The UUP presents its link with the Conservative Party as a way of being at the centre of UK politics. At the same time that link is likely to push the UUP to the margins of Europe.
The UUP alignment with the Conservatives is presented as part of a wider vision for ‘The Union’, and for the UUP to be at the centre of national discourse. As we edge towards the European Election, should Jim Nicholson win one of the three Northern Ireland seats he will return to Europe as part of a Conservative led group at the margins of European discourse.
Currently the British Conservatives in the European Parliament are closely associated with the European Peoples Party (EPP) and European Democrats (ED), collectively the EPP-ED. That is to change following the upcoming European Election in June, with David Cameron committed to leaving the EPP-ED.
The EPP is broadly Christian Democrat in nature and very pro-European Union/Unity. It is also very much dominated by the Germanic view of ‘social market economy’. It broadly expects others to share that view. They are more comfortable with ‘social market’ than ‘free market’, more statist than liberal. The ED is broadly balanced to believe more in the free market than the social market and more liberal than statist. The groups probably share more in underlying principle than either would credit the other.
Within the EPP, for example, among the Spanish Popular Party and the Swedish Moderates, there are friends to be found for British Conservatives. But the Conservatives are committed to abandoning these natural friends.
Membership of a group brings the strength in numbers that is necessary to wheel and deal for committee places and influence within the Parliament, as much in Europe as in Westminster. Dan Hannan MEP outlines his support of the Conservative decision to break from the EPP. From Dan Hannan’s position, leaving the EPP makes sense. What is not explained is why this can’t be done within the EPP-ED, building coalitions of like-minded liberal-conservatives from the ED base and using the EPP-ED strength to shift policy.
David Cameron has made a considerable effort to present the Conservative Party as a modern, progressive centre-right party committed to restoring economic prosperity, combined with a strong sense of social justice. The ED is expressly committed to democracy, individual liberty, the rule of law, national sovereignty, free enterprise, minimal regulation, low taxation, private ownership, respect and security for every individual and a strong transatlantic alliance. What in that commitment is out of step with the Conservative Party manifesto for Europe, or indeed for the UK?
The ED cannot make a difference within the EPP-ED because it has not the seven parties to work from a position of strength: it currently has five parties; the two from UK, the Czech ODS, the Portuguese Popular Party and Italian Pensioners Party. The Conservative party has committed to finding new allies. Possibly. From eastern Europe? There are plenty; many unstable, few unaligned. There is certainly room to work. Eastern Europeans to the centre right feel abandoned by the larger nations – and voted for a Europe of free nations, not a nation-numbing collective. A strong (small, broad c) conservative vision would perhaps help shape politics on a wider arena, a conservatism beyond Britain – a vision for a European big house, perhaps, built on principle and not Party interests. Not while the British Conservatives allow British domestic politics dictate European engagement: actually, British Conservative house-keeping dictating European engagement.
What is not clear is why the Conservatives have decided to cut themselves off from the major and strong centre-right grouping rather than work from within, and what they have to offer that would be particularly attractive or particularly different from what would be possible building from that ED base.
The Conservative Party is heading off into a political corner with its teddy bear. The Party has reached this point after years of neglect in international relations. While taking part in structures such as the old European Democrat Union (EDU) and International Democrat Union (IDU) the Conservative engagement was at best perfuctory – by default rather than design. True, engagement at IDU level with our American friends was undertaken with greater enthusiasm, though little more purpose. But at Euro level there was always exasperation and confusion as to what it was all about.
International relations in the Conservative Party was most often left to enthusiastic individuals, who threw their heart and soul into carving a relevant and significant place for the Party internationally. But more often than not they were left alone, and without a respected Party role.
The Germans with their powerful Stifung (foundations) and the Swedes with a fundamental commitment to international relations bring purpose to all their European activities and engage in a structured and measured way at all levels from youth through to senior Party activity. Against this, Conservative functionality in engagement meant it often looked out of place or out of step with European colleagues because it was defracted and half-hearted. Current policy will appear to Europeans as churlish and pointless.
Whether or not the Conservative Party is associated with the EPP would not have been relevant to Northern Ireland’s European vote without the recent Conservative/UUP link-up. Jim Nicholson made a point in his News Letter web chat that he had “been elected by other MEP colleagues during the last five years to sit on the bureau of the Parliament.” This is in no small part a consequence of his long standing association with the EPP. What happens when he exits from that group?
Through the Conservative link, the representation in Europe will be significantly weakened as the Conservatives group, UUP in tow, go off to do its own thing. That matters. With Nicholson elected it will mean that none of the MEPS will be part of a significant group – though the EPP could be practical enough to make offers to either Diane Dodds or Jim Allister to retain a British component in its group. But as it seems likely, all Northern Ireland MEPs would be linked to marginal groups, or be independent. The strength of connections to major political groups, and the centres of influence that these represent, will be lost completely.
No matter how much the Conservatives and the Ulster Unionists promote their link as strengthening the Union, in Europe it will inevitably result in a reduction in Unionist influence. While many Conservatives believe that Europe doesn’t matter, that attitude is something Northern Ireland can ill afford.