A loveless marriage heading for divorce?
The Tories' relationship to Europe has always been complex, with persistent internal disagreement as to what their position towards, and position within, the EU should be.
The party's affiliation to the EPP, in particular, has been a constant headache for the party leadership. The EPP group is dominated by the Christian right and is generally a strong proponent of European integration, a cause of great consternation to many Tories, who traditionally take a Eurosceptic view. Ideologically, this so-called 'loveless marriage' does not, on the face of it, make a great deal of sense.
As a result, Tory leader David Cameron has pledged to disband the EPP-ED alliance after June's elections, and set up a new group.
If they go: Potential scenarios
Should the Tories leave, a number of options have been mentioned for their post-EPP future in Europe. Cameron's original plan, to form a mainstream ED-style conservative opposition group with Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek's ODS party, attracted the attention of Poland's Law and Justice party (PIS) and France's Rally For France party (RPF).
However, as recently as December 2008, Tory MEPs claimed there was "no evidence to suggest that this new group's architecture is fully formed in terms of firm pledges by other parties to join us in 2009". A new parliamentary group can only be formed if it has MEPs from at least seven EU member states.
A second option would simply see the Conservatives move outside the group structure and join the "non-affiliated" MEPs. This option is anathema to most Tory MEPs, though, as many in the party adhere to the dictum that 'unattached status means no status'.
A third and quite recent potential scenario is that ED would form a confederation with the Union for Europe of the Nations Group (UEN), a group which Tory MEP Charles Tannock claims that "by and large, identifies with many of the same values as Conservatives".
However, this option would only be possible if, as is currently being suggested in Brussels, Irish Fianna Fail MEPs leave the UEN to join the liberal ALDE group (Fianna Fail and the Tories will not sit in the same group for a number of historical reasons).
'Preferential treatment': Why a majority of Tory MEPs want to stay
Despite the hypothetical benefits of being ideologically unbridled from the EPP after the elections, it is widely understood that most Tory MEPs do not favour such a move, precisely because being a member of the Parliament's largest group gives them a strong platform in Europe, and a disproportionate number of influential positions.
A Conservative source within the Parliament, who did not wish to be named, told EurActiv that "there is no question that a majority of our MEPs would prefer to remain within the group" due the "preferential treatment we are given". "Half of the members are coordinators and we maintain a separate whip on the most important issues."
In other words, Tory MEPs fear that leaving the EPP-ED could potentially diminish their influence and reduce their power in the European Parliament.
UK Labour MEP Richard Corbett told EurActiv that in the EPP, Tories "have far more influence generally – whether that be obtaining good positions or simply being part of one of the big two groups in the Parliament – than they would being isolated on the fringes".
Corbett claims that "the trouble is back home". "Pandering to the eurosceptic wing of his party when trying to be elected leader, Cameron promised to take them out of the EPP- now he’s lumbered with that pledge," he said.
'Cameron is boss, full stop,' says leader of Tory MEPs
Conservative representatives contacted by EurActiv for this article were on the whole very reluctant to speak out, perhaps indicating that the debate remains a highly sensitive internal issue for the party, and one which is far from resolved.
Despite a flurry of online activity analysing the current state of play, most Tory MEPs seem to be genuinely clueless as regards Cameron's final intentions. Charles Tannock MEP, for example, noted that "MEPs are kept very much in the dark about David Cameron's plans".
One Conservative in the Parliament told EurActiv that "apart from the highest echelons of the Conservative party leadership, no-one knows how negotiations are unfolding. Anyone who claims they know is merely speculating".
Speaking to EurActiv in an interview, Timothy Kirkhope MEP, who was elected leader of the Conservative delegation to the European Parliament for the second time in November 2008 and is widely believed to be against leaving the EPP-ED, said: "I do agree that we currently hold some enormously significant positions in the Parliament."
However, Kirkhope would not be drawn on where the high-level Tory negotiations are leading, saying only that he would abide by Cameron's decision: "The leader of my party is the leader of my party, full stop."
Kirkhope denied any rift with Cameron on the issue, claiming “I work quite closely with him” and “we get on very well, actually” though he acknowledged the diversity of opinion among MEPs: “people have opinions, and I’ve got no problem with people having opinions, but at the end of the day, there’s only one leader of the delegation and only one leader of the Conservative party.”