour and the Liberal Democrat parties were quick to point out today that the move puts the Tories at the "fringe" of European politics.Liberal Democrat Edward Davey told Politics.co.uk today, "The Tories now have the most isolationist foreign policy of any modern opposition party, just at a time when countries need to be working more closely than ever."
Even if Cameron is able to form a new party of "European Conservatives" (as the new party is reportedly going to be called), he's going to have to make alliances with some far-right parties of Eastern Europe that will likely make some of his voters back home fairly uncomfortable. The most likely first allies for Cameron would be the hard-right parties of the Czech Republic and Poland.
Give me Libertas or...?
Perhaps Cameron can find common cause with Libertas, the new party launched by Irish businessman Declan Ganley, who led the campaign for the 'No' vote against the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland last year. The Irish Party celebrated the launch of its UK arm this week, with a big celebration kicking off their campaign for British MEP seats in the June election. They've said they will put up candidates in all 27 member states in the June elections.
So what is it they stand for exactly? It's a bit confusing. The party platform says that they want to bring "more democracy" to the EU, but short of that they haven't offered any details as to what that would entail. Their UK launch came with no manifesto. Unlike the UK Independence Party, they don't want the UK or Ireland to withdraw from the EU completely. Instead, they say they simply oppose the Lisbon Treaty and want the EU to be more accountable to voters.
But as the BBC's Mark Mardel pointed out in his blog this week, much of what they have called for so far seems to be contradictory. When Mardell asked the new UK Libertas leader Robin Mathews why people should vote Libertas in June, he replied, "It sends a very clear message to those unelected elites and bureaucrats, who seek to daily interfere in our lives more closely, that this cannot go on without proper accountability. The EU needs to change. Libertas believes in a strong Europe but also believes unless democracy is at the heart of that we'll never be able to deliver."
Well alright, that all sounds logical enough, but when Mardell asked him specifically what Libertas could do to accomplish that, Mathews didn't seem to have any idea. Mardell asked him if this platform means that the European Commission, the EU's executive branch made up of representatives chosen by the national governments, should instead be directly elected, he seemed to suggest yes. Would it mean expanded powers for the one body that is directly elected, the European Parliament? Again, Mathews seemed to suggest yes. But if that's what Libertas wants, why then did it campaign against the Lisbon Treaty, which sought to expand the powers of parliament and decrease the powers of the unelected Council of Ministers?
A directly-elected Commission would actually mean less power for the national governments and more power for Brussels, which I thought Libertas was opposed to, right? If the Commissioners became directly elected by the people in their countries, then the national governments in power would no longer be able to dictate to their commissioner what they should do, and that commissioner would become a Brussels-based free agent. Considering that all EU legislation originates in the EC, it would actually mean a huge loss of power for national governments.
If this is what Ganley actually wants then so be it, but it certainly wasn't the way the campaign against the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland was framed. Most 'no' voters in Ireland, and those who called for a referendum in the UK, are concerned about the treaty because they think it takes away power from national governments and hands it over to Brussels.
In the end this is why any alliance between Libertas and the Tories is unlikely. If this huge infusion of direct democracy into the EU is indeed the party's goal, then it is actually even more contradictory to Cameron's Europe stance than either the EPP or the PES.
But such is the current voice of Euroscepticism across the continent: loud, but also fractured, confused and often contradictory. They know what they're against - the idea of a big bad unelected oligarchy in Brussels telling European nations what to do. But what are they for? What's the alternative vision for Europe's future they are presenting? Perhaps Cameron will be able to crystallize this message in the process of creating his new Europarty, but it will certainly be an uphill climb.