Time just flies by and already I am into my second year of the new European Parliament and we are almost halfway through the EU UK Presidency. I spent my relatively short summer recess partly working in London and two weeks at the end of August travelling in Ukraine and Poland. I had not been back to the Ukraine since the heady days of the Orange Revolution last year so it was important to pay a visit and update myself as Vice-President of the Ukraine Delegation and the newly appointed European Parliament Rapporteur for the European Neighbourhood Policy (which deals with relations with the ring of EU neighbouring countries in North Africa, Middle-East, the non EU states in Eastern Europe and the Caucuses).
The picture in Ukraine was mixed with some progress in the fight against corruption which has now resulted in the dramatic dismissal of the Government as one Minister accuses another. I detected evidence of a greater concern for transparency and holding the government to account, but also evidence for economic and political paralysis due to political uncertainty ahead of the Parliamentary elections for March 2006.
The highlight of the trip was my visit to the Crimea where I was able, to meet the leader of the Tatar community. These Turkic Muslim people are the remains of the Golden Horde of nomadic Mongols which swept across Europe from the 13th Century onwards. They enjoyed self-governing status as the Khanate of Crimea between 1441–1783, albeit largely as a vassal of the Ottoman Empire, until conquered by Catherine the Great of Russia. Stalin deported the entire Tatar people to Central Asia (Uzbekistan) from Crimea in 1945 for having sided with the Germans during their occupation of Ukraine in the World War 2 but over the last decade since Ukranian independence the Tatars have filtered back to their ancestral homeland where they complain of discrimination by the Russian majority population and the inability to get their properties back. The Autonomous Government of the Republic of Crimea, from whom I had briefings, dismiss these allegations of discrimination instead accusing the Tatars of trying to regain premium coastal land to sell on for tourist development to developers.
My biggest concern was to prevent the Tatars getting involved with extremist islamist groups from Saudi Arabia, eager to exploit their muslim "victim" status from a majority Christian community and repeat the tragedy of the Chechens and other Muslims in the northern Caucuses with eventual terrorism and civil war. During the Orange Revolution the Tatars sided with Yushchenko but perhaps not surprisingly they feel let down as much was promised but little delivered so its difficult to say how this situation will be resolved eventually.
I also went to Warsaw and Gdansk when I was present at the tail end of the celebrations of the 25th Anniversary of Solidarity, the free Trade Union movement which began to unleash the forces which eventually sent the rotten Soviet Communist system crashing down. I realized once again the enormous respect and gratitude the Poles as a nation feel towards the British dating back to the Second World War and I was privileged to have a meeting with Jan Rokita the Leader of the Civic Platform Party which may well win the General Election on 25th September and become the next Prime Minister of Poland and with whom we Conservatives enjoy close relations. My work on Ukraine and Belarus resulted in exposure on Polish TV, Radio and a leading broadsheet Gazeta Wyborcza. Once again I am conscious that the views of MEPs are taken more seriously abroad than in our own country!
Last week in Strasbourg I was speaking in a debate on the Middle East and I also co-authored a resolution on Human Rights in Syria which remains the only Baath State left in the Arab world following the demise of Iraqi Baathism under Saddam Hussein, and Syria remains very much a one party repressive police state operating under a state of emergency since 1963. Syria has close trading links and relations with the EU and is now very much subject to our scrutiny and attention in the European Parliament. I believe the carrot and stick approach of encouraging reforms in human rights, good governance and democracy, but threatening withholding trade privileges and political cooperation is the strategy most likely to succeed in the long run. I was pleased that my India friendly amendments to the EU-India Report, coinciding with the summit, were adopted including a request for privileged status for India with Europol in the exchange of intelligence in the fight against global terrorism.
Other Activities and Issues
I am conscious of the fact that the Conservative Party is in the middle of selecting its new leader as well as introducing new widespread organisational and constitutional reforms including the selection mechanism for the national leader. I, like most of my MEP colleagues, feel that an Electoral College is the best solution which weighs up the interests of various stakeholders in the process across the voluntary membership and the elected side of the party. Totally disenfranchising the voluntary party is not the answer and the consultation offer is simply academic. It remains to be seen if this reform will go through giving MPs total say or whether our front-running candidates will face the grass roots of the party under the Hague installed system or even whether an Electoral College will be introduced as many of us would prefer. What we can be sure of is that having witnessed the formidable intellectual and oratorical skills of the Prime Minister it is vitally important we pick a suitably skilled heavyweight candidate who can seriously challenge Mr. Blair both at the dispatch box and before the country at large in the media.
Future Direction of Europe
Curiously, although we are theoretically in the "period of reflection" and although the EU on paper faces a crisis of direction, leadership and legitimacy following the No Votes in the Constitutional Referenda in France and Holland, the atmosphere in the European Parliament is business as usual. We have been grappling with Bills such as the Optical Radiation Directive which we managed to get the requirement to keep workers shirts on back to jurisdiction of the member states and with debates on measures to combat international crime and terrorism as well as the divided issue of the Mandelson textile import quotas from China. Preparations are going ahead for the MEP observers to arrive from Bulgaria and Romania at the end of September ahead of their accession in 2007 and much debate is going on whether the unclear German election result with a possible CDU led grand coalition will affect EU accession negotiations with Turkey which refuses to recognise the Cypriot state.
I look forward to seeing many of you at Party Conference at Blackpool in October.