The Tories, known for their Eurosceptic views, helped to save Europe's future diplomatic service, Parliament officials said.
Without a decisive call by UK Foreign Minister William Hague to his fellow party members in the European Conservatives and Reformists group (ECR), whose members were elected on an anti-federalist ticket, the EEAS would probably not have got off the ground. (see roll call by Vote Watch)
The Parliament voted last Thursday (8 July) on a decision to establish the European External Action Service, a new EU diplomatic corps that will be led by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
To the surprise of many observers – including some ECR group members – the EEAS proposal was approved, in part thanks to the support of MEPs from the European Conservatives and Reformists group.
Charles Tannock MEP, foreign affairs spokesman for the ECR group, said: "We were opposed to the creation of the EEAS but we are now reconciled to engaging constructively within the new architecture in the best interests of our countries."
He argued that some changes introduced to the proposal had made it acceptable to the Tories. "I welcome that [German centre-right MEP] Mr [Elmar] Brok, as rapporteur, has included my amendment in his text, which supports national parliamentary involvement. This is crucial to ensuring that the new service is subject to proper democratic scrutiny."
Ulrike Lunacek, an Austrian Green MEP, said that without the ECR group's support, the decision would have been postponed until the autumn, allowing EU member states more time to bargain for amendments to dilute the text, or fight for positions of influence in the future EU organisation.
"Without the ECR we wouldn't have achieved it," Lunacek told a public event organised by the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) on Friday (9 July).
Lunacek explained how some MEPs from the ECR group had seemed confused following the vote after being told to vote in favour of a text which they had previously attacked.
Until days ago, leading MEPs were saying that more time would be needed for the political groups to digest a compromise deal on the proposal reached in Madrid (EurActiv 22/06/10). They were categorical in saying that the vote on approving Ashton's proposals would take place after the summer recess.
However, on 8 July, MEPs overwhelmingly voted to set up the EEAS, by 549 votes to 78. Only MEPs from the left-wing Confederal Group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) and the right-wing, Eurosceptic Europe of Freedom and Democracy group (EFD) voted against the proposal.
Asked by EurActiv to comment on the political importance of William Hague's move, Lunacek said:
"This is something I wouldn't have expected from Mr. Hague, so I really appreciate that. I hope this augurs for a more pro-European stance, in the Council especially. Being in government together with the Lib Dems hopefully helps somewhat. That's a positive sign."
Guillaume McLaughlin, a policy adviser from the Liberal ALDE group, said a few more obstacles had to be overcome before the vote could be held. The first was an internal division within the centre-right European People's Party group, with Polish Conservative MEP Jacek Sariusz-Wolski pushing for more "geographical balance," meaning fairer representation of Eastern Europeans in the future diplomatic service.
This view was opposed by leading EPP member Elmar Brok (Germany), who stood against the concept.
As discussions developed, Sariusz-Wolski apparently backed down after it had been agreed internally that Polish European Affairs Minister Mikołaj Dowgielewicz would get the job of deputy secretary-general of the EEAS. Instead of a tougher text on geographical balance, an agreement was reached that possible "imbalances" would be taken into account during the 2013 review of the service.
Another aspect, McLaughlin explained, was the position of the Partido Popular, the Spanish centre-right opposition party, which was "playing Spanish politics" and "didn't want the Spanish Socialists to achieve anything during their presidency".
During the conference of political group presidents, held before the Strasbourg plenary, all group leaders were in favour of holding the vote during the July session, except the EPP, which insisted on postponing the vote until autumn.
In this context, the votes by the ECR group proved decisive.
"The Tories, for God's sake, saved this," McLaughlin fretted, adding that the coalition with the Liberal democrats had "delivered some positive things already at European level".
He also said that a major factor in the vote's success was the absence of Elmar Brok from the conference of presidents, held on 1 July. On that day, Brok was in Berlin on the occasion of the vote to appoint new German President Christian Wulff.
"There was in fact nobody from the EPP to defend Brok's position," McLaughlin said.
The fact that the EPP was opposed to holding the vote at the July session, however, did not prevent the Parliament's biggest group from massively voting in favour of the EEAS blueprint, he added.