Friday, May 16, 2014

Are the Tories about to tell us that "separatism" is OK after all - but only in Belgium?

Try not to guffaw too loudly, but it looks like David Cameron could be faced with an extremely painful dilemma over the coming weeks.  You might remember that a key part of his pitch to win the Tory leadership in the first place was that the party would leave the European Parliament grouping dominated by the supposedly "federalist" European People's Party, and instead set up a new Eurosceptic group that the likes of Bill Cash could just about live with.  It wasn't exactly easy to do it, because in order to reach the thresholds for official recognition as a group, they had to align themselves with some borderline nutters.  They got there in the end, though, and the "European Conservatives and Reformists" are currently the joint fourth largest group in the parliament, with MEPs from eleven of the twenty-eight member states.

But not, if the polls are anything to go by, for much longer.  The ECR group seems to be about to fall below one of the two thresholds for official recognition, which is representation in at least seven member states.  That doesn't mean the group will necessarily fold after next week's election, but it does mean that they will need to draft in at least one extra party.  This is where it gets interesting, because the general consensus seems to be that one of the obvious candidates is the New Flemish Alliance.  In many ways, they're an absolutely dream fit for Mr Cameron - they're centre-right rather than hard-right, they seemingly have no overtly racist or homophobic baggage, and they even bill themselves as "liberal conservatives" (ring any bells?).

Just one snag, though - they also happen to be what is known in Tory jargon as "separatists".  Here is how Wikipedia describes them...

"It is a regionalist and separatist movement that self-identifies with the promotion of civic nationalism. It is part of the Flemish Movement, and strives for the peaceful and gradual secession of Flanders from Belgium."

They are, in a nutshell, a rough Flemish equivalent of the SNP. They are even currently part of the same political family as the SNP, namely the European Free Alliance (EFA). They're seemingly planning to leave that grouping and seek a new home, not because they have renounced their "separatism", but because of left/right ideological differences, and because the EFA are in alliance with the Greens, which causes embarrassment at home.

But how can David Cameron possibly enter into a political marriage with "separatists" just months before the Scottish independence referendum? You might think he wouldn't be so foolish, but bear in mind that the alternatives could look even worse from his point of view. Getting over the threshold without the New Flemish Alliance might involve dealing with some extremely unsavoury characters, with all the bad press and "nasty party" connotations that come with that. A "prodigal son" return to the European People's Party group would be portrayed as a betrayal and is surely unthinkable. And it's highly unlikely that a major party like the Conservatives would consider not being part of any group at all, because that would freeze it out of much of the parliament's workings. So it could well be that Cameron feels his least worst option is to embrace his inner separatist.

Be sure to have some popcorn handy.

* * *

Meanwhile, it's perfectly conceivable that the SNP will overtake the Liberal Democrats next week as the fourth largest party in the UK contingent at the European Parliament. Both parties are currently forecast to win either two or three seats - but the difference is that the SNP have two definite seats in the bank, whereas the Liberal Democrats are in genuine danger of being completely wiped out.

Such an outcome wouldn't be unprecedented - between 1979 and 1994, every European Parliament seat in Great Britain was held by either Labour or the Conservatives, with the sole exception of the Highlands and Islands seat held by the SNP's Winnie Ewing. In the last first-past-the-post election in 1994, the Liberal Democrats finally made a breakthrough, but still only won two seats across the whole of Great Britain - exactly the same number as the SNP.

1 comment:

  1. The Belgian situation is interesting. The description of the N-VA (New Flemish Alliance) is pretty much accurate.

    However it is diffcult to draw parallels. They are, to an extent, a moderate counter point to the Vlaams Belang, who have an altogether more extreme form of Flemish secession, including some pretty racist/anti-immigration messages - akin to BNP.

    The N-VA cannot really be seen in isolation; they are the moderate part of a wider secession debate.