The UK Conservatives will increase their majority over Labour in June’s European elections, and will abide by party leader David Cameron’s decision on whether to pull the party out of the centre-right EPP-ED group after the ballot, Timothy Kirkhope MEP, leader of the Conservative delegation to the European Parliament, told EURACTIV in an interview.
Timothy Kirkhope MEP is the leader of the UK Conservative party delegation in the European Parliament.
Mr. Kirkhope; in your capacity as leader of the UK Conservative delegation to the European Parliament, how would you assess the build-up to the European elections in the UK? How do things look on the ground?
The first question in Britain is to what extent people are going to be interested in Europe at all, as opposed to being interested in the future of the British government and when the next general election will be held.
Clearly, the nature of the campaign that I will be fronting will put forward our positives in relation to what we’re doing in Europe, and obviously we’re going to be criticising, effectively, Socialism in the broad European sense. But we will also be very aware of the fact that at the European elections, most people will want an opportunity to have an opinion on the British government, rather than an opinion on the European Parliament.
Is that fact not to the detriment of the European electoral process?
It’s an unfortunate fact. It’s not always easy to pin people’s minds to the elements of a particular election. We find that with local government elections in the UK, it’s difficult to get people to concentrate on the big issues put to them in local terms. Often, they will vote – or sadly, in many cases, not vote at all – on other issues, primarily the government of the day.
So trying to get them to vote on our European issues and themes will, I think, undoubtedly be difficult this year in general.
What, then, can European politicians do to mobilise voter interest in European issues and reverse consistently decreasing voter turnout?
First of all, I acknowledge that it is a small number [of people] – smaller than we would wish – who vote at European elections. That’s partly because the system is a difficult one. We have a proportional representation system [at European elections] which we don’t personally like. We prefer a ‘first past the post’ system.
Secondly, we have multi-member regions which are massive and therefore individual MEPs have much more difficulty in relating to their grassroots constituents. So the structure itself is not helpful.
But I think what we have to do is make sure that our work in the European Parliament does relate directly to their lives. It does, of course, have an effect, but we have to be able to demonstrate and communicate this, and show that our presence – particularly the presence of Conservative representatives – is actually better for the interests of the people on the ground than having, say, Labour representatives.
It’s hard work. We have to use the media, we have to get attention drawn to it, and that’s not easy. But I think that by and large, actually, things are moving along in a reasonable way. I think that we can actually show this year that we have had an impact.
This year more than others, you mean, due to European responses to the financial crisis, climate change and so on?
That sort of thing. And also issues that are specifically conservative – for instance, the Lisbon Agenda on deregulation, supported by President Barroso, which we ourselves have been at the forefront of delivering. Also the climate change issues, which a member of my delegation has been fronting in terms of finding sensible solutions on emissions trading, and so on.
Do you think that, given the current global economic climate, voters will respond to these issues more than they have done in previous years?
I do. And also, during economic difficulties, there are other issues, such as the Working Time Directive, where we will be drawing a very clear distinction between the Conservative party’s approach, which is to retain our opt-out (see EURACTIV 18/12/08), and the position of most Labour MEPs and their Socialist colleagues under Mr. Schulz.
You seem confident that the Conservatives can hold on to their eight-seat majority over Labour in the European Parliament. Do you think it might even increase?
Yes, I am absolutely convinced we will increase our position at the elections. We are already the largest in terms of numbers from Britain, and I have every confidence that we will have even more numbers when we come back in June.
The other thing is that quite a large proportion of our MEPs will be women. I’m particularly proud of that, as I was responsible for the rule changes which I pushed through the party board when I was last leader to make sure that we would have more women. We’re going to end up with a lot, and I’m delighted.
What about after the elections? What coalitions do you expect to be built? Will the EPP make a ‘behind closed doors’ agreement with the PES regarding who becomes Parliament president, as before? Or do you think an agreement may emerge between the EPP and the Liberals, for example?
As I understand it, there are discussions on-going at the moment, there have been discussions between the big groups, but I really don’t want to say anything more than that – there have been quite a lot of rumours flying around.
We now have a situation where Graham Watson [leader of the Liberal group in the European Parliament] has declared his own candidature. He claims that to be a very refreshing change, as it were, rather than the sort of ‘dark room’ discussions that normally take place.
It seems to me that what we have always done in the past is carve the thing up, but my own feeling is that this time it’ll be slightly more difficult to do that – I think there will be great changes in the parliamentary composition this year, so until we know what those changes bring, it’s extremely difficult to assess what kind of balance we need in terms of who gets what.
What do you expect those changes to be? EURACTIV has reported that some commentators think the controversy surrounding the Lisbon Treaty may lead to ‘new Euroscepticism across Europe‘ during next year’s European elections, and success for Eurosceptic, anti-Lisbon parties. Could this increase the UKIP vote in Britain, for example?
There’s no evidence that I can see that UKIP, for instance, will do very well – I don’t think they’ll do well at all. I think they did reasonably well in 2004, but my own view is that they are simply not in the same situation now.
I think if you are linking direct policy areas to the Lisbon Treaty, then undoubtedly this has lifted an element of extra scepticism around the place, tied in many ways with the re-referendum in Ireland.
I think you have to separate that from a general approach to Europe: my party and the Conservative delegation are described in many places as being Eurosceptic. I think it’s a term which has all kinds of meanings on different levels.
As far as I’m concerned, we are certainly questioning, certainly sceptical, towards attempts to build a federalist union. But I don’t think that will ever happen now – the high number of member states will prevent that from being quite as likely as it once was.
I think we have to be vigilant: our wish is to have a much freer combination and coordination of states, using the trading bloc for economic growth and success to our own advantage, as it were.
You mentioned that there are different kinds, different levels of Euroscepticism. This is also true within your own party, with some members wishing to leave the EPP-ED group after the June elections and others wishing to stay part of it. Your party leader, David Cameron, has not as yet backed down on his pledge to leave the EPP-ED after June. What do you expect to happen after the elections?
I’m not going to say much about this at the moment, because we will see the position after the election. David Cameron made it fairly clear that he has a commitment that we should be involved in the formation of a new group, and he’s also made it fairly clear that he wants us to continue working closely with our allies on the centre-right.
How that actually comes about, and in what form, is something that I don’t wish to further speculate on at the moment. There will be changes, I am quite sure, but the situation has yet to be finalised.
I mean, it’s a very small number of people who will be involved in making that decision. It has to be, obviously.
But it’s no secret that you yourself would prefer to remain within the structures of the EPP-ED.
No, I make no comment on that actually. I have always given the advice that I’ve given to the leader of the party and indeed discussed this matter in a way which I’ve always felt was to the fullest advantage of my delegation, and I will continue to do just that.
As to what we do, it’s obviously at the end of the day a matter for the party leader to decide.
But surely, given that the new Conservative delegation leadership, elected in November, is widely reported (even on the influential ConservativeHome website) to be in favour of staying in the EPP-ED, the advice you give to David Cameron will be not to pull out of the group?
I’m not commenting on what I have given in the way of advice, either before [the election of the new delegation leadership] or indeed what I will give in the future. I can’t talk about this matter any further, and I think the fact that various sort of blogs and sites seem to read me in a way that suits them – that is a big mistake.
I’m not complaining, I’m just making the point that it suits some people’s purposes to compartmentalise people, and compartmentalise leaders like myself, and those people are not privy to the discussions that I have with David Cameron, and don’t seem to have bothered to do any research at all into my background and history in politics. If they did that, they probably would be able to analyse me and maybe speculate on my thinking a little better than they do. That’s all I’m going to say.
But you think that, regardless of what the Conservatives do after the elections, you will be in a position of strength.
I do indeed. I think the Conservative party is going to be in a very strong position, both in Europe and at home, and I’m very hopeful that a general election is not going to be delayed for too long either.
I think whatever position we find ourselves in – our numbers, our grouping and all the rest of it – the Conservative representatives in Europe will be able to deliver some fairly heavy punching.
Would Tory punching not be stronger as part of the EPP-ED group? Some of your own party members have told EURACTIV that while they remain a part of the group, they receive “preferential treatment” and many highly influential positions.
I don’t lie awake at night worrying about privileged positions, really. I don’t look at it quite that way. I’m not in this game simply to chalk up positions, although I do agree that we currently hold some enormously significant positions in the parliament.
I would certainly intend, whatever happens in the future, to make sure we are punching our weight – punching above our weight, in fact.
I will do that in the future, as I do now, using whatever alliances and friends are available to me.
But the same sources say you cannot hope to command the same number of influential positions, to continue punching above your weight, if you leave the EPP, currently the largest group in the European Parliament.
Well, I think that’s speculation, and I just don’t want to speculate further on that. I have every intention of making sure that my delegation – and hopefully a larger one after the election – is going to play an enormously significant role in the European Parliament in future.
And you will abide by David Cameron’s decision, no matter what that may be?
The leader of my party is the leader of my party, full stop. I work quite closely with him, and he and I do not stare at each other and have vicious exchanges – we get on very well, actually.
As far as I’m concerned, I have every intention of doing everything I can to make sure that he becomes prime minister: that’s in everybody’s interest. Forget about all the other issues – there are greater things than just any position I might hold or indeed anyone else in my delegation.
But the division within the delegation remains on whether to leave the EPP-ED.
Well, when you talk about divisions, I mean, 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.