This article first appeared on ConservativeHome.
Since his arrival in Downing Street in May 2010, David Cameron has been an indefatigable advocate for human rights.
The government’s staunch support for the Arab Spring, culminating in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, the holding of free and fair elections in Tunisia and sweeping constitutional reforms in Morocco are a testament to its record on this issue. David Cameron’s personal leadership in bringing about tougher sanctions on Europe’s last dictatorship in Belarus and the increasingly unstable regime in Tehran are a testament to his personal commitment to realising democracy around the world.
Fifty years ago, the Council of Europe was established as a formal means by which to forge voluntary cooperation on issues such as technical and legal standards, democracy and human rights issues. Included within the CoE is the Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) which brings together MPs from all member countries to discuss topical issues of concern to citizens across Europe. Human rights issues are ordinarily top of the agenda.
While its legislative and political influence has been gradually eroded by the rapid development of Brussels-led supranationalism, the fact that the organisation’s membership stretches beyond the borders of the EU means that the Council of Europe remains an effective means by which Western European countries can share legislative experiences and build relationships with political figures in Turkey, the Ukraine, Serbia and emerging democracies in the South Caucasus.
Throughout Britain’s membership of the Council of Europe, the party has sat in the European Democratic Group (EDG), a technical group comprised of a range of conservative and nationalist parties either ideologically opposed to the EPP’s federalist polices or unwelcome in its ranks. Originally comprised of respectable parties such as the British Conservatives and its allies from Scandinavian states, the group’s work has become increasingly dominated by representatives from Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party.
In recent times, United Russia members of the group have demanded the EDG vote to stifle debate over press and media freedoms in Russia, to block the so-called Magnitsky Act designed to bring prosecutions against those involved in the violent torture and murder of Russian human rights lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and to pass motions on Abkhazia and South Ossetia that are contrary to the British government’s position in respect of Georgian territorial integrity.
It is clear we have reached a point where our continued membership of the EDG has ceased to be a means by which to build links with emerging democracies and become both an embarrassment to those who believe passionately in the values of human rights and democracy and a blunt tool with which our opponents can beat us.
The British Conservative cannot – and must not – allow itself to be associated with the unacceptable positions advocated by United Russia or its puppet master Vladimir Putin.
Before the Conservative Party’s split with the European People’s Party group in the European Parliament, party members were all too familiar with the poor ideological fit between our own market-liberal, anti-federalist party and the Christian Democrat EPP.
The divorce between the British Conservatives and the EPP was a torturously drawn-out and complex one, yet it resulted in the creation of both the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR) in the European Parliament and the establishment of a new, pan-European political party, the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists (AECR).
While less is known in the UK about the AECR than the ECR, its membership base is substantial; including parties from other EU countries such as the Czech Civil Democrats and Polish Law and Justice alongside allies from Georgia and Iceland.
Prior to the formation of the ECR and AECR, an argument could be made that British membership of the European Democratic Group has necessary in order to avoid the party sitting in splendid isolation in the Parliamentary Assembly. This is no longer the case.
It is only now logical, given both the development and maturity of the AECR, that the group organises in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe under the “European Conservatives and Reformists” banner.
Aside from existing AECR members that would join the group are MPs from the Turkish Justice and Development Party led by Prime Minister Erdogan as well as plenty of others from the Balkans, Caucasus and elsewhere in Europe.
Just as the EPP held the Conservative Party’s pursuit of policies opposed to European federalism back, the pro-Kremlin EDG restricts the party’s ability to speak with a credible voice on the European stage on human rights and democratisation issues. Just as the establishment of the ECR group in the European Parliament gave the Conservative Party the ability to pursue our own, anti-federalist agenda, the creation of an ECR group at a Council of Europe level will give our party both the platform and the credibility to fight for democratic change in Moscow, Kiev and Minsk.
There can be no excuse for the party not implementing this change at the earliest possible opportunity.