The Bruges Group claims to be ‘spearheading the intellectual battle against European integration, EU federalism, centralisation and enlargement’. Founded in 1989, it takes its name from a 1988 speech by Margaret Thatcher in which she said that ‘We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level’.
During the 1990s, it was a focus for the cabal of ‘eurosceptic’ Conservative MPs that John Major referred to as ‘the bastards’. Later it became highly active in the Brexit campaign, not least as a major donor to Leave.EU.
Since the early 2000s the Bruges Group has been headed by Robert Oulds, a former Conservative councillor and general election candidate. Oulds’ political ambitions took a setback in 2005 when photos of him brandishing a variety of knives and guns were published in a tabloid newspaper. He was suspended from the Conservative Party, which commented: ‘A shot like that, glamorising guns, we take very seriously.’
The incident did not prevent Oulds from continuing to act as director of the Bruges Group, which under his guidance assumed more extreme positions on Europe and began to call for Britain to leave the EU.
The Group has also lent support to Vladimir Putin’s position on Ukraine, perhaps seeing in Putin an ally with an attractively anti-EU agenda. In 2014 it produced a video in which Oulds claimed that ‘Brussels planned to swallow Ukraine whole’ and Conservative MP John Redwood alleged that ‘the EU seems to be flexing its words in a way that Russia finds worrying and provokes Russia into flexing its military muscles.’
In 2016 the Sunday Times reported on a trip by Oulds to the ‘People’s Republic of Donetsk’, the area of Ukraine illegally invaded by Russia forces in 2014. The Bruges Group later released a video interview with the self-styled ‘foreign minister’ of the breakaway territory, in which Oulds made no bones of his hostility to the legitimate government of Ukraine: ‘Is there a moral responsibility on the Donetsk People’s Republic’, asked Oulds, ‘to expand its borders to, in a sense, liberate territory from the rule of Kiev, liberate those people that do not want to be dictated to by the current junta in charge in Kiev?’. Oulds did not deny that his expenses for the trip had been paid by Russia.
Oulds has also made frequent appearances on RT (Russia Today) and Sputnik, media outlets widely seen as providing propaganda support to the Putin regime, where he can be relied on to produce views congenial to these channels’ proprietors.
The Bruges Group is also active on social media, where it has posted crudely racist anti-immigrant images and bizarre attempted justifications of these.
Like many right-wing think-tanks, the Bruges Group does not publish any details of how it is funded, During the referendum campaign, it was obliged to declare donations that it made to Leave.EU, which totalled £50,000. However, it is not known from what sources these funds were channelled.
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