Reflections on the EU and the June 10th Election
The European Journal - April 2004
May 1st this year will finally signify the end of the cold war and seal the reuniting of a Continent which we failed to protect being dived-up as a result of Communist tyranny. The EU will soon as a body of 25 states have a population of 450 million -the biggest Economic zone in the world and even bigger than the USA and in population only 3rd behind India and China, this constitutes a truly massive market.
Slovakia to take one example has undergone huge differences over the last 10 years with the current government determined to deregulate. For instance it has just cut business tax along with income tax to a competitive flat rate of 19%, most worrying to its neighbour Austria fearing that businesses will relocate over the border! There have been similar huge visible changes in all 10 acceding countries in terms of prosperity, security, democracy, the rule of law and the fight against corruption in public life. In particular we observe huge improvements in human rights including minority rights such as for the Roma communities and Gay communities.
Other matters as diverse as safety in their nuclear power stations, to food hygiene laws, -from telecom regulators to financial service supervisors, have all been implemented to EU standards.All this has come about because of the pressure for reform through the accession process. One can safely say that to date previous enlargements of the EU have been historically a success story, and Conservatives on balance welcome the process and expect a similar outcome this time.
Security is improving for our continent as all acceding countries bar Malta and Cyprus (who are particularly welcome to the UK as members of the British Commonwealth) will shortly be joining NATO to strengthen our transatlantic defence community in its new post cold war role making it active as far away as Afghanistan.
Central European economies have enjoyed fast catch-up growth rates with GDP growing by more than 40% in the last decade which will provide large export markets with which we in the UK can trade and significantly a pool of highly skilled workers to be employed in our investments in these countries or to come and fill the gaps in our own domestic UK needs.
Nevertheless the British government's belated decision, under Conservative pressure, to tighten-up the habitual residence rules to prevent potential mass flows of benefit tourists, but at the same time welcoming those people coming with skills and genuinely seeking work in Britain, is correct. We should pay special tribute to the new country officials who have managed to digest the excessive 90000 odd pages of EU law and cope in a strange multilingual environment. Whether they can implement or monitor them remains to be seen.
No one can deny there will be challenging problems with enlargement, both in terms of the unwieldy nature of meetings with the expanded 25 Commissioners and Ministers in the Council, to the Tower of Babel and the cost of translation of potentially 380 language combinations pushing the EU translation bill to 700 million pounds. The opportunity was sadly missed to reduce the number of official working languages. However one welcome aspect of enlargement is that English as a de facto working language is winning the battle over French as the lingua franca of Brussels as all the new countries speak it widely.
There are many other problems with enlargement -for instance the cost of the structural funds and the Agricultural subsidies estimated at 11 billion Euros for 2004, and the much wider gap in incomes than were present in previous waves of enlargement between the poorest countries such as Latvia and the richest such as Luxembourg. There is also the ongoing Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus, the addition of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007 and the hotly debated issue of Turkeys candidature. Romania's accession process currently remains in jeopardy with its alleged failure to fight corruption and promote child welfare, including the controversial exporting of babies for adoption. Croatia has been running a recent successful campaign in Brussels to be taken seriously as a Balkan candidate but the other neighbouring states e.g. Bosnia, Albania, Macedonia and Serbia-Montenegro are not even contemplated at present which similarly applies to Ukraine and Moldova which have also expressed a wish to join. Ukraine's aspirations, which I support, may be taken more seriously if there is a change in government this October after their Presidential election.
Unfortunately the EU whilst being challenged by enlargement also faces many other problems particularly a tendency to too much uncosted red tape and bureaucracy which flies in the face of the Lisbon Agenda of March 200 for economic reform. This is the ambitious plan to become by 2010 the "most competitive and knowledge based economy in the world". There is an appreciation that the EU lags behind the USA and Japan in competitiveness and R&D spending but as of yet there is a lack of political will to take the necessary steps to close this gap. We Conservatives have fought persistently for light touch flexible economies and imaginative solutions to the shrinking work force and the future demographic time bomb in Europe and would dearly like to see these regulations and red tape radically reduced!!
The EU must also now focus on its new neighbours as the new border moves East to relations with strategic countries such as Russia and the last Soviet style authoritarian government in Europe -Belarus.
Of course there is still the issue of the EU Constitution which has temporarily gone away after the collapse at the IGC, but may resurface at the time of the Euroelection during the Irish Presidency who are striving to get a Polish and Spanish agreement. Matters may now change drammatically after the surprise victory of the Socialists in Spain, and the new Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero's determination to get closer to France and Germany. British Conservatives have never seen the need for a written UK Constitution, let alone an EU one, and are opposed in principle to establishing the legal personality of the EU, the enshrining of the primacy of EU law, and the enforcement of the Charter of Fundamental Rights which will be a charter for litigation and judicial activism.
We oppose the creation of an EU Foreign Minister, Public Prosecutor, and 5-year President, which are more appropriate for a sovereign state- and demand that this whole document be put in a Referendum to the British people. We remain sceptical for the need of a Common Foreign and Security Policy particularly if the veto were lost. As to the European Security and Defence Policy we believe this threatens our Atlantic partnership with the US by undermining NATO. We are at the same time calling for the repatriation of the Common Fisheries Policy as it is destroying the British fishing industry without preserving stocks, and we will campaign for radical reforms of the CAP gobbling-up 40% of the EU budget.
But not all is bad! The EU has already created a single market of 380 million people with the right of all EU citizens to live, work or retire in any member state. It was after all a Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who pushed for the Single European Act in 1986. The EU has achieved some of the highest environmental and food safety standards in the world. Recently the Parliament voted to phase-out Sulphur from fuels by 2009 and set-up the European Food Safety Agency.
Therefore it is essential that the recent poll suggesting only 18% of the British electorate will bother to vote must not come to pass. The electorate must realize that the European Parliament whatever their views on the EU itself has real powers to amend and block legislation in all sorts of areas from the quality of the air we breathe, to the food we eat, to conditions at the workplace.
It is estimated over 50% of UK legislation has its origin in the EU, much sadly imposing unnecessary administrative and economic costs on business. Recently Conservatives voted unsuccessfully to preserve the UK opt-out to the Working Time Directive and opposed bringing-in continental works councils -this will involve a huge cost to British business. But we have reduced the worst effects of the Food Supplement Directive controlling the sale of vitamins and minerals. We have also saved traditional British chocolate. I personally amended the Product Safety Directive to allow exemption for UK Charity shops. and I was the author of a binding resolution calling on the Commission to introduce better legislation for animal welfare in the field of Live Transport of Animals, and the Parliament 2 years ago banned by 2013 the testing on live animals of cosmetics.
MEPs also have the power to approve all Treaties and the nomination of the President of the European Commission, where a vote for your party of choice will influence the political background of the next new President this autumn. MEPs have influence in improving human rights throughout the world and Tories have been active promoting these from Zimbabwe to Burma. We have championed consumer rights e.g. campaigning against the Commission for Ryanair's right to airport subsidies, and the rights of British citizens working in the EU -as we have seen by the massive fine now imposed on Italy for denying employment rights to UK English lecturers at Italian Universities.
So often when I travel abroad local British diplomats remark that MEPs get more time with a particular foreign government Minister than when UK Government Ministers visit because of the size of the EU Aid budget which we must approve and gives the EU clout in world affairs. I am also conscious of the MEP power of budgetary scrutiny and I have been personally active investigating allegations of EU Aid money to the Palestinian Authority being diverted to fraud and allegedly even terrorist use. I believe we owe this one to the Palestinian people for whom after all the money was intended.
UK MEPs, conscious that the City of London generates 10% of Britain's wealth, have been active cross-party introducing UK market reality into the ambitious Financial Services Action Plan. But only the Tories have fought hard against a single European taxation policy believing in competition between tax jurisdictions instead. We will be insisting the new European Commission looks at the cost and regulatory impact of legislative packages such as the FSAP and much of the Environmental legislation such as the Chemicals or REACH Directive or the various re-cycling Diectives in a globally competitive economy. Business and jobs after all can all too easily move East to a much less regulated Ukraine or even further afield to China or India where already call centres fielding UK callers are being set-up, a process known as outsourcing. We must in the EU seek to match the higher growth rates and productivity seen in the USA by building a flexible Europe. Of course the one-size fits all monetary policy of the overvalued Euro doesn’t help, hence Tory opposition to the single currency.
As a party we stand for an EU doing less but better but believe in a flexible variable geometry for Europe so that those countries which wish for more integration can do so through enhanced Co-operation as we have seen over the differing arrangements for the Euro for Britain, Denmark and Sweden, or the Schengen area for border controls.
Direct elections to the EP are now a quarter of a century old and although MEPs were shocked to be on the receiving end of letter bombs for the first time in January, it surely cannot be that only terrorists take our Institution seriously!
Britain is the birthplace of Parliamentary democracy and must cherish it as otherwise the price of complacency and apathy will be a vacuum developing which on a low turnout means that well organised far right groups such as BNP will do disproportionately well.
We really must all take as much care to vote for MEPs as we do for MPs.
But that is up to you!