As David Cameron attempts to negotiate a « better deal » for the United Kingdom in the EU, other European right-wing parties represented in the European Parliament worry about the effect of such negotiations for EU citizens at large.
She walks with a lot of confidence and energy. When she shakes your hand, you can’t help but feel the passion the 69 year-old still has for her role as a Member of the European Parliament. Françoise Grossetete has been a French Member of the Brussels chamber for over 20 years now. As the current First Vice-President of the European People’s Party (EPP) group, the largest political group in the European Parliament, she is both an influential and trusted member of the pro-European right-wing movement.
Her eyes light up when quizzed about David Cameron and the EU referendum. Like many in the EPP group, she is not opposed to some of the reforms the British Prime Minister wants for Europe – on subsidiarity in particular. Grossetete goes so far as to say: “the EPP group is ready to support David Cameron in his quest to win the referendum”. But she warns there are “red lines which we will not cross”. Unsurprisingly she talks about one of the EU’s fundamental principles: the freedom of movement. With suggestions that freedom of movement of EU workers should be restricted, Cameron has had to endure much criticism not only from the European Left, but also the European Right who should be his natural allies in this pivotal battle for the future of the UK and the EU alike.
In the European Parliament, Tory MEPs do not sit with many of their European conservative counterparts. In 2009, they decided to create a separate entity, the European Conservative and Reformist (ECR) group which brings together an odd mix of parties from countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands as well as the German AFD party whose leader recently suggested firearms should be used to prevent illegal border crossings. All parties in the ECR group have in common a eurosceptic – or eurorealist as they like to style themselves – approach to EU politics.
On some issues they are a natural ally to the EPP group. On others they struggle to find common ground. This seems to be very much the case with Cameron’s EU reform which he has promised to deliver ahead of the Brexit referendum. The Tory party’s own representatives in Brussels seem uneasy with the British Prime Minister’s asks. Most of them refused to comment the apparent tension which exists today with their EPP counterparts. The reason is quite straightforward: on a day-to-day basis they work very well together, but on wider issues such as the future of the EU, they do not succeed in seeing eye-to-eye.
Constance Le Grip, another French EPP MEP, former advisor to ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy, does not beat about the bush: “we are happy to negotiate but we do not want a British gun to our foreheads”. She adds that the “take it or leave it ultimatum is extremely clumsy”. As Grossetete, she likes to think Tories and EPP Members can find common ground. Franck Proust, another EPP MEP who was elected in the South of France, believes Cameron should be clearer in his intentions and regrets that up until now the British Prime Minister has been improvising, rather than presenting a real strategy. All three took part in a meeting last year between the French right-wing “Republican” MEPs and their Tory counterparts. Initial efforts to work together seem to have been stalled and there is a growing sentiment among EPP MEPs that Cameron’s requests have become unreasonable.
Pablo Zalba, a young and dynamic right-wing Spaniard, who sits on the Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs, strategic to UK interests, offers a pragmatic view of Cameron’s intentions: “I don’t think he believes he will be able to obtain everything he is asking for. It is time to start working on compromises”. His Bulgarian colleague, Eva Paunova, very passionately argues that Cameron’s ideas on benefits for EU citizens are flawed, given that they do not have an automatic right under EU law to claim benefits when they arrive in another EU Member State.
Paunova sums up what many in the EPP group feel today: “we are ready to discuss in detail Mr. Cameron’s suggestions, to see if and how they can make all Europeans better off.” This is wishful thinking on their behalf. Cameron has promised to put UK interests first. Aligning UK interests with all European interests seems to be mission impossible. They will all have to work at it together though, if they want to salvage any chance of keeping the UK in the EU.