The UUP have jumped into bed with the English Conservative Party, and in the European Parliament their single MEP, Jim Nicholson, sits as a member of the 'European Conservatives and Reformists', the Tories new group. The UUP are therefore, to all extents and purposes, an integral part of the Conservative Party's approach to Europe.
But the Conservative Party's approach to Europe is one of partial disengagement. So far it has been unclear precisely what that means, but yesterday a Conservative MEP, Roger Helmer publicly stated in one of the European parliament's committees – the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs, of which he is a substitute member – that if elected to power next year, the Conservative Party will "withdraw from European social and employment affairs".
That as it stands is merely a repetition of earlier Tory opposition to European social legislation, but if the Tories do actually follow through, then the consequences will be severe, especially in Northern Ireland. The reason is simple – 'European employment and social affairs' include two different things – one is the raft of legislation that Tories tend to hate, but the other is transfers of money. And Northern Ireland receives quite a lot of 'European social and employment funding', particularly through the European Social Fund – for the period between 2007-2013 Northern Ireland will receive €165,777,300 (or £145,000,000) just from the ESF.
Much of that money will have already been spent by the time that the Tories, and their UCUNF mini-mes, "withdraw from European social and employment affairs", but a lot will not have been spent. Unless they are being entirely hypocritical, any withdrawal from European social and employment affairs must include a renouncing of the funding, and thus the loss to Northern Ireland of the amounts still unspent.
So will the UUP campaign for a Tory victory in next year's Westminster election in the knowledge that such a victory will cost Northern Ireland tens of millions of pounds? How will they justify this? Will they have the guts to even admit it? It is certain that in a period of unprecedented budgetary cutbacks the lost ESF money will not be compensated by the British government – so will unionist voters be foolish enough to actually vote for less money?