The European elections this week are set to deliver a fresh European headache for David Cameron as his Conservative MEPs are now in danger of having no group in the new European Parliament which they can join.
This might seem like just a minor political management problem for David Cameron but it actually risks a real and further weakening of Britain’s influence within Europe on his watch. Conservative MEPs are already stranded at the margins of the European Parliament, but for his MEPs to be even further isolated would undermine David Cameron’s ability to negotiate for Britain’s interests in Brussels.
Back in 2005, during the Conservative leadership contest, in an attempt to appease the Eurosceptics in his Party, David Cameron pledged to cut the Conservatives’ ties with the European People’s Party (EPP) group, the centre-right, influential, and then largest group in the European Parliament, saying its views were at odds with Tory policy because they were too pro-European.
This move was widely criticized, particularly by senior Conservatives; one MEP, Edward Macmillan-Scott went as far as to call the move “frankly barking” and veteran Cabinet Minister Ken Clarke said: ‘What a pity to insist on finding some new, slightly head-banging… Eurosceptic position to take up as his first act in the leadership”.
Yet David Cameron went ahead regardless, and eventually cobbled together the European Conservatives and Reformists group (ECR).
But these Conservative Party bedfellows in Europe did not include any of the mainstream centre-right politicians who he now needs to deliver much needed European reform.
Instead Cameron’s new allies were drawn from fringe and extremist parties such as the Polish Law and Justice Party, which has expressed homophobic views and described global warming as a lie.
They also included the Latvian Fatherland and Freedom Party, some of whose activists annually attend ceremonies to commemorate a Latvian unit of Waffen SS troops.
Whilst the Conservatives have appeared to be at ease with these politicians, it seems from the latest polling reports that they have proved less popular in their own countries.
Therefore David Cameron’s fringe ECR group now faces losing many of its MEPs in the forthcoming European elections.
Indeed the latest PollWatch2014 predicts that the ECR will return MEPs from just six Member States, which is below the minimum required to be a recognized political group.
So in the face of its growing unpopularity, what can David Cameron do to keep his fringe ECR grouping alive?
The options make for uncomfortable reading.
David Cameron may be forced to admit MEPs who hold even more extreme views on immigration than his current ECR colleagues, and some who have made racist statements including being openly anti-Semitic.
Indeed, in recent days it’s been revealed that top Tory MEP Michael Callanan has already begun negotiations on a possible alliance with the controversial anti-immigration Danish People’s Party.
And this week it was reported that the mainstream EPP which he left in 2009, and which includes Angela Merkel’s CDU party, has now publicly urged David Cameron to rejoin their mainstream group and reject potential far-right alliances with party’s such as the True Finns.
So just days before the European elections, David Cameron now needs to be open with the British public about the dubious views of potential future partners that his MEPs may have to work with to keep his ECR group afloat.
But it is not just the political views of his potential new allies that are a problem.
After polling day his MEPs are simply not likely to have enough clout.
They will be far outside the mainstream, and will hold little influence at key moments on the big issues that matter for Britain, such as the appointment of a new Commission President.
These are crucial points because they go to the heart of Britain’s place and influence in Europe.
Just when our Prime Minister needs to maximize allies in Europe to help secure crucial victories for Britain, the only allies his MEPs will be able to turn to are those on the outside of the major groupings, and whose views are rejected by many mainstream political leaders across Europe.
So he must explain how Britain’s national interest would be served by yet another poor choice on Europe by the Conservative Party.