Thursday, June 23, 2011

Pan European Parties and political realism

As always when it comes to receiving money from the EU, debate rages in the corridors of UKIP. Those of us who have been around the party for over a decade now will recall the debates about whether UKIP should use its seats in the European Parliament, and whether UKIP should join a group there. There is more than a little similarity between those arguments and this one.

With the exception of a troublesome and vocal minority, these are questions which have been settled, but now a fresh argument is brewing: should UKIP sign up to a relatively new EU plan, that for pan-national political parties?

The argument within UKIP is split three ways. There are those who think that, if there's free money on offer, we should take it. There are those who think that, as the pan-national parties are inspired by the EU, we should reject it. And, finally, there are those who couldn't care less what we do, as long as by perpetuating the argument they can damage UKIP.

This morning, I read with interest Jason Smith's blog (*1), where he summarizes the principle v. realism argument well, although not completely. Unfortunately, it is the bit that he misses - probably as it has not been widely publicised - which is more important than all the rest.

In April this year, the European Parliament's constitutional affairs committee voted by 20-4 (*2) to recommend to the full Europarl that 25 new seats in the European Parliament should be contested on a European wide list system. This is a refinement of, although not necessarily a replacement for, an earlier idea that 5% of seats should be fought on this basis. Naturally, the only candidates for these seats would be those nominated by the aforementioned pan-European political parties, under conditions set by Europarl.

For myself, having some experience of the way the EU creeps forward its plans for a federal Europe, I have no doubt what will happen in 2014 and then 2019 in terms of these pan-European parties. In 2014, we will have the 25 MEPs elected on pan-European lists. Come about 2018, we'll hear what a great success it has been, and how - because of the public acclamation which none but federalists can hear - in 2019 we'll have 5% of the European Parliament elected from lists. To peer further into the future would be largely futile, although it would be foolish not to put a tenner on 10% or even 20% of the European Parliament being elected off these lists in 2024.

As things stand at the moment, the European Commission has a huge advantage. Journalists in Brussels don't much care what goes on in the European Parliament, because they know where the power is, and it ain't in the debating chambers of the Parliament. National delegations in Brussels - the permanent representatives - are all committed to continued membership of the European Union, because that is the position of their national governments. Parliament, with very few exceptions, comes at the bottom of the list, while Eurosceptics come at the bottom of the list of MEPs who should be asked for an opinion.

So what does this have to do with European Political Parties, and more particularly UKIPs involvement or not with them?

We have long opposed this as a means by which the EU can take more power by deciding the conditions under which such parties exist. For sure, the constant alterations to the existing political group structure - particularly the number of nations which need to be represented - have tended to work against UKIP in that it becomes progressively harder to stitch together the consensus needed to create and, indeed, to maintain one.

There are many misunderstandings about the way the group works, and of these the one most frequently bandied about by UKIPs enemies is that because UKIP is the only withdrawalist party, membership of a group is selling out to a tacit acceptance of some form of European Union. Of course, this isn't true, but since when have UKIPs enemies worried about the truth? My understanding has always been that UKIP does not oppose the European Union as such: it opposes UKIPs membership of it. If other nations want to continue in a European Union after the UK leaves, surely that is a decision for their electorate, not for UKIP? The structure of the EFD Group to which UKIP belongs is based on exactly this: the British want withdrawal, the Italians want less centralisation and more regional power, the Danes want reform of the UK, not withdrawal. There is no conflict here: the national delegations are free to use the resources available to the group to campaign for what they see as being in their national interest.

These resources are only a part of what we gain from the Group: we also gain exposure, and that exposure often represents the only dissenting voice on offer to the plans of the Commission and the Euro-federalists. If, over the coming few years, we are going to see a shift towards MEPs elected on a pan-European list, this can only be to the detriment of the group structure: indeed, the plan is that the parties will replace the groups.

And it is here that the realities of politics come up against the ideology. The question over whether UKIP should join a pan-European Party has thus far been debated as far as I can see on the basis of what will it cost UKIP in terms of ideological purity, but that is surely to look at it the wrong way round. A more pertinent question is what will it cost UKIP to not take part, and what effect will non-membership have on UKIPs cause in the UK, and more widely what effect would it have on Euroscepticism more widely in the EU.

For a start, there would be the loss of influence, and a concomitant loss of media access. As holders of the co-presidency of a group, UKIP gets to make a formal response in the European Parliament, and these responses are some of the most watched output from the much derided Europarl TV, and some of the most popular political speeches on YouTube.

Then there are the seats in the parliament itself. If there are 25 MEPs reserved for pan-European parties in 2014, are we not to fight them? How about in 2019, wen maybe 5% of seats are reserved for them: that is potentially 5 fewer UK seats to be contested. Will we stand up for Euroscepticism by not contesting them? If that figure is 20% in 2024, will we content ourselves with contesting only the remaining 64 UK seats? If we're lucky, and our vote continues to grow in Euro elections, we could find ourselves capturing ever larger shares of the vote, while still seeing the number of seats we hold decrease!

And finally, the resources. Popular as it is in certain sections of UKIP to moan and bitch about the influence of the MEPs on the party, I have yet to hear a convincing argument as to how we would replace the resources we would lose. Our MEPs bring regional offices, regional staff, political advisers and researchers alongside the electoral credibility which goes with a seat in the European Parliament, and the membership of a group. The group itself brings further positions: researchers, press officers, and an international structure to work within. If the group structure disappears and is replaced by one based on the new political parties, where will that leave UKIP in the future?

UKIPs position in politics is one of punching above its weight, and a large part of that comes from its success in spreading its message through the European Parliament. This success in turn is based on UKIPs membership of, and ability to, forge alliances which spread across the EU.

UKIP can not succeed by remaining identical and failing to adapts its position to the times, and the times, they are a' changing. The very existence of UKIP, and its position as the official opposition to Euro federalism within the European Parliament, has strengthened Euroscepticism across the EU by striking at the heart of Europe, and in the Commissions' weak spot: its lack of democratic legitimacy. The benefits to UKIP are that a wider feeling of Euroscepticism across the European Union effectively acts as a brake on the road to a federal EU, by forcing national governments to at least consider the domestic effects of their own growing national Eurosceptic groups. Where they fail to do so, they wake up increasing sections of their own populations to the very lack of democratic legitimacy the EU seeks to hide. We should not underestimate the benefits to the UK of this undermining of a previously unquestioned system and the instability it brings to the Commission way of doing things.

It is clear to me that, should UKIP vote not to join a pan-European party, we will see our influence wane. Worse, the encouragement we have provided to other Eurosceptic movements across the EU will become less visible, as UKIP finds itself sidelined through procedural means in the European Parliament - we'd be just another small bunch of independents in the non-aligned group, rather than a driving force of opposition. And come 2024, when we find ourselves running just to stand still, we will recognise the folly of a 'no' vote now, as the number of seats we can contest dwindles, meaning a reduction in MEP resources coming into the party.

There can only be one sensible vote, and that is to support UKIPs membership of a pan-European party.