Ukip and the Tories: in search of palatable EU partners
By Tim Black
Uncertainty hangs over the future of the European parliamentary groupings of both the Conservative Party and the UK Independence Party (Ukip).
There are practical reasons for this. In the Conservative Party's case, its European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, set up after it left the far larger centre-right European People's Party group in 2009, is likely to be affected by two factors: a fall in the number of Conservative MEPs (currently standing at 26) thanks to a likely poor showing in May's elections, and the volatility of its East European partners.
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So while the ECR, with 56 MEPS, is currently well above the threshold necessary to form a group, come 22 May, its existence may be far less secure.
Unlike the Conservative Party, Ukip is likely to gain a significant number of MEPs (it currently has 13) in the upcoming elections. But the future of its existing political group, Europe for Freedom and Democracy (EFD), with 33 MEPs, is looking decidedly shakey.
Its relationship with fellow EFD members, Lega Nord, the Italian Northern League (which has nine MEPs), is strained – something which came to a head with the expulsion last year of Lega Nord's Mario Borghezio for racist comments at the behest of Ukip's Nigel Farage.
As one academic observer put it: "Several member parties in [the EFD] could reasonably move in with the radical right, leaving UKIP in an awkward position of being a bigger party, but still struggling to build a group."
But the bigger issue for both the Conservatives and Ukip is how the parliamentary alliances play to a domestic British audience. Flirtation with far-right parties, or parties with a far-right lineage, does not go down well.
The Conservatives have experienced bad publicity in the past thanks to their association with certain members of the ECR group. Their alliance with Poland's Law and Justice Party (PiS), which has been accused of anti-Semitism, and Latvian right-wingers For Fatherland and Freedom, which still parades through Riga in remembrance of the Latvian Waffen SS divisions, prompted many negative headlines five years ago.
"There will be incredulity in Washington, Beijing and Delhi, never mind Berlin and Paris, that a party aspiring to government in Britain – the party of Winston Churchill no less – chooses allies like this," wrote Labour's David Miliband in The Observer.
Likewise, Ukip has endured negative publicity thanks to its Euro alliances. For instance, Lega Nord MEP and EFD's co-president Francesco Speroni defended the views of Norway's mass murderer Anders Breivik in 2011 – comments which were revived this year.
The fear of how potential alliances with right-wing groupings on the continent will appear, or be portrayed, to the UK electorate, seems to be governing Ukip's approach to any future political grouping.
Hence it has steadfastedly distanced itself from the new Eurosceptic grouping, European Alliance for Freedom, now being pushed by Marine Le Pen, leader of France's National Front, and Geert Wilders of the Dutch Freedom Party.
In August last year, it rejected any potential alliance with Wilders: "[Ukip] is not right-wing but a libertarian party which believes in small government, low taxes, personal freedom and responsibility under a democratic national government, not under Brussels rule," a spokesman said. "Ukip are not involved in this initiative by Geert Wilders."
And then in November, Farage said Ukip wanted nothing to do with Le Pen's FN. "Whatever Marine Le Pen is trying to do with Le Front National, anti-Semitism, is still deeply embedded in that party, and for that principle political reason, we are not going to work with them now, or at any point in the future."
In early May the party repeated its stance saying it will "will have nothing to do with Front National or any of its fellow travellers in their new group".
Le Pen's recent entreaties to Farage have likewise been rebuffed, with Farage again invoking FN's anti-semitic past. This prompted Le Pen to accuse Farage of defamation.
Given Ukip's determination not to associate itself with prominent right-wing groupings in Europe, both because of political differences, and on the grounds that it would undermine Ukip's domestic appeal, it's not at all clear with whom they will align.
Farage did appear at a rally in Paris with Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, the leader of fellow Eurosceptic party, Debout la Republique. And he has professed to "some affinity" with the True Finns, and their Millwall-supporting leader, Timo Soini, who has appeared at many Ukip functions.
However, Ukip will potentially face a rival for the affections of the True Finns in the shape of the Conservative Party. As the EUobserver reported last month, Soini himself has admitted that "our choice is between the EFD and the ECR ..."
An alliance between Ukip and the True Finns is given added credence by the relationship between prominent Eurosceptic and Conservative MEP Danial Hannan and Soini. Hannan last year wrote that he was "proud" to count the Finn among his friends.
The Danish People's Party, which is currently polling to gain the most MEP seats in the Danish EP election, will also be choosing between the EFD and the ECR. It is currently part of Ukip's EFD group.
Another potential alliance for the Conservatives is Germany's Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) party. As the Telegraph revealed last April, the Conservatives and the AfD have already held talks about an alliance, although concerns that this could upset Cameron's relationship with Germany's Chancellor, Angela Merkel, have also been raised.
Still, AfD's leader Hans-Olaf Henkel described David Cameron's Conservative MEPs as his "preferred partner", while also dismissing Ukip as "ridiculous".
Meanwhile, Conservative leader David Cameron's commitment to a renegotiated relationship with the EU, plus the need to appease the sizeable number of Eurosceptic Tories, means that re-entry into the pro-EU EPP is unlikely to happen.
So, despite the talk of the rise of euroscepticism ahead of the May elections, it's clear – from the British experience at least – that far more divides parties critical of the EU than unites them.