It was not quite the political earthquake Nigel Farage was hoping for. Yesterday Ukip’s group in the European Parliament collapsed after the departure of Latvian MEP Iveta Grigule, which left it bereft of the minimum seven countries needed to qualify as an official parliamentary grouping.
This will not just mean a loss of status. It will result in a major blow to the party’s influence, with the loss of millions of euros worth of official funding for support staff and communications, and significantly less legislative influence – although given Ukip’s lack of attendance the latter point is rather a moot one. In a personal setback for Nigel Farage, the loss of group status will also mean he will no longer be able to make his long leader’s speeches at the European Parliament’s monthly sessions in Strasbourg, which he routinely used as a soapbox to insult European leaders and undermine Britain’s image abroad.
Given the fact that Ukip’s very raison-d’etre is antipathy towards European cooperation, it’s perhaps not altogether surprising that its group in the European Parliament has fallen apart. But we should remember that not long ago pundits were predicting that eurosceptic and far-right parties would dominate the new parliament. Many feared that a new alliance of populist and anti-European MEPs could lead to legislative gridlock and block progress on vital EU reforms. As it happens, the MEP group Nigel Farage cobbled together is the shortest-lived in history, narrowly beating the far-right ITS group formed in 2007 by Mussolini’s granddaughter.
Ukip’s marriage of convenience with MEPs from Italian comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, which was already beginning to fray due to fundamental differences on issues like the environment, now looks unlikely to continue. If he wants to try and resurrect his group, Farage may well have to turn to more extremist allies such as Marine Le Pen’s French National Front, who he has already vowed not to get into bed with, and Geert Wilders’ Dutch Party for Freedom, whose attempt at forming a far-right grouping failed earlier this year. Far from dominating the European Parliament, it seems that anti-EU parties are more divided than ever.
This should be welcomed by those us who believe in the principle of European cooperation and want to rebuild public faith in the EU. From Ebola through to Ukraine and Islamic State, it’s clear that the big challenges facing Britain today are shared by our European neighbours and that we need to work together to address them. Ukip have built support on the back of disillusionment with the current political system, but while they are good at criticising they don’t offer a credible alternative. They want to go back to an imaginary past when we need to move forward, radically change and improve the EU and allow it to unleash its full potential.
Across European capitals there is now widespread appetite for substantial changes to the EU to ensure it is more focused on the big issues where it adds real value, such as unleashing economic growth, protecting the environment and fighting organised crime. It is significant that the new European Commission, set to be voted on by MEPs next week in Strasbourg, will include a Vice-President for Better Regulation who will oversee all European legislation to make sure it’s fit for purpose. Lord Hill, the UK’s next Commissioner, has been put in charge of creating a banking union that will create huge opportunities for the British financial sector – tellingly, Ukip MEPs failed to turn up to a crucial vote on whether to approve him. Moreover, ambitious proposals are on the table to build a single market in energy and the digital sector and help kick-start growth across the EU. We need MEPs who will contribute to this process of reform, not seek to obstruct it. That is why the demise of Ukip’s group is both good news for the UK and Europe as a whole.
Catherine Bearder is a Liberal Democrat MEP