The European elections are over but the negotiations in Brussels continue as newly elected MEPs jostle for positions in the pan-European groupings. UKIP might have bagged the most votes in the UK but out in Europe they’re finding themselves rather alone.
Since 2009, Nigel Farage MEP has co-chaired the Europe of Freedom and Democracy group (EFD) of which UKIP formed the largest component alongside Italy’s Lega Nord, Poland’s United Poland, Lithuania’s Order and Justice party and collected others from Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Finalnd, France, Greece, The Netherlands and Slovakia. But despite UKIP’s resounding success, the results of the recent elections spell trouble for the European Parliament’s smallest group, as newly elected Members and newly erected groupings jostle for membership and members alike.
Groups are important and size matters. As a group grows, it receives vast increases in funding and influence, a greater share of committee chairs and more speaking time in the parliaments, something Farage has used to great success via YouTube .
Back in 2005 David Cameron arguably swung his leadership bid from David Davis by promising withdrawal from the “centre-right” EPP. This shored up his support from the right and, in a rare display of keeping a promise, in 2009 Cameron set up the European Conservatives and Reformists group (ECR). Now, an unsightly tug of war emerges between the EFD and ECR.
In a blow to Farage, some of the EFD’s largest backers are on the move and others didn’t survive the election at all. EFD member parties in Italy, Slovenia, France, Bulgaria and Poland failed to survive last week’s polls and others are flirting with the enemy, leaving the EFD with representatives in the UK, Denmark, The Netherlands and Lithuania alone: insufficient for the EFD’s survival.
While there will be no tears wept at Lega Nord‘s departure to Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders’ proposed new coalition, the European Alliance for Freedom (EAF), the loss of Morten Messerschmidt’s Danish People’s Party and Timo Soini’s True Finns – longtime allies of Farage – to the ECR will be bitterly disappointing.
The ECR are also poaching UKIP’s would-be allies, including Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). The AfD’s Euroscepticism, tough stance on immigration, criticism of bailouts, proposals for splitting the Euro, make them an ideal bed partner for UKIP.
In Italy, Beppe Grillo’s Eurosceptic Movimento 5 Stelle, with its impressive slew of 17, could join fellow Eurosceptics at the EFD, and the Sweden Democrats appear to be edging away from previous talks with Le Pen’s EAF, not to mention any of the 66 newly elected MEPs from unaffiliated parties across Europe. As of this afternoon, UKIP insiders remain “confident” of their chances, but nothing is certain.
There is one option, however, that is yet to be mentioned despite ceaseless discussion at home. Could not the British Conservatives and UKIP work together, at European level, at this critical time for British influence, putting their differences aside to work in the national interest while laying the ground work for a united right that could challenge the hegemony of European federalism?
We endure endless chat about the British right finding a way to unite ahead of next year’s General Election to avoid five more years of Labour and ensure we get a referendum. Why is not possible for the UK’s two biggest parties (in the EP), both of the right and seeking sincere reform or withdrawal, to join forces and funds to play a leading role in the Eurosceptic alternative to the so-called “centre-right” European aPpeasement Party?
Crucially, such a union would be abstract enough in the minds of the average British voter – only 34 percent of whom bothered to vote at all – so as not to cause either party to lose face or votes. Farage could continue to woo the British white working class without being seen to sell out his party faithful via an electoral pact at home. Essentially, it would see the British right harness European taxpayers’ funds for its own aims, something the European left has done since time began.
Undeniably, there are divergences in the aims of UKIP and the ECR. The ECR claim to be “Eurorealists” seeking urgent reform in order to create an EU of openness, transparency , cooperation and common sense; UKIP just want out.
But the ECR’s desire for reform is not dissimilar to the EFD’s charter, which calls for “principles of democracy, freedom and co-operation… favouring open, transparent and accountable co-operation among sovereign European States.” Granted, the ECR favour reform over freedom but their mutual desire to avoid federalism and protect some semblance of sovereignty for nation states sets the two groups on one side of a cavernous divide against the rest.
For UKIP the benefits are clear; the party would not need to compromise on its Euroscepticism or desire to contain immigration – perhaps the only issues its supporters agree on – while gaining a larger platform campaign on other issues, raising its profile ahead of next year’s General Election.
Furthermore, it would cement its links with the European reasonable right while being seen to publicly snub Le Pen. For Cameron, the Conservatives would be seen to work together with the darling of the British electorate, borrowing a little of Farage’s “common sense” shine and avoiding fiascos like Thurrock’s Labour-Conservative “Grand Coalition” that exemplifies the UK’s largest parties’ bitter detachment from the interest of the electorate.
As negotiations stand, the Conservatives are willingly aligning themselves with staunchly Eurosceptic former allies of Farage, the True Finns and the Danish People’s Party, both of which house MEPs with criminal convictions, in part to scupper UKIP’s chance of forming a group at all. With this underlying acrimony, an alliance of Britain’s not-so-different parties in Europe seems unachievable, especially as Farage’s slew of 24 would dwarf Conservative leadership of the ECR.
But, if the Conservatives are to paint themselves as genuine Eurosceptics ahead of next year’s election then they would do well to align themselves behind the cause. The only winner of a fractured right is the left; the only victor of fractured Euroscepticism is federalism. If the Conservatives are both sincere about EU reform and truly willing to listen to the voters, it raises the question: why not prove it by working together?