Libertas should be neither dismissed nor underestimated
It would be quite wrong and utterly naïve to dismiss this group as nutters, fruitcakes, loons, gadflies, closet racists or xenophobic extremists led by a political ego for reasons of vanity. Declan Ganley may indeed be an ego, but in just a few short months he managed to become a household name in Ireland and his fame is now spreading inexorably throughout Europe.
Unlike Sir James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party – which was bankrolled by the billionaire to the tune of £20 million – Mr Ganley will not be putting any of his personal fortune into the campaign, insisting that Libertas will rely on individual donations and businesses. It will be a bottom-up, grass-roots organisation, and is likely to attract disaffected voters from across the board.
From Labour, Libertas will pick up those who are irritated by the failure to honour a manifesto pledge to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, and also those many hundreds of thousands who feel betrayed by and alienated from the party they have supported all their lives.
From UKIP, Libertas will pick up the splinters and fractures of an increasingly disillusioned, discontented and divided membership.
From the Conservatives, Libertas will attract support from the closet UKIP supporters as well as those who are still waiting for David Cameron to fulfil his leadership pledge to withdraw his MEPs from the EPP. This was supposed to have taken weeks, not months. Three years on, there is little sign at all of the pledge being honoured. Add to this those many thousands who were irritated by the party's method of ranking candidates, ensuring ultra-safe passage for pro-EU incumbents, and the potential for leakage is not inconsiderable.
The Liberal Democrats have dismissed Libertas as ‘another anti-European party’, once again demonstrating their utter irrelevance to considered political debate, and establishing that Liberal Democrat supporters really ought to consider voting for a party with a modicum of political discernment.
Libertas is quite categorically ‘pro-European’. Ask Nigel Farage. But it wants ‘radical reform of its institutions to make them more democratic and accountable’.
And there are few Conservatives who would argue against that. But David Cameron’s ambivalence towards a post-ratification referendum on the Lisbon Treaty is not acceptable to very many Conservative voters who are otherwise totally supportive of the Cameron project. Euro elections are – rightly or wrongly – considered by many as a single-issue vote. Most of the electorate make no connection between the EU and such matters as heath, education, defence, law and order, taxation, etc., etc. These are perceived to be national issues reserved for general elections; the Euro elections, even more than the local elections, are treated as a relatively unimportant rehearsal.
If the Euro elections are single issue in the popular consciousness, the cry of Libertas will most certainly resonate. It will do so because for thirty years the 'old' has failed: Libertas is new and has very credible form.
As long as Conservative MEPs remain within the EPP, there will be no persuading a sceptical electorate that the Conservatives will achieve reform. UKIP simply want to withdraw altogether, which may be a laudable aspiration, but they have achieved absolutely nothing in the decade they have been in Brussels. Even the boast of Robert Kilroy Silk that they would ‘wreck’ the project proved to be hollow. Nothing has changed.
And it never will.
It cannot as long as there is consensus within every major EU parliamentary group that the ‘ever closer union’ is immutable and the Treaty of Rome is holy writ.
Some Conservatives have been too quick to dismiss Libertas because ‘it is not clear what they are offering beyond opposition to the Lisbon Treaty’. And it is tritely asserted that both ‘the Conservatives and UKIP already offer that’.
Actually, UKIP offer opposition to the whole EU project, which is a step too far for many. And the Conservative Party’s opposition to Lisbon appears to be conditional on all 27 members not having ratified the treaty by the time of the next general election. There has been no assurance at all that David Cameron would do a Harold Wilson and hold a retrospective referendum.
Libertas is likely to garner publicity and capture the public imagination, exactly as the party managed to do in Ireland. Declan Ganley may be pro-EU, pro further integration, an advocate of ‘ever closer union’ and everything else that constitutes the European project - they even have a '.eu' domain name. But for the first time we are witnessing the formation of a pan-EU party which has the primary objective of making the EU democratic, open and accountable; the development of an opposition party which declares that Lisbon is a step too far, and which proposes a credible alternative way forward.
That, actually, is the present position of the Conservative Party. But with just 4 per cent of the parliament’s MEPs, it can never change anything. Even were they all to be cast in the delightful mould of Daniel Hannan, they could achieve no more, for 4 per cent is 4 per cent. UKIP has a meagre 1.5 per cent, and can achieve even less. Even if all the UK’s MEPs from all parties were to agree upon a matter of reform, this would only amount to 10 per cent of the total, and they would be beholden to their European partners for assistance in demanding the reform. But even then, it must be remembered that MEPs do not have the authority to initiate the legislation which might effect the change: that remains the sole preserve of the Commission.
Libertas may be misguided; they may be utterly wrong. They may be deluded in thinking they can negotiate what is non-negotiable. But make no mistake, they will be a significant player in June’s election, and while UKIP may deserve to be eclipsed, Libertas represent a very real threat to the Conservative Party.