Although many MEPs believe that the European Parliament is the centre of the known political universe, in truth the goings on in Brussels and Strasbourg rarely trouble the attention of anyone who is not a dedicated EU geek. That said, the decision by the Conservatives’ ECR group to admit the anti-euro Alternative für Deutschland party could have wider repercussions for Anglo-German relations, and therefore the prospects for Cameron’s EU reform agenda.
For those who are not familiar with AfD here is a potted history: the party was founded by German academics opposed to Merkel’s Eurozone policies, specifically the bailouts. As it has grown, AfD has combined a more socially conservative policy agenda with populist rhetoric. It narrowly failed to win seats in the Bundestag last year before scoring an impressive 7 per cent in May’s European elections. Although AfD just wants to limit membership of the Eurozone and is not anti-EU per se, its desire to reverse European integration and talk up the German national interest is complete anathema to the mainstream German political discourse and even its mere existence is controversial.
German politicians across the political spectrum are exceptionally hostile towards the AfD and Merkel herself is loath to even acknowledge their existence. However, joining the ECR and sitting alongside the governing Tories will give AfD much needed credibility. Despite only polling at around the 6-7 per cent mark, a recent poll found around a third of Germans want to see AfD in the Bundestag – so it clearly has the potential to expand.
The ECR’s decision to admit AfD is doubly bad for Cameron because he explicitly stated his opposition to it and did his best to scupper the deal. Despite the vast majority of Tory MEPs taking his lead and voting against, the result nonetheless undermines Cameron’s credibility. AfD’s entry to the ECR follows the similarly controversial admission of the Danish People’s Party and the Finns Party, both of which have unpleasant reputations despite recent efforts to clean up their images. The irony is that the undoubted success in broadening the ECR may not be conducive to Cameron’s wider EU reform agenda. The group also looks a harbour for ‘anti-Merkel’ sentiments containing as it does the Independent Greeks who have called on Germany to pay WWII reparations and Poland’s ‘German-wary’ Law and Justice.
The question is how much this will annoy Merkel really, and what the wider fallout will be. There is no doubt this will damage the Merkel-Cameron relationship – already strained over the Juncker saga – which took a while to recover from Cameron’s decision to pull the Tories out of the EPP-ED group when he became leader. This may limit both her willingness and domestic room for manoeuvre in accommodating UK concerns.
However, the German Chancellor is a brutal pragmatist and the UK and Germany will continue to share a great deal of common ground when it comes to EU reform ranging from the competitiveness agenda to the rules governing EU migrants’ access to benefits. Ultimately, time will tell what the full impact of yesterday’s decision will be.