Whilst David Cameron has gone to great lengths to dispel the image
of the conservatives being the 'nasty
party' by hugging hoodies and frolicking with huskies in the Arctic, looking at
his allies in the European Parliament
(EP) one can argue that these attempts of detoxifying his party are merely superficial. The Conservatives are
chairing a Parliamentary bloc which has got homophobic and racist members. What
this reveals about the Conservatives is deeply worrying and it shows how little
the British people engage with the EU that we do not condemn the Conservatives
for working with such unpalatable groups.
In 2009 the Conservative party left the main centre right bloc in the European Parliament, the European People's Party. This decision was greeted with surprise and plenty of criticism in the UK. Ed Davey, of the Liberal Democrats said it left the Tories on the lunatic fringes of European politics. This statement was echoed by Labour Europe's Minister Caroline Flint, who said the move could put the UK "on the fringe of Europe and jeopardise business links".
The reasons for the Conservative's shift have been discussed in much depth, the main catalyst being the growing euro-skepticism in the Conservative party placing pressure on Mr. Cameron to drastically alter the party's stance on Europe. But there has been less discussion about the new group the Conservatives are an integral part of.
To create a new bloc, and receive EU funding one needs MEPs from seven member states. This proved little difficulty for the Conservatives and after the 2009 elections the European Conservative and Reformists (ECR) bloc was formed. With an initial 55 MEPS, it was the joint fourth largest group and after the recent 2014 elections with 77 MEPs it was the third largest group. Reading their founding principles it is clear that the ECR is strongly opposed to further integration. Whilst one may disagree with this stance the reality is many voters throughout the EU agree with the ECR, so this group have to be taken seriously and their concerns need to be addressed.
However, upon closer inspection of the ECR, it is clear that David Cameron is working with a group of very unsavoury individuals and parties. One of these is the 'Law and Justice Party' of Poland, where a senior MP was reported to equate the election of Obama as signalling the 'end of white man's civilization'. Not only is racism prevalent in the party, some members have shocking attitudes towards gays and lesbians. Pink News reported that the leader of the party Jaroslaw Kaczynski in 2008 said "the affirmation of homosexuality will lead to the downfall of civilisation". For all the Conservatives' recent progress as a party with a positive attitude to the Gay community leading to the Equal Marriage Act, how strong is this commitment to equality in reality when they are working with people who hold such virulent homophobic views?
A more recent addition to the ECR is the German right wing party Alternative for Germany (AFD). This party has been mired in controversy from its very inception, with claims across the German media and political spectrum that they are Nazis in suits. The recent PEGIDA marches only strengthen this argument, as one of the AFD founding members Alexander Gauland famously said that the AFD are natural allies of PEGIDA. Whereas the mainstream of German politics condemned PEGIDA marches for the bastions of Islamphobia and racism they were, the AFD seemed to be at least supportive of PEGIDA and at worst entwined with it. Despite this, David Cameron still works with them in Brussels, adding further weight to the opinion that the Tory party is still 'nasty'.
There are two conclusions to be drawn from these findings, none of which are particularly encouraging. The first is that the Conservative party has played a great act in fooling the British people that is has moved more to the centre while actually staying true to its nature of the 'nasty party' as shown by their alliances in Europe. While this would certainly please all Tory bashers reading this article, in some respects the Conservatives have gone a long way since the 1980s in becoming a more modern party, one must look at the equal marriage act to see that at least the leadership of the Conservative party are seeking to address some issues of inequality.
The second conclusion is a more damaging indictment on British political life and how we treat and view European politics. The Conservatives have been able to work with these two controversial parties because they, and much of the British people, sadly perceive the European Parliament as irrelevant and useless. Many don't care about the power the EP has gradually won; the ability to veto the budget of the European Union and the role of committees which are playing an increasing role in formulating and scrutinizing EU policies. In short, the Conservatives can and will do business with anyone whatever their political views because they correctly assume the British people who are so ignorant about the EU will probably never know who they are working with or what is they are working on.
That is where the crux of the issue lies. We the British people with our unwillingness or dare I say laziness to learn about the EU are responsible for the Conservatives working with these loathsome parties. This is a battle cry for the British people: engage with the issues and call the parties to account for what they are and aren't doing in the Parliament and who they are working with! I was in Berlin during the European Parliament elections for my Erasmus year and there were such excitement and a real belief that voting would have an impact. The media was alive with debates about the direction of the EU and which party had the best vision for Europe, as I turned to the UK media hoping to see the same levels of engagement and discussion I was bitterly disappointed. With such low levels of interest (only 34% of the UK voted), it is no wonder the Conservatives believe they can get away with working with such nasty individuals and parties.