Tories' Euro links make sense
The Conservative Party is simply reconfiguring existing alliances, not running into the arms of fascists
In the late 1980s, when I was still in my 20s, I was sent on a diplomatic mission. I failed. And it wasn’t only because I am not the diplomatic type.
I was sent to Luxembourg, you see, by former Foreign Secretary David Owen to investigate the possibility of the Social Democratic Party (by that time tiny) joining the European People’s Party. The EPP, the group of Europe’s Christian Democrats, was meeting to agree upon its programme and I spent a couple of days meeting its key figures. Then I sat down with party officials and we got to the point.
I explained that Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party had been unwilling to join this mainstream, centre-right grouping, so perhaps we, though small, might outflank them. How about it? Well, they replied, we sort of like the idea of giving the Conservatives a black eye but we do have one question of our own. This SDP of yours, is it a European federalist party? No, I said in a small voice, it isn’t. And with that, my mission was over.
I do hope you will excuse me. I have just begun a column with an old story of a trip I took, a tale about a defunct political party and a negotiation with a political group you have never heard of. But here’s my reason — I think it helps explain why the Conservatives have hooked up in Europe with some people who have got them into hot water.
The Conservative party has never been able to join the European Union’s main centre-right grouping, the EPP, because it doesn’t want a strong central European government. It has had to sit on the sidelines, collaborating with the group but not joining it. The EPP simply demands too much of its members.
Now this position has never been satisfactory. Inside the European Parliament, Tory MEPs have been misfits. The EPP drive is so strongly in a direction that Conservatives oppose, that its MEPs have either had to go native or find themselves isolated in a group that disagreed with them on core issues.This position could not hold.
So, in the end, the Tories had to (or at least had a strong case to) strike out and try to create a durable political grouping with a different centre-right take on Europe. But this came with a problem. The EPP is big and solid and winning defections proved hard.
The long term idea is clear —wave the standard and hope over time people will rally to it. Even in the long term this may prove a total failure. In the short run, it was bound to prove difficult.
Why? Because it leaves you over-reliant on one or two parties, almost certain to come from Eastern Europe and without the credibility of the big beasts. And so it has proven. The Tories have built an alliance with Poles and Latvians who have come under heavy attack. When Michal Kaminski was leader of the Polish group inside the EPP and allied with the Tories there, no one cared about his views or his history. Now they do.
I can’t feel comfortable with Kaminski’s past (his teenage membership of a far-right group) or his current view on how Poles should respond to past crimes against the Jews. I think it is a mistake for Tories to feel they have to defend either in order to defend their group. But I still feel the new group is the right idea.
Kaminski is not an antisemite, nor the leader of an antisemitic party. Both the Latvian and Polish allies are mainstream, centre-right, governing parties. It is simply silly to suggest that the Conservatives, by reconfiguring their alliance with people they have been in alliance with for years, have suddenly become complicit in Holocaust denial.
And it is silly, too, to suggest that this alliance changes their attitude towards Jews. It is not about the Jews. It is about the future of Europe.
Daniel Finkelstein is associate editor of The Times