The European Elections are done and dusted as far as the voters and most of the media are concerned. But for the MEPs the horse trading has only just started. Unlike Westminster elections, where the parties take their seats, the European Parliament is run by trans national groups formed according to strict guidelines.
We only hear about these groups occasionally, for example when the Conservatives broke away from the largest group in the Parliament, the EPP, to set up a more “Eurosceptic” group. Or when one of Ukip’s group members says something offensive about immigration.
But following these elections there has been an undercurrent of whispering running through Westminster as the party which topped the polls in the UK risks losing their group to the Tories in Brussels.
Long before he was leader of Ukip, Nigel Farage, for whom I used to work as a media adviser, co-chaired his party’s group in the European Parliament. To us lay people, that might just sound like more meetings; in reality it resulted in the huge successes of his speeches in the Hemicycle which made him a big name.
“People will assume it’s about money,” Farage, who has spent much of his time since the May results in Brussels, told me. “But actually it’s about the infrastructure which comes with a Parliamentary group rather than being in the Non-Attached.
As a group leader for the last two parliamentary sessions I have been able to sit in the Conference of Presidents with the other group leaders, have a seat on the front row of the chamber, and reply directly to speakers addressing the European Parliament whilst they are still there to listen.”
But for the notoriously murky EU, being part of their official structure is much like having the right school tie in Westminster.
As Farage explains: “Having a secretariat is essential for keeping abreast of plans and changes in the Parliament. They mean MEPs know what is going on under the surface because as is so often the case with the EU, the decisions are made outside official meetings. And for MEPs back in the UK it has provided us with an office in London which means they can hold meetings and interviews, meet with constituents and organise events in the same country as the people they represent.”
So why, given the importance of forming a group, has the veteran MEP found himself on the back foot? It comes down to a vote held some years ago by Ukip members on whether they should join pan-European parties. Even with Farage saying “Yes”, the “No” side won, thus stopping pre-2014 alliances from being built up outside the Parliament group and allowing other parties to form and new alliances to be built. Farage and his other MEPs could only look on helplessly.
By contrast, the Conservative MEPs joined the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists which, like other pan-European parties, has its own think tank, receiving funds to produce research and campaigns.
Its Secretary-General is the popular Tory MEP Dan Hannan, who was the main reason for the split from the pro-EU European People’s Party, and a key component of Hannan and his followers’ backing David Cameron for leadership of the party.
With his re-election a certainty, Hannan even spent time in the Euro campaign in Helsinki and Copenhagen rather than his South East constituency, laying the foundations for two key players in Ukip’s EFD group to jump ship.
But with so much up for grabs it’s not surprising that the fighting is getting bitter if not more akin to a girls’ school common room - with stories of some MEPs being told they needed to sign up to the Tory group “within days” or they might not be allowed in at all.
Despite Ukip and the Tories having very different views on membership of the EU, with the latter fully committed to UK membership, they are fighting for the same MEPs as bedfellows.
This is because most EU countries are way behind the UK when it comes to opinions on membership: it tends to be “In”, or “In but maybe with a few changes”. With the accession countries from 2004 fully signed up to the single currency and “ever closer union”, it is only the countries on the fringes of the continent which see where the majority of UK voters are coming from in wanting big change. There isn’t, therefore, a huge pool from which both Ukip and the Tories can fish from.
The many faces of Nigel Farage
The many faces of Nigel Farage
1/11 Thoughtful face
2/11 Concerned face
Sorry Nigel Farage, but the Red Cross want nothing to do with Ukip
Ian Forsyth/Getty Images
3/11 Aghast face
4/11 Startled face
5/11 Preparing for battle face
6/11 Toad of Toad Hall face
7/11 Faux distressed face
8/11 Pensive face
9/11 Incensed face
10/11 Whatever face
11/11 I've just been egged face
Farage has previously joined up with parties whose wish is to remain in the EU, despite being known throughout the continent for leading the anti-EU cause. Whereas the Tories - with their softly-softly approach, gently caressing promises of reform and a representative at the Council of Ministers - have more in common with the eurosceptic parties in these other countries.
It’s a system which is doing what it was designed to do: make it virtually impossible for there to be more than one group representing the “acceptable” face of euroscepticism in the European Parliament, and thus limiting their representation and influence on the Parliament as a whole.
The headlines following the European Elections were of a vote for a change of direction. So why then is Farage facing an uphill battle to form a new group? The answer lies with the other sceptic group who has seen the biggest increase in support from the latest ballot, which includes the ever controversial Front National.
This has stopped more libertarian parties from winning seats in the European Parliament who would have been natural colleagues for Ukip. But with Beppe Grillo’s Italian Five-Star movement voting overwhelmingly to join up with Ukip, will the hard work of the Tories be for nothing as eurosceptisicm gets charismatic figureheads from both the left and right?
Ukip rocked the establishment during the campaign. But with MEPs being collared by their own governments not to join up with the EU’s Public Enemy No. 1 it seems it’s not just the Westminster Establishment which Farage and Ukip has shaken.
My betting is that it will take more than a few coffees in foreign capitals to turn back the tide on the withdrawalist movement. Could the Westminster Village be truly beaten by “The Grillage People”?