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Conservative MEPs in the EPP - Two down; 25 to go

Conservative Home - Friday, 1st February 2008

At a "Mini-Plenary" in Brussels on Jan 31st, my good friend and colleague Dan Hannan MEP was expelled from the EPP group, in circumstances uncannily similar to my own expulsion three years earlier.

In the December Strasbourg session, we had agitated for a referendum. In January, we decided to stay strictly within the rules, and do what little we could -- not very much -- to delay the business of the house. We called for recorded votes on all amendments. We applied for verbal "explanations of vote" -- one minute for each MEP, for each proposal. Pretty modest stuff, and as Dan likes to say, the worst we could have done was to keep them from their lunches for a little while. But they cannot tolerate dissent. Although our action was within the rules, the President of the parliament Hans-Gert Poettering (former leader of the EPP group) asked the Constitutional Affairs Committee (which deals with parliamentary rules) for a "re-interpretation" of the rules to enable him to set aside such requests where he deemed them to be vexatious.

But this was by no means a "re-interpretation". The rules allow all MEPs to demand roll-call votes and explanations of vote. What Poettering was really demanding was that he have widespread and arbitrary powers to disregard the rules entirely, whenever he suspected they were being exploited by sceptics. We used to be a rules-based institution -- but no longer. As the Poettering request was put to the vote, Dan rose on a Point of Order to condemn the wholesale disregard of democratic principles. In a very courteous and tangential way, he compared it to the "Enabling Act" requested by the then-Chancellor of Germany in 1933, which allowed him to disregard the rules. It seemed to me a very fair parallel, but of course Rule #1 in the parliament is "Don't mention the war", and any reference to Adolf, no matter how indirect, is a hanging offence.

The current leader of the EPP, French MEP Joseph Daul, rose to condemn the outrage. In terms almost identical to those which Poettering used after my intervention in 2005, he said that he had demonstrated great patience and restraint in the face of demands by the sceptics, but this was too much. Hannan would be expelled from the EPP. The formalities will take a couple of weeks, but the die is cast. Dan will join me in the outer darkness -- the "Non-Inscrit". But there is a key difference. When I was expelled by Poettering, I received within a few hours a letter from the (then) Chief Whip, at the instigation of the (then) leader Timothy Kirkhope, withdrawing the Conservative Whip. It was sixteen months (and a great deal of campaigning from the grass roots) before I was reinstated. In Dan's case, he was and remains (as I am now) both a full member of the Conservative delegation, and a re-adopted euro-candidate for 2009.

Do I regret leaving the EPP? Not a bit. Of course I had some friends there (and some enemies), but I remain on good terms with the friends. I was visiting nuclear installations in Finland recently with Spanish EPP MEP (and parliamentary VP) Alejo Vidal-Quadras. On the morning of Dan's defenestration I was at Swedish EPP MEP Gunnar Hokmark's European Enterprise Forum breakfast, alongside Danish EPP MEP Christian Rovsing. These are people that I would recognise (broadly speaking) as conservatives, at least on free-market issues, and unlike many others in the EPP.

And I find I have huge advantages as a Non-Inscrit. EPP members attract around 70k of "information funding" -- but half is top-sliced by the EPP and used for integrationist projects. Much of the rest (for Tories) is used by the Conservative delegation, largely to fund staff posts that should be funded by the EPP (but they refuse to do so). The members receive only pocket money to spend on information projects in their regions. But as a Non-Inscrit, I get 40k a year to spend in my region. I shall be investing around 15k on a "Where's Our referendum?" ad campaign in the next few weeks.

I also get more speaking time in the parliament, and so will Dan. Speaking time in the EPP is allocated by their Chief Whip, and they simply decided that there was none for Dan on Constitutional issues (although he was on the relevant committee), because they knew what he would say. They cannot tolerate dissent. As a Non-Inscrit, I also get more parliamentary staff support and more access to parliamentary facilities -- which has enabled me to host several conferences.

So the EPP has now fired two Conservative MEPs out of 27. And David Cameron is committed to taking us all out before the next euro-election. Of course Cameron's commitment, on the basis of which he won the Party's leadership election, was unconditional. But the tactic of the pro-EPP members has been clever. Yes, they say, we will follow the Leader's direction (however reluctantly), but only when we have a new group to go to! Then they have worked hard to undermine any efforts to create a new group. Somehow this conditionality has seeped into the debate, so the new proposition is "You can't leave the EPP because you can't form a new group".  We need to repeat loud and clear: Cameron's commitment was unconditional. We're leaving the EPP anyway.

Over the years, we have damaged our credibility in the effort to sign up new partners by going at least four times, under four successive Party leaders, to say "If we left the EPP, might you join us?". We are the little boy who cried wolf. The answer now is "Leave first, and then we'll listen".

The reason that repeated attempts to find partners have failed, is simple. It was put into the hand of leaders and staff of the MEP delegation who went through the motions, but made it very clear that their hearts weren't in it. Then they came back to say that they'd done their best, but the task was beyond them. And the EPP haven't been idle. As we made our half-hearted initiatives, they were there before us with offers of influence and money, buying support. They have deep pockets, and a great deal of resource and expertise in this area.

To the great credit of our new delegation leader Giles Chichester, he seems committed to making a serious attempt, and he has appointed the very sound Geoffrey Van Orden MEP as interlocutor with potential partners.

We are often told that we get more funds within the EPP. Not true. We should get at least half a million a year more outside. We are told we have more influence as part of the "largest centre-right group in the parliament" (if only it were really centre-right!). But we have no influence at all. They treat us with contempt. They ignore our distinctive position in constitutional issues (despite have agreed solemnly in writing to respect that position). If we were outside, either alone as a delegation or in a new group, they would at least have to seek our support from time to time. Now they take us for granted. We are in the belly of the beast.

And they are picking us off one by one. I was fired for upholding our manifesto commitment to oppose corruption. Dan was fired for upholding our manifesto commitment to seek a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Who's next? And how much humiliation will we tolerate? It is less than 17 months to the euro-elections, and we need time to make our dispositions before the campaign. The time for procrastination is over. The time, finally, to lance the boil and leave the EPP is now.