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Cameron only has himself to blame for the Tories' latest Europe row

After withdrawing from the centre-right European People's Party grouping, Cameron has no right to tell his MEPs not to flirt with the anti-Euro Alternative für Deutschland.

After withdrawing from the centre-right European People's Party grouping.
David Cameron and Angela Merkel at the EU Council building in Brussels on October 25, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

There was an article in Saturday’s Guardian regarding overtures made by Conservative MEPs in Brussels to the German anti-Euro party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a group that anticipates doing well in this year’s European elections. Rumour has it that the Tory MEPs are being egged on by Westminster backbenchers, with the ringleader in Brussels being Daniel Hannan (although in the article he refuses to confirm this). This is relevant to David Cameron because AFD is an explicitly anti-Merkel party, made up of many CDU defectors, and the alleged alliance building is scheming by those Tories who wish to see Cameron’s plan to renegotiate Britain’s place within the EU and then hold a referendum destroyed.

This may confuse some. Why would Eurosceptic Tories want to scupper the In/Out referendum they so desire? Because they want it on their own terms. They fear that Cameron will stitch up  somethingwith Merkel, oversell it back home and then stroll to victory in the resultant referendum when all three major parties back the campaign to remain in the EU. So uniting with Merkel’s enemies in the European parliament seems to be a good first step to preventing this from occurring.

The worst thing for Cameron is that this is yet another hole that he has dug for himself. The Prime Minister put this train of events into motion when he pulled the Conservatives out of the main centre-right grouping in the EU parliament, the European People's Party (EPP), and helped form the Eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) in the summer of 2009. Like most manoeuvres Cameron has made in regards to Europe, this was done to appease the Eurosceptics in his party; to silence them once and for all. And like all the other concessions he has made to this element, it has backfired spectacularly. It has strengthened the hand of those calling for Cameron to be more explicitly Eurosceptic. Given the fact that the Tory leader, in his heart of hearts, wants Britain to remain in the EU, this was a terrible error. Now, the fruit of that disastrous move is ripening. Had Cameron kept the Tories in the EPP he could have appealed directly to Merkel and other members of the group as a member himself; he could have told them to use the UK renegotiation for cover to make centre-right reforms to the single market that the EPP members themselves would have liked. Instead, he’s in a position where his party is flirting with an anti-Merkel populist party in Brussels. And what can he possibly do about it? He was the one who put them in the ECR in the first place, so what right does he have to tell his MEPs not to flirt with potential members of the grouping he established?

People have often asked why Tory MEPs like Dan Hannan, given their hard line Eurosceptic views, don’t simply join UKIP. While long term party loyalty is surely a factor, the tactical reason is that by remaining Tories they ensure the presence of British Eurosceptics in two EU parliament groupings: in the ECR and the even more anti-EU Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD) grouping that includes UKIP. They also get to try and ruin Cameron’s plans for a "stitch-up" from the inside.

Which brings us neatly back to the Alternative für Deutschland  bunch and the depressing thought that anti-EU parties will triumph in the upcoming elections. Those of us who care about the European project can only vote with our hearts and hope for the best come 22 May. 

Nick Tyrone works for the Electoral Reform Society but writes in a personal capacity. His articles can be found at www.nicktyrone.com