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Although the group is often associated with the Conservative Party, it is independent of it. Its honorary president was Margaret Thatcher with the president currently Lord Tebbit of Chingford, and its chairman is Barry Legg, who was chief executive of the Conservative Party and a former Member of Parliament, but many senior Labour MPs have addressed their meetings, including Frank Field and Gisela Stuart and peers Lord Stoddart of Swindon and Baron Shore of Stepney.
Set up in February 1989, its original aim was to promote the idea of a less centralised European structure than that emerging in Brussels. Its inspiration was Margaret Thatcher's Bruges speech in September 1988, in which she remarked that, "We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level". The Bruges Group's research now includes looking into alternative international relationships for the UK and a complete restructuring of Britain’s relationship with other European countries.
Its Director, Robert Oulds, is frequently quoted in the press and makes regular appearances on TV and radio discussing European issues. Spokesmen for the Bruges Group have also appeared on BBC TV News, ITN; Sky News; The Daily Politics; BBC World Service; BBC R5 Live and international media outlets.
The Bruges Group is also often asked by the media to comment on the particularly vexed issue of the European Union and the Conservative Party.
The Bruges Group seeks to keep debate on European issues centre stage by commissioning and publishing independent research and by holding meetings and conferences to discuss relevant issues. These seek to inform decision-makers and opinion-formers especially those in Parliament and the media. The Bruges Group also monitors and assesses the voting of Members of Parliament.
The Bruges Group contends that the EU seeks to extend its influence over individual states’ right to manage their own affairs. As a result, the Group has extended its remit to monitor the EU’s policies and regulations relating to the increasing costs of membership, defence, international relations, climate change, national identity, immigration and healthcare.
Internationally the Bruges Group has been particularly active in supporting Euroscepticism in Estonia and discussing issues relating to Turkey and the EU.
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The group was set up by Lord Harris of High Cross and an Oxford University student Patrick Robertson following Margaret Thatcher's Eurosceptic speech delivered in Bruges in September 1988. It quickly became a focus for Eurosceptic opinion and opposition to the then president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors. The Bruges Group is considered to be the common ancestor of the many British Eurosceptic parties and groups that emerged in the 1990s.
The group was a rallying point for rebellious backbench Conservative MPs during House of Commons debates over the Maastricht Treaty. An Oxford branch was set up (under Roland Smith) with links to Oxford University's growing Eurosceptic movement led by student activist and future Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan. The group then went through a difficult period. Alan Sked, an academic associated with the group, fell out with leading members of the Group during 1991-1992, and went on to form the Anti-Federalist League, which later evolved into the UK Independence Party. Robertson left the group a short time later, later becoming an adviser to Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party.
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