David Cameron had a tough time trying to convince his European counterparts at the European Council; but hopefully he will be up for seconds when he goes head-to-head with the European Parliament. He paid its Members a long overdue visit last week, but only met with a select few. He will have to do more than that if he wants to avoid more drama.
There is nothing Members of the European Parliament hate more than being left out. Add to that being told what to do by a Member State government and you are serving them a very bitter cocktail. There is not an awful lot of respect as it is in Westminster for Brussels and its Parliament; but if ever there was a time to pretend, it is now.
MEPs have, in effect, power to veto part of Cameron’s deal, through the legislative process needed to bring about some of the EU reform, such as the 'emergency brake'. This is set to happen after the June referendum, but it will be a sword of Damocles hanging over Cameron during the whole campaign; one that his detractors and indeed the Parliament itself are happy to remind him of.
Its left-wing President, Martin Schulz, said last week that the European Parliament would do its 'utmost to support the compromise and a fair deal'. In the same breath, he said that he did not guarantee the result. Later in the week at the European Council meeting, Schulz made it clear that MEPs would stand up for the rights of EU citizens at large: 'an ever-closer Union should not only be about our past, but what we can do together. A majority of Member States and citizens want to go further.' Cameron has been warned.
There was evidence again Wednesday that the European Parliament will put up a fight. The very outspoken and influential leader of the liberal group, Guy Verhofstadt, despaired of what he called a 'glorified cockfight' between Cameron and Boris Johnson, saying it was 'pathetic for Britain'. Manfred Weber, the Bavarian leader of the main right-wing group (EPP), close to Angela Merkel, offered some support to Cameron last week; but it would be wrong to assume that he speaks for the 216 members of his group.
Françoise Grossetête, the current Deputy leader of the EPP group, is not opposed to some of the reforms the British Prime Minister wants for Europe. But she warns there are 'red lines which we will not cross'. Unsurprisingly she talks about one of the EU’s fundamental principles: freedom of movement. In a Facebook message posted Wednesday she writes that Cameron has won a battle with his EU deal, 'but not the war'. With suggestions that freedom of movement of EU workers should be restricted and the talks around the 'emergency brake', Cameron has had to endure much criticism not only from the European Left, but also the European Right.
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. The Tory party’s own representatives in Brussels seem uneasy with the British Prime Minister’s position. Most of them refused to comment on 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. It is already clear that with the referendum debate and the way he has ignored Parliament thus far, Cameron has managed to divide further the European conservatives.
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 heads'. Like Grossetête, she likes to think Tories and EPP Members can find common ground. They both 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 are unreasonable.
Pablo Zalba Bidegain, a young right-wing Spaniard, who sits on the committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs, strategic to UK interests, diplomatically says: 'it is time to start working on compromises'. His Bulgarian colleague Eva 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. Politically, he has no choice. Pleasing Brussels and keeping backbenchers – or indeed members of his own Cabinet – happy are two very different things. Aligning UK interests with all European interests seems to be mission impossible; but it will be key to salvage any chance of some reform, even if British voters chose to remain in the EU on 23 June.
It would be wrong to underestimate the European Parliament. Cameron has thus far. It is time to do some damage control. Rallying support from other European conservative MEPs might be a good place to start.