The little European problem that the Conservatives would prefer to forget
The Conservative Party has a problem with the European Union and probably always will. Though the issue of our membership of the EU remains low on the priority list of most of the electorate (ask any pollster), it concerns Tory activists and backbenchers to the point of obsession. Europe is the destroyer of Conservative governments and could yet be the downfall of the Coalition.
There is an apparently endless appetite on the right for a discussion of the moral failings of a government which will not give the British people an in-out vote on Europe. But there is a whole other European issue that doesn’t seem to cause so much of an ethical frisson in Conservative circles: the party’s ongoing relationship with parties on the nationalist right of European politics.
David Cameron was greeted with a wall of criticism when he announced he was withdrawing from the centre-right European People’s Party grouping in the European Parliament in 2009. His decision to join the European Conservatives and Reformists brought him into an alliance with controversial East European parties with some uncomfortable connections with the far-right, and raised the spectre of the antisemitic history of Poland and the Baltic countries. Three years ago, Conservative Friends of Israel made one of the most controversial decisions in its history by inviting the Polish politician Michal Kaminski, then chair of the ECR group, as guest of honour to its lunch at party conference. His views on the massacre of Jews in the town of Jedwabne in north east of Poland in 1941, were expressed to the JC at the time: “If you are asking the Polish nation to apologise for the crime made in Jedwabne, you would require from the whole Jewish nation to apologise for what some Jewish Communists did in Eastern Poland.”
Still more troubling for the Jewish community is the hard-right Latvian MEP Robert Zile, whose also sits in alliance with the Tories in Europe. Mr Zile is a long-time supporter of the Latvian “Legionnaires Day” rally which each March celebrates the Waffen SS.
A campaign by Monica Lowenberg, a 47-year-old Londoner, whose uncle was sent to the Riga concentration camp, has brought some degree of publicity to the issue. But a letter circulated to all Tory MPs has received just one reply — from the Harrow East MP Bob Blackman, who has also put down an Early Day Motion calling on the Latvian government to ban the march (the Prime Minister’s Office sent a standard letter in response).
It is perhaps no surprise that the Conservative Party has been silent on this matter, content to let it slip from the political agenda. The Board of Deputies has also been quiet since President Vivian Wineman was attacked in 2009 for voicing his concerns about Conservative alliances in Europe. The Chief Rabbi is yet to respond to Ms Lowenberg as to where he stands on the issue.
Three years ago, Tory Party spinners argued that attacks on its ECR partners were driven by an increasingly desperate Labour government. But as the campaign of one Jewish woman, directly affected by events in Latvia, gathers pace, it will no longer be possible for them to make this argument.