January 2012

Happy New Year!

All the signs are it’s going to be a tough one. Expect more bad economic news before the good times return. But I feel that the prospects of freedom and democracy for the UK are better now than at any time I can remember.

Decision time on the EU

(This piece appeared first in The House Magazine)

The first big question on the Coalition’s EU policy: is Cameron frustrated by the constraints of coalition with the euro-fanatic Lib-Dems? Or is he secretly delighted that Nick Clegg offers the perfect excuse for putting all that difficult re-negotiation stuff on the back burner?

Politicians find it easy to talk tough in opposition, but harder to make it happen when in power.

It may seem churlish to challenge Cameron’s commitment in the wake of his courageous Veto, and I happily joined the chorus of adulation as a British Prime Minister finally said “NO!” to Brussels.

But with the cynicism of hindsight — he really didn’t have much option. If he’d to accepted the deal on the table there would have been uproar in the press and the Party. And the House of Commons would probably have voted it down. There’d have been a referendum. He had to say No.

Which leads us to the second big question. Can the Veto stick? The EU is a past master at bypassing and overwhelming obstructions, like the incoming tide sweeping aside a child’s sand-castle. (The classic example was their re-classification of the Working Time Directive as a Health & Safety issue, not Employment, thus bypassing the UK veto).

We may well have a formal veto on EU-wide taxes like the disastrous Tobin Tax. But Brussels will find a huge range of new QMV regulations designed to punish the City. Then comes Cameron’s tough choice. Either break EU law, defy Brussels and the ECJ, and edge towards the exit. Or accept defeat.

It seems bizarre and perverse that our EU partners seek to scapegoat the City of London for a monetary disaster of their own making — and one against which we have warned them for a decade. It’s equally perverse that they seek to solve the problem of debt with more debt, the problems of EU integration with more integration.

Merkozy’s “fiscal harmonisation” would not solve the €uro’s problems — even if they could make it stick (which they signally failed to do with the Maastricht criteria). Debt mutualisation would only defer the evil day. Perpetual fiscal transfers could hold the €uro together, but at the expense of making Greece a German dependency.

Without a €uro break-up, Brussels simply cannot address the structural problem of competitiveness between North and South, because that is inherent in the architecture of monetary union.

The EU is not primarily an entity, but a process. The Coalition’s policy is effectively to ensure that, for the UK at least, that process will cease. We have to recognise that having repudiated the process, we cannot indefinitely remain part of the entity. Roll on Independence Day.

Resignation postponed: a short personal statement

In October, I announced my intention to resign from the European parliament on Dec 31st. I was asked by our Delegation Leader Martin Callanan to postpone that date to Jan 20th to cover some key votes in Strasbourg in January, which I agreed to do. However I have not yet signed the Parliament’s formal deed of resignation.

I made it clear at the time that a key reason for my decision was my disillusionment with a wide range of Conservative policies – a view which has been strongly reinforced by David Cameron’s vocal backing for further fiscal integration in the eurozone.

I announced my resignation in the confident expectation (shared by just about everyone) that I would be replaced by the Next-in-Line on the 2009 Conservative East Midlands list, Rupert Matthews. Since the introduction of the regional list system of voting, there have been nine mid-term vacancies for UK MEPs, and on every occasion the seat has gone to the next available name on the list.

It has now emerged, however, that the Party has reservations over the succession. After the 2010 General Election, a large number of very good people, including Rupert, were taken off the Westminster candidate list. Because he is not currently on that list, the Party has referred his case to the Candidates’ Committee, which will require him to undergo a Candidate Panel.

This is entirely wrong-headed. The Candidates’ Committee exists to pre-qualify names for future elections. It cannot retrospectively disqualify names from previous elections.

Rupert was on the list at the relevant time, 2008. He was duly selected under Party rules, in a postal ballot by around three and a half thousand East Midlands Conservative Party members, as #2 on the list (subsequently moved to #3 under the positive discrimination process). He was then confirmed as Next-in-Line in the national euro elections of 2009. He has earned his place, he has a democratic mandate. It is outrageous that the Party should now be minded to set aside the result of a national election, and many East Midlands Conservatives are very angry indeed.

However the Party needs to issue a Certificate in respect of such an appointment, and believes it can withhold the Certificate in this case. But the Party’s right to withhold the Certificate must be exercised fairly, proportionately and transparently. The Certificate is intended to enable the Party to refuse someone who has (for example) been convicted of a serious offence, or who has left the Party. But where no such impediment exists, withholding the Certificate would be arbitrary and perverse.

I have made it clear that I will not sign the formal resignation papers until the position is clarified and Rupert is confirmed. I was happy to resign in favour of the Next-in-Line in the normal way, but I am not prepared to stand aside for some A-List Cameron protégée from St. John’s Wood.

However the Party says it will not call the panel and make the decision until I do resign. So we have a Mexican stand-off.

I think that both Rupert and I (and our respective families) are entitled to some certainty and resolution on the issue. Accordingly I have indicated to the Party Chairman that if the situation is not resolved within a few weeks, I shall withdraw my offer to resign. I am quite prepared, if necessary, to stay in place for the remaining 2½ years of my mandate, until 2014.

I have always argued that when a Conservative MEP is out of sympathy with Party policy, and unable to defend it, he should resign to make way for another Conservative. I believe that that is the decent and honourable thing to do, and I have sought to do it, but my intention has been frustrated by the Party’s reprehensible prevarication.

I have also made it clear to the Party Chairman that I believe that my obligations on this point have been fully and finally discharged by my offer, made in good faith, to resign. Accordingly, if I am obliged to stay in place until 2014, I shall feel no further sense of obligation or responsibility to the Party.

Presidential Election 2012

No, not that Presidential election! On Jan 17th, we had the election for the President of the European parliament, for the next 2½ years. And in this temple of European democracy, we have a very undemocratic system, where the big groups carve up the job — 2½ years for the EPP (Jerzy Buzek); 2½ years for the socialists (Martin Schultz). It’s Buggins’ turn.

This time around, however, two free spirits, both British, set out to challenge the consensus. Diane Wallis (Lib-Dem) and our own Nirj Deva MEP decided to stand as candidates. And they did much better than many expected, with 142 votes (Nirj) and 141 (Wallis).

Schultz still won, as expected, with an absolute majority (387 votes) on the first ballot, avoiding a second round of voting. Schultz, formerly leader of the socialists, has an unenviable reputation as aggressive, abusive, confrontational and angry.

He then delivered a long and tedious speech, in favour of socialism and European integration. In line with parliamentary practice, we then had speeches from all the group leaders, starting with an obsequious offering from Joseph Daul of the EPP, which contained nothing of note.

Guy Verhofstadt of the Liberals, former PM of Belgium (when it had a government) and passionate europhile, called for the new President “not to be asexual” (I think he meant to avoid being neutral, and to be partisan).

The best speech came from our new ECR leader Martin Callanan, who remarked on a recent interview Schultz gave to der Spiegel, in which he criticised decisions “Made in Brussels behind closed doors”. Martin noted the irony that the man calling for openness should get the Presidency in a back-room stitch-up.

Martin then said that he was sure that the European Council was looking forward to meeting Mr. Schultz shortly. They would be interested to see a socialist, said Martin, as there were now so few socialists around the Council table.

Kartika Liotard (but she wasn’t wearing one) spoke for the GUE, and expressed her disappointment that the new president was not a woman, adding “but there’s not much we can do about that” (though they can do wonders these days with pills and surgery). She hoped that he would seek to “bring out his feminine side”.

Nigel Farage gave a typically combative speech, remarking that he had wondered whether Schultz would be the elder statesman, or whether his Presidency would be marked by the characteristics we associate with him — abusiveness, partisanship, intolerance and downright rudeness. But following Schultz’s speech, he was in no doubt of the answer.

A comment on the Blog:

This comment appeared on my “Picturesque Speech” blog piece, and I thought it was worth sharing:

“Like my fellow chips I am sizzling with rage at Roger’s use of the expression “drop the chip from the shoulder”. He will be stating that fish should be battered next. But I suppose there’s fat chance of a crisp apology being offered. Politicians – they’re oil the same”.

Local economy: not all bad

On January 9th I attended a lunch in Leicester organised by Martin Traynor, CEO of the Leicestershire Chamber of Commerce, with around a dozen members, to discuss the impact of EU employment regulation on local companies. I took with me Andrea Cepova, an ECR policy analyst working on the Unemployment Committee.

Andrea is Czech. She is very efficient and well-informed, and, equally important, she is very much on-side with conservative policies. The contrast with the EPP staff in the bad old days is striking — and refreshing.

Martin had got together a group including representatives of the “three Hs” — health, haulage and hospitality — which are particularly affected by EU employment rules. There was a very clear consensus in the room that the employment was over-regulated by Brussels, and this was adding to costs, reducing flexibility, and impacting negatively on competitiveness.

After lunch we went to visit Lestercast, a company making “investment” (lost wax) casting for a wide range of industries — automotive, marine, general engineering and construction. Automotive products ranged from the Bentley logo to exhaust manifolds.

Sometimes a company makes an immediate impression of a well-run, efficient and happy ship, and this was one such. They market castings made both in Leicester and imported from China, but I was encouraged to hear that the balance of costs — and business — is shifting in favour of UK production. Most industry sectors served by the company seem to be busy, and business is good.

As Martin Traynor put it to me, “Of course I could take you to see companies that are struggling, but generally speaking the mood is positive”. It was all a whole lot better than I’d feared.

Bedford School debate: Better Off Out wins.

On Friday Jan 13th, I was invited to propose the motion “This House believes that the UK has no future in the EU”. I was opposed by Jonathan Fryer, a freelance journalist who writes for the Guardian and has worked in Brussels. (I asked him if he knew my nemesis Leo Hickman — but apparently most journalists seem to work from home, so they don’t meet each other a great deal).

The debate was attended by over a hundred sixth formers, and Chaired by a Bedford pupil. The Chairman took a vote before the debate, and I was gratified that the Better Off Out side started off ahead by around two-to-one. With such a strong showing to start with, it was always going to be difficult to improve on it, but the vote after the debate was about five-to-two, so we ended up ahead. I believe that the relentless publicity for the €uro crisis has dramatically strengthened euro-scepticism in the country.

It may be self-indulgent of me, but I thoroughly enjoy these debates. After years of ploughing the same furrow, the new mood is a huge vindication.

Opposition to wind farms

I wrote on my blog recently about the way the government’s planning inspectorate overturned a negative decision for a wind farm planning application by E-On at Kelmarsh, beside the historic Naseby battlefield. We see this again and again: local protest groups raise tens of thousands of pounds to fight their case. They win. Then the government overturns the result without considering the overwhelming opposition.

Now Alan Keighley of Cumbria has launched an e-petition on the government web-site calling on government to respect the views of local people, and to let local planning decision stand. If you agree, please sign:
http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/5955

The Christmas Card mystery

I appreciate all the positive comment I’ve had on my recent electronic Christmas Card, with the Three Kings fleeing in terror from those twelve stars forming the EU symbol. But Simon Richards of the Freedom Association has a different interpretation. He thinks that what the Magi can see in the sky is not an EU flag, but a wind turbine on fire. Could well be!

Culture Corner

Art: We get some pretty dreadful exhibitions in the Strasbourg parliament, but the January one is particularly egregious. It runs the whole gamut from bizarre to grotesque.

There are some tunes that stick in the mind, some that won’t go away. But there are others, perhaps with more depth and complexity, which linger on the fringes of the mind but refuse to be pinned down in the memory. I find, for example, that the theme from the Gadfly by Shostakovich, which I rate as one of the world’s finest melodies, is very difficult to remember, but wonderful to hear again.

Perhaps on a more mundane level, there’s a song from Les Mis with much the same characteristics. But if the tune won’t stick in the memory, at least the words are available on the web:

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!

Now I come to think of it, that could be a Eurosceptic anthem. Happy 2012.

Conclusion

That’s it from Straz for the January session. . Please remember to visit this website, my blog at http://rogerhelmermep.wordpress.com, and follow me on Twitter: @RogerHelmerMEP