Since my last newsletter in December morale in our party has risen considerably and at last, under Michael Howard's leadership, we are driving the political agenda and being taken seriously by the media as a potential party of government. Opinion polls show us narrowing Labour's lead to low single figures with momentum on our side. I attended the Brighton Spring Conference where I was pleased at the mood of the London activists which is upbeat. At the same time the British government is raising its profile in the corridors of power in Brussels ahead of the UK Presidency for the second half of the year when we also hold the G8 Presidency. Conservative MEPs have elected Timothy Kirkhope as their new leader with Sir Robert Atkins as deputy. Tim brings a wealth of experience as a former MP and Home Office Minister and I served under him when he was our Chief Whip 2000-2002.
Having acquired a taste for observing elections after four quick visits in succession to Kiev, as I witnessed the Orange Revolution in Ukraine first hand, I was selected to represent the Parliament in a team of 30 MEPs sent to the West Bank and Gaza. I observed the largely free and fair election of President Abbas (aka Abu Mazen) of the Palestinian Authority. This democratic election was in itself a remarkable first in the Arab world, which alongside the election success in Iraq will hopefully serve as a model in the region. Whilst there the Israeli authorities briefed me of the dangers posed by Hizbullah which is determined to undermine the peace dialogue and Abu Mazen's authority. Hizbullah funded by Iran and Syria is committed to waging a terrorist war through suicide bombings aimed at the destruction of Israel and I have led a campaign to put pressure on the Council to declare it a banned EU terrorist organisation. Regrettably France has consistently opposed this but the Parliament for the first time passed a resolution calling Hizbullah a terrorist organization which increases the pressure to curtail its activities in the EU. Radio 4 Today Programme interviewed me on this matter.
I have been busy as Vice-Chairman of the Human Rights subcommittee as we prepare our annual report. I have focused on China, which is topical as the EU prepares to lift the arms embargo which I have opposed and will damage our relations with the USA and Japan. Not only does China persist in violating the fundamental rights of its 1.3 billion citizens by rigid press censorship, arrest of dissidents such as those protesting the one child policy or persecute religious including Christian minorities, not to mention its excessive and inappropriate use of the death penalty, but it also now threatens peaceful and democratic Taiwan with force as we have seen in the recent anti-secession law passed by China's rubber stamp Communist parliament. I participated in a live videoconference with President Chen of Taiwan on this issue. China claims western style freedoms are incompatible with a country of its size, if law and order is to be maintained, but I believe its people deserve better as equally vast India with a far wider cultural and linguistic mix manages as part of the legacy we British left behind to have a thriving democracy with far higher standards of human rights. Recently I protested at the action of Eutelsat to discontinue the contract for the only uncensored Chinese language service NTDTV to broadcast via satellite to mainland China as Eutelsat caved into commercial pressures from the massive economic clout of China which is now the EU's second largest trading partner and will stop at nothing to maintain the stranglehold of the communist regime.
I have also been monitoring the enlargement process closely over Romania, which along with Bulgaria is scheduled to join the EU on 1st January 2007. Recently some German MEPs have been trying to whip-up support for the Parliament (which must give assent to the Treaty of Accession for Romania) to delay the whole process alleging too much public corruption. Although this is a serious problem in Romania the new government of President Basescu was elected on anti-corruption platform and is making strenuous efforts to bring the country up to western European standards (some would say corruption is common in existing EU member states!). In reality Germany is going through a period of enlargement fatigue and worried by the serious competitive pressures to their industry from the low wage and flat rate tax economies of the new eastern European member states. It is also worried about immigration pressures (Romania has over 2 million poor and disadvantaged Romas) and is reeling from the scandal of a 100 000 visas been granted to Ukrainians some of whom had links to prostitution and organised crime. Croatia is in contrast actually on hold to open negotiations for EU membership whilst the matter of finding the wanted war criminal General Gotovina is unresolved and Turkey (officially due to open negotiations in October) is dragging its feet over recognising Cyprus. Romania even sent their Foreign Minister on a tour of EU capitals to whip up support and I was invited to breakfast with him in their London Embassy to clarify the Conservative position.
Other EP activities
These have been very varied ranging from appearing on Uzbek TV commenting on their Presidents speech to appearing on Spanish TV commenting on the results of the Spanish referendum on the EU Constitution and explaining the British Conservative objections to the Constitution. I hosted a party at the Brussels Indian Embassy to relaunch the Friends of India, which was well attended. I co-authored a written declaration on Endometriosis a poorly understood painful gynaecological condition that causes much pain, misery and infertility in some 14 million female sufferers in the EU. I was main speaker at a debate in Strasbourg in the Dutch Mission to resolve the potential duplication and confusion between the EU's human rights and pro-democracy agenda and the role for its much older but poorer cousin the Council of Europe which includes countries like Russia, Azerbaijan and Turkey not renowned for upholding the highest of standards in this area.
Future Direction of Europe
The EU Constitution faces a huge hurdle in overcoming the views of Eurosceptic publics in Holland, The Czech Republic, Denmark and even in traditionally integrationalist France where the polls are very close and a "No" vote is possible. France is worried about the Services Directive, which undermines their cosy protectionist social model (we support it) and Turkish accession. Further EU enlargement is on hold to aspiring countries like Ukraine and the Western Balkans as we digest the workings of the new 25. By the time I send out my next newsletter we will in all probability have a new British government, and whatever the outcome we will all be preparing for the referendum debate on the EU Constitution. In the meantime I hope to see many of you in the near future.