STRAIGHT TALKING December 2016
Roger Helmer’s electronic newsletter from Strasbourg
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Barnier on Brexit
The EU’s Chief Brexit negotiator did a special briefing for the parliament’s hubristically-named “Conference of Presidents” on Wednesday November 30th, which I attended on behalf of Nigel Farage. Find my account of it here. On the plus side, he said that if we wanted immigration control we could not remain in the EU’s Customs Union or Single Market. We should have to settle for a free trade deal. Maybe he doesn’t realise, but this of course is exactly what most of us on the Leave side actually wanted in the first place.
It contrasts with previous Commission President Hermann van Rompuy (Rumpy Pumpy, as we called him), who once ridiculed my suggestion that we wanted a Free Trade Deal, and told me we’d never get it.
On the downside, Barnier insisted that the UK would have to honour previous financial commitments to the EU budget for years ahead, covering regional and agricultural funds, the EIB, foreign aid, research and so on. My view is that these commitments were made in an EU framework and as an EU member, and become null and void after Brexit. My advice to Theresa May: Just say NO.
Barnier has called for negotiations to be completed by October 2017, to give time for the EU institutions including the parliament to ratify before the two-year deadline of March 2019. The EU press is presenting this as “ramping up the pressure on the UK”, but again from the Leavers’ point of view, we want to get on with it ASAP.
Having spent twenty years campaigning to get Britain out of the EU, it was positively exhilarating to be there amongst senior European politicians discussing not if we should leave, but when and how. It’s really going to happen.
On Sunday December 4th, I was on BBC Sunday Politics East Midlands to debate Brexit with none other than Anna Soubry and Margaret Beckett. Although from different parties, these two are joined at the hip as Remainers. Both (and especially Soubry) have a reputation as aggressive debaters. Once Soubry gets going, she can be like a runaway train.
Now I must admit to a problem I face in this context. I still have the quaint old-fashioned idea that a gentleman should be courteous to women, and not interrupt them — a convention that I certainly would not apply to men in a similar position. But on this occasion, I realised that if I deferred to Soubry and Beckett I shouldn’t get a word in edgeways, so I determined to be a thoroughly modern 21st Century politician, and show them no quarter.
Nonetheless, at one point I wondered if I had overstepped the mark, and seeking to be emollient, I made a dreadful mistake. I referred to “these two charming ladies”. Immediately I felt their hackles rise behind me, and heard Soubry muttering and harrumphing in the background.
On the spur of the moment (you don’t get too much thinking time in a panel debate) I turned to the two women and said “OK. Maybe not charming”. Again, I wondered if I’d said the wrong thing, but looking at the programme later, it was really quite amusing. Indeed my press officer said that every time he viewed the clip it seemed funnier than last time.
Bear in mind that this same Anna Soubry made a remark, on air, in 2013, about a fellow panellist, which is frankly too obscene and offensive for me to repeat, though you can find it here. So it is OK, in Soubry’s book, to make a thoroughly offensive, uncalled-for and obscene remark on air, but not OK for a man to refer to two ladies as “charming”. Truly political correctness, and the Sisterhood, are creating some bizarre double standards.
One other point before we let Soubry go. In the course of my work I meet many senior Conservatives, and naturally I have asked how they feel about Brexit. Here is a typical response (no names, no pack-drill, as my old mother used to say): “Well on balance I thought I ought to support the Prime Minister and the Remain side, but the British people have made their decision, we accept it, and our job now is to make it work”.
The few obstinate Remainers in the Tory Party are becoming an embarrassment to their own side. Somehow I suspect that Broxtowe Conservatives may have serious doubts about re-selection in 2020 — if Anna lasts that long.
A codicil: I noted the following Twitter exchange between Ashley Fox and Anna Soubry:
Anna Soubry MP: Agreed @nick_clegg the 48% must come together and stand up to the new Brexit élite — hard-line ideologist bully boys
Ashley Fox MEP: You do not speak for the 48% @Anna_Soubry. I voted Remain and accept the result. We lost — get over it. Need to get the best deal for the UK without whingeing.
I have been exchanging Tweets with my regular sparring partner Professor Michael Merrifield of Nottingham University, and blow me down, he has scored a point! I have been arguing that if the UK were to remain in the EU’s Customs Union after Brexit (a contradiction in terms in my view), we should be precluded from making free trade deals (FTAs) with third countries — which is one of the key objectives of Brexit.
I was surprised when the good Professor insisted that countries within the Customs Union could conclude FTAs elsewhere, and cited Turkey as an example. And guess what — he seems to be right. This of course begs the question “If Turkey, then why not the UK?”. So I have put the issue, in the form of a Written Question, to the European Commission.
Two provisos. First, Turkey’s “membership” of the Customs Union is limited — for example, it excludes agriculture.
Secondly, let me be absolutely clear. I regard the Customs Union model as hopelessly antiquated, dysfunctional and inefficient. It is a 19th Century concept based on Bismarck’s Zollverein. No other such customs union exists between advanced economies. It has been replaced elsewhere by the free trade area, a much more efficient model for trade. It raises costs for imports, and it especially disadvantages the UK, which as a global trading nation has a higher proportion of its imports from outside the EU, incurring the Common External Tariff.
So I absolutely oppose any attempt to remain in the EU’s Customs Union, or Single Market, after Brexit. Nonetheless, I put the following question to the Commission to clarify the technical point and to allow me to respond authoritatively to the good Professor.
Turkey Free Trade Agreements
I should like to raise with the Commission a question put to me by a constituent, Professor Michael Merrifield of Nottingham University.
We in the UK understand that membership of the EU’s Customs Union precludes us from entering into free trade deals with non-EU countries. This has been an important issue raised in the context of Brexit.
Yet we read on the Commission’s web-site that Turkey is a member of the EU’s Customs Union, but has also concluded free trade deals with a large number of countries, most of which appear to be in the euro-med area.
Is this in fact the case?
Were the other Turkish FTAs entered into before or after Turkey joined the EU’s Customs Union?
If Turkey as a member of the EU’s Customs Union is able to conclude FTAs with third countries, why is the UK not able to do likewise?
After Brexit, could the option be open to the UK of remaining in the EU’s Customs Union while concluding FTAs with third countries?
I repeat, for the avoidance of doubt, I do not want the UK to remain in the EU Customs Union or Single Market. I just want to understand the rules.
“Associate European Citizenship”?
Luxembourg liberal MEP Charles Goerens has proposed offering British citizens the option of retaining their EU citizenship (alongside UK citizenship) for a fee – not yet specified. I have had a number of well-meaning constituents writing to ask me to support this proposal, so that they may maintain the “rights and freedoms” which they believe they will lose on Brexit.
I am deeply uncomfortable with this idea. First of all, as the BBC has pointed out, there is a long list of legal and constitutional problems associated with it. Citizenship is fundamentally associated with the nation state. It is not clear what citizenship means as applied to a grouping of 27 countires. And any such plan would require ratification by all EU member-states, and probably also a treaty change – which the EU apparatchiks are desperate to avoid at all costs, as it would probably lead to referenda which they would very likely lose.
In any case, the potential benefits turn out to be rather trivial. While we don’t know how the Brexit negotiations will finish up, it seems a racing certainty that we shall have a mutual visa-waiver deal, which will allow a degree of free movement. We shall also have arrangements allowing European citizens to work in the UK, and vice versa, if they have relevant skills and a job offer.
And what about Brits retiring to sea-side villas in Spain? I don’t think we need to worry. Brits did that before we joined the EU, and will do so afterwards. I can’t see the Spanish refusing to let British retirees invest in their property market. They have more empty properties than they know what to do with.
But my fundamental objection to the concept of associate EU citizenship is that I see it as yet another attempt by Brussels to drain the value and meaning out of the nation state, and to create a Europe of regions governed from Brussels. With Brexit, we in Britain are reasserting our independence, and taking back our rightful place in the world. Let’s be proud of our country, and of our British citizenship, and not muddy the water with this cock-eyed idea.
A message from Poland
At the risk of confirming your worst expectations of the Brussels gravy-train, I will admit that I briefly attended the Christmas Reception of the European parliament’s Industry and Energy Committee, on which I have sat for some years. (No champagne, but a couple of glasses of Prosecco — very agreeable to our Italian Five Star colleagues).
I spoke briefly with the Committee Chairman, Jerzy Buzek. He is a very distinguished Polish MEP. He was a science Professor who became Prime Minister of his country, and also served a term as President of the European parliament (and a very distinguished one too).
I was astonished (and delighted) to find that he was wearing a pair of cuff-links made of coal. Well done Sir. A black message for the Greens.
Progress on Twitter
I’d hoped to reach 15,000 followers by the end of 2016, and I’m delighted to see that I’m on 15,400 as I write. My thanks to you all. Still some way to catch Michelle Obama, at 5 million plus, or Nigel Farage at 567K, but it’s a start.
I was also struck by the extent to which a recent Tweet was re-Tweeted, and “liked”. As I write, we’re at 7,000+ retweets and 9,000+ likes. And what did it say? “I don’t know whether Putin tried to influence the US Presidential race. But I’m damned certain that Obama tried to influence the Brexit referendum”. I suspect that quite a lot of the retweets and likes will be in the USA. Not quite viral, but well on the way.
In addition to the retweets, the Twitter activity report shows an amazing 400,000+ “impressions” (viewings) of the Tweet.
Representative democracy: Every so often I hear from some constituent who is aggrieved by my failure to “represent his views” in the parliament. These people don’t seem to see the contradiction. Clearly if constituents have conflicting views, I cannot credibly represent both sides. Take a binary and contentious issue, like (say) fox-hunting. The East Midlands, and especially the county of Leicestershire, is the heart of fox-hunting country on earth, and there are many committed supporters of country sports. But I equally recognise that there are many constituents passionately opposed to fox-hunting.
Clearly I cannot support and oppose fox-hunting at the same time. The same argument applies to many issues. I cannot support and oppose wind farms, or HS2, or nationalisation of the banks.
In this context, I recently Tweeted: “No parliamentarian can represent the incompatible & conflicting views of all constituents. I represent the policies on which I was elected”.
Gordon Craig (for it was he) replied: “Your duty, should you ever understand how democracy works, is to represent all your constituents not just your views”.
But of course it’s poor Gordon who doesn’t understand how democracy works, so let me explain for his benefit. Candidates adopt a Manifesto (and also make speeches and other statements about policy), and constituents expect them to pursue those policies and commitments. They clearly cannot ever promote the opposing views of every constituent.
When matters arise not covered by the Manifesto, then the parliamentarian, as a representative not a delegate, uses his best judgement in what he believes to be the best overall interests of his constituents. If those constituents think he’s made a hash of it, their sanction is to vote him out next time round.
A subtle distinction: I do my best to represent what I believe to be in the best interests of all my constituents (and my country). That is not at all the same as representing the different views of every constituent on every issue. A case in point: I believe that Brexit is in the interests of all the people, and I was elected (top of the East Midlands list four times over) on that basis. I recognise that there is a significant minority of voters who take a different view, but it is not my business to represent that view, or to promote it.
The parliament is undertaking a planned and vindictive campaign designed to close down an organisation which is a strong voice for UKIP values across Europe. They have retrospectively redefined their criteria, so that activity which in previous years or with other groups would have been qualifying activity is now reclassified as “indirect support for a political party”, and so banned. Indeed under the new rules, we can have the money only so long as we do nothing with it that might be remotely interesting or useful to us.
We need your help to survive. Please, send us your donation, however small (or as much as you can). Go to www.ADDEurope.org/donate. And please, do it now. After Christmas may be too late.
A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all my readers.