Smoke and mirrors in Brussels over the constitution
The EU has been in the news a great deal recently following the summit at the end of June during which a new treaty was agreed. How new it is remains open to question. There are many similarities to the proposed EU constitutional treaty which was rejected in France and the Netherlands two years ago. Certainly Chancellor Angela Merkel presented it as a triumph, and she was determined to hammer out a deal in the dying days of Germany's EU presidency.
I am reserving judgment on the treaty for a very simple reason, which is that the details of the treaty are being left to an intergovernmental conference (IGC) which officially starts work on 23 July. It's entirely possible that the deal will come unstuck as diplomats argue the detailed contents. We'll have a better idea of what shape the treaty is likely to take towards the end of 2007.
The behaviour of the Polish double-act of the Kaczynski twins at the summit was especially controversial. Poland wanted increased voting rights under the new treaty, even though the current voting rights under the Treaty of Nice (2000) are extremely generous and bring Poland onto a par with countries with significantly larger populations. Poland argued against changes to voting rights in future being based on population size - which would benefit countries like Germany and the UK - on the basis that Poland's population would today be much larger were it not for the horrors of World War Two!
This tactic upset many people at the summit, who felt that it was inappropriate to make policy based on past history. It also raised questions about other countries' rights to greater voting weight, and posed the question: where do you stop? Should Britain make a claim based on the Roman invasion or the Norman conquest? Poland did itself no favours by evoking the Holocaust in this way. The first lesson I was taught on arrival at the European Parliament in 1999 was "don't mention the war".
Another controversy was sparked by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who sought to excise reference to 'free and undistorted competition' in the new treaty. He succeeded to a degree - the reference was banished to an annex - but it was encouraging to see how robustly the Commission, as 'guardian of the treaties', reacted to defend free markets. Anyway, I suspect this was more a case of a new, dynamic leader trying to make his mark and stir up a domestic audience by throwing some red meat to the French trade unions. Sarkozy knows very well that is going to have to free up France's economy and expose it to internal and external competition if his much-vaunted reforms are going to succeed. Nevertheless, his election in May on balance augurs well for Conservative reformist policies in Europe.
On the sidelines of the summit, I was intrigued by the comment of a British journalist in Brussels who accused the UK of 'sliding towards partial membership of the EU'. The basis of his statement was that Britain has not adopted the Euro, is not part of the Schengen zone, only cooperates in police and security matters on an opt-in basis and is not bound by the Charter of Fundamental Rights.
My response was simply that this is the position with which most people in Britain are comfortable, and it resonates with the Conservative vision of a flexible Europe. In my view, realising that vision means defending the single market and competition law (from President Sarkozy if necessary!), reinforcing consumer protection, addressing environmental concerns, ensuring energy security in an uncertain world, alleviating global poverty and enhancing the fight against international crime and terrorism. None of this requires the construction by the EU of an ever deeper 'political union'.
I'll have more to say on this when the work of the ICG reaches its climax later in the year. I fully support the party's policy of allowing the British people to decide in a referendum on future transfers of sovereignty, but Prime Minister Brown has (unsurprisingly perhaps) ruled this out.
A final observation: it will be interesting to see how Brown fits into Europe's club of leaders. I use the word 'club' advisedly, since the atmosphere at summits is always very informal and leaders pride themselves on their amicable interpersonal relationships, even if they can't agree on policy. Brown's complex personality is well documented, and this, combined with an apparent contempt for the EU in the past, may not endear him to his new colleagues. We can safely assume he won't be on the phone regularly to Peter Mandelson either, who apparently is shortly going to be ennobled!
Portugal takes on the presidency
For the next six months it's Portugal's turn to manage EU business, although it effectively amounts to four months because of the summer recess. I am particularly fond of the Portuguese, having spent a part of my childhood there, and it is after all Britain's oldest ally going back to the Treaty of Windsor in 1386.
Now that the treaty negotiations have been spun off to the ICG, Portugal has been elaborating on its priorities for the presidency, one of which is 'Africa'. There are many worthy words spoken about Africa, and none more worthy that those from Messrs Blair and Brown, but we seem to have got our priorities wrong. In our eagerness to help Africa, we have created a continental welfare system which has given Africans very little incentive to help themselves and has also allowed corruption and dictatorship to flourish. One way that we could help Africa, of course, is to reform the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) so that we no longer dump cheap food on African countries and further impoverish African farmers. The EU could also provide better and cheaper access to European markets. But ultimately only Africans can solve Africa's problems, and it's our responsibility as donors to enable them to do so. I wrote about this recently in the Guardian
Medium-sized and small countries tend to be successful as holders of the EU presidency. Larger countries tend not to give enough attention to the job, or they're not that fussed about the prestige, while the very smallest countries simply don't have the resources in terms of civil service size to do the job.
Of course, these issues are often presented by proponents of the new EU treaty as justification for the replacement of the 6-monthly rotating presidency by a full-time two and a half year President but clearly this change does not require an EU constitution. It reminds me of the petition started by, amongst others, my colleague Chris Heaton-Harris to axe the hugely wasteful monthly Strasbourg sittings (http://www.oneseat.eu). The defunct proposed EU constitution suggested petitions as a way for citizens to affect EU policy. So Chris was accused of hypocrisy because he pursued a policy which was supported in the constitution which we opposed. Yet surely the idea of enabling people to express their views is a good one. It doesn't need to be part of a constitution. Similarly I supported the proposal that national parliaments should have enhanced powers over the Commission's annual works programme and that the Council of Ministers should be more transparent and open to the media whilst legislating which I hope will be retained whatever the final outcome in October.
Reselection for 2009
The reselection period for the 2009 European election is rapidly coming around again. It hardly seems possible that I was first going through the process almost ten years ago. Time has really flown by.
There's been some dissatisfaction expressed by some activists about the compromise that the party board came up with to select candidates for the regional European parliamentary election lists for 2009. I fully support the board's carefully crafted and balanced decision. I've been elected twice as an MEP in an open selection process based on hustings in which regrettably only around 1% of London's party membership turned-up, so I've never opposed giving party members the final decision on who should represent them. The compromise means that existing MEPs will, after satisfying a regional college that they deserve incumbency rights, be ranked at the top of the list by a postal ballot now sent to all party members in the London region.
The runner-up position and any single vacancy in each region will be automatically filled by a woman candidate which will enable a better gender balance.
It's always been my job to represent your interests in Brussels, not to represent Brussels in London. I'm proud to be standing again as a candidate to represent our great city on my record as an MEP who gets stuck in and works hard on behalf of all my constituents. There is still much to moan about when it comes to the EU, but as an MEP you can either shout ineffectively from the sidelines (like UKIP) or work hard to maximise London's influence. I know which approach has worked best for London.
You can always catch up in more detail with what I'm doing at my website or my page on the European Parliament website.
Beyond our Ken
I'm delighted to have been nominated to be a committee member for the party's selection of our mayoral candidate to take on Ken Livingstone next year. There are several highly-qualified candidates who have either declared their candidacy or expressed an interest in running. I'm really looking forward to contributing to this process and for the London party to rally behind our chosen candidate.
We need a dynamic candidate who has the ideas, the respect and the integrity to tackle the challenges facing London, especially with the Olympics just five years away. In the past 18 months since David Cameron took on the leadership, we have made big strides as a party. I think most Londoners have had it with Ken and want to see a new face in charge. Choosing the right person as our candidate is therefore a challenging task, but an essential one.
Against the grain
What is vodka? You might well ask, especially after a few shots of the stuff. But that was the question facing MEPs recently as some member states in eastern and northern Europe tried to impose stiff restrictions on the use of the word.
Countries including Poland, Finland and Sweden produce vodka from grain or potatoes. Britain, whose vodka industry in Europe's second largest, produces almost a third of its vodka from sugar beet or molasses. An exclusive labelling regime would have meant British vodka having to call itself 'white spirit' or some other such name. It would have had a seriously detrimental effect on our vodka industry.
Thankfully we won the day and the idea was scrapped. The single market is one of the benefits of the EU, but there's often a fine line between standardization and protectionism. I can understand products like Stilton cheese or Whitstable oysters being protected from imitators. But vodka? After all it is actually a Russian word meaning 'little water'!
It reminds me of the time a few years back when Conservative MEPs managed to successfully scupper a plan to restrict what could and couldn't be called chocolate. The legislation, which was brought forward in the name of standardization, would have caused all sorts of grief for our confectionery industry. As with all these things, common sense and pragmatism should be the order of the day - if not from the Commission then from Tory MEPs!
Duty-free but not trouble-free
Talking of booze, I am still getting letters from constituents about the heavy-handed treatment of travellers arriving at Heathrow by HM Customs officials. More recently it appears that a crackdown on duty free purchases made outside the EU has been instigated in the name of anti-terrorism measures - and not just on drink but all sorts of merchandise.
We've been here before. Over the past few years I've had dozens of complaints about purchases of alcohol and tobacco from the EU being confiscated at ferry ports on the way back into the UK. People have even had their cars impounded and been left to make their own way home. Britain's EU membership entitles us all to take advantage of the single market. It means that as long as your purchases are for personal use, you are entitled to bring back as much as you like. Any customs officer who says otherwise is wrong. It's absurd that law-abiding citizens should be suspected as criminals in this way. However, our recently in principle worthy proposed policy to raise alcohol duty as a ring-fenced sum to treat alcoholics runs the risk of perversely increasing the number of booze cruise trips.
More recently there has also been a spate of seizures at Heathrow relating to goods legitimately purchased outside the EU at duty free shops. This was brought in as an anti-terrorism measure. But as long as travellers abide by the law, they should not be harassed in this way. I've taken this matter up with the Commission and I'm hoping that agreements will be concluded with third countries (e.g. USA and Canada) so that the EU recognises the security of their duty free airport shops.
My work on the foreign affairs committee of the Parliament continues to present a variety of diplomatic challenges! I was shadow rapporteur for the Parliament's report on the situation in Kashmir. The report won an overwhelming majority and generated much interest in the region. Although I was re-elected last month as president of the Friends of India parliamentary group, I took trouble to ensure that my contribution to the drafting of the report was balanced. The final amended report makes an important contribution to the debate in a very unstable part of the world.
I've also been active amending and debating a number of key issues in my role as rapporteur for the European Neighbourhood Policy (eastern dimension), which deals with the EU's relations with Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia. I plan to visit the latter two countries over the summer in this role. Like many observers, I'm concerned the way Russia uses its influence in the region today, and I've alluded to this recently in letters to the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian.
I was honoured to receive a trophy from the Colombian military defence college for my help in assisting senior commanders' annual visit to Brussels to be briefed on the increasing role of the EU in trade and foreign policy issues affecting Latin America. It shows how importantly others regard the EU's role, whatever we might think back home! Latin America is another priority of the current Portuguese presidency, which has hosted an EU-Brazil summit in recognition of Brazil's role as the regional economic superpower and an emerging global player alongside Russia, China and India.
I have also co-authored the Parliament's resolution on the Middle East which - following the military coup in Gaza by Hamas - will restore funding to the Palestinian Authority under secular President Abbas. I have continued to raise concerns about abuses of human rights in many countries from Burma to Zimbabwe, and have sought to maintain pressure on Iran, which is determined to thwart the international community and acquire nuclear weapons. If you've been following my parliamentary work you'll know that I don't mince my words when it comes to Iran, as a recent letter and article show.
I met Sheik Hasina, former Prime Minister of Bangladesh, in London as I plan to lead a party of observers to oversee the country's parliamentary elections in 2008. I'm also keen to build links with the London Bengali community for the Conservative Friends of Bangladesh. I am part of a campaign to secure her release from jail on bail as she was imprisoned after her return and to be granted access to a lawyer. In a similar spirit I addressed a meeting of the prosperous Armenian community in London. Reinforcing these links in the coming months will be very important as we seek to turn marginal seats in London into Tory seats at the next election.
I hosted a breakfast meeting in the Parliament looking at corruption in the new EU member states such as Romania and Bulgaria as well those countries' eastern neighbours. This turned out to be a well-attended event as the Commission had just expressed concerns at organised crime and corruption in new member states.
I have received a number of visiting groups from London including a City Livery Company (the Wax Chandlers), whose master is a former mayor of Kensington and Chelsea.
I spent an afternoon on the Thames as a guest of the Port of London Authority, being briefed about its role in regulating navigation and monitoring the environment. Apparently the Thames is now so clean that dozens of fish species now live in its waters. For those of us who remember the foul state of the river thirty or so years ago, this clean-up is a remarkable achievement.
I have campaigned in almost every London council by-election from Hounslow to Westminster and visited Ealing Southall three times during the campaign so I was clearly deeply disappointed after all the hard work put in we did not do better on 19 July. Our candidate there, Tony Lit, seemed to have lit up the campaign (his own pun!) and it was heartening to see, after a recent high-profile defection from Conservative to Labour, five Labour councillors joining our party.
EU phone home
If you're heading out of the country for a summer break you should start to benefit from legislation passed by the Parliament in June which aims to limit the cost of using your mobile phone to make or receive calls in another EU country.
The Commission announced some time ago that it would take action against mobile operators unless they lowered the cost of roaming. The operators, who make vast profits from roaming, weren't exactly enthusiastic about the plan, so the Commission took action. New laws now place a cap on roaming charges. This is a benefit of a single market in which borders should not affect pricing.
In principle, I would much prefer leaving this kind of regulation to the free market, but it was clear that the mobile networks were not going to budge of their own accord and seemed to be operating a cartel.
Back to booze again. The Commission has come forward with concrete proposals to shake up wine production in Europe. For years, Europe's uncompetitive wine makers have been losing market share to more consistent and cheaper palatable wines from the New World. Under the largely discredited CAP, EU producers are subsidised for growing as much wine as they can - resulting in 'wine lakes'. Much of this plonk is of very dubious quality and in such low demand that much of it is turned into industrial alcohol at taxpayers' expense.
Now the Commission is proposing cash incentives for producers to rip out their vines. The argument is that by focusing on quality and not quantity, wines from the EU will be able to market themselves better against competition from countries like Australia and South Africa. Apparently blending will be permitted and sugar additives forbidden, making for lower alcohol content which, from a public health angle, is a good thing.
This is definitely one area where I do like to see the disciplines of the market applying. European wine producers have been sheltered from the winds of global competition for far too long. Paying people a one-off sum to rip up their vines may be just another subsidy but in the long run it should save money by doing away with a system of permanent handouts.
Of course, it would be good if this approach was replicated throughout the agricultural sector. Farm subsidies make our food more expensive and have devastating effects on farmers in poor countries. The CAP needs root-and-branch reform but as we saw at the end of the British EU presidency in 2005, when Tony Blair acquiesced to the French, it's still a delicate subject and in 2008 there will be a major review again.
Mind your language!
I caused a lot of upset to Croatian nationalists recently when in a speech I called for Croatian, Serbian, Montenegrin and Bosnian to all be considered the same language if and when they become EU member states. My view is supported by most serious philologists, and whenever most people from these countries of the former Yugoslavia get together they speak dialects of what is essentially the same tongue. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague manages to use one synthetic language for three countries.
For a long time I have been against the proliferation of multilingualism in the Parliament. Recently Gaelic became an official language, although Ireland never requested this in 1973 when it joined the EU and most Irish MEPs do not speak it! This kind of pointless exercise in language nationalism merely panders to hardliners and wastes lots of taxpayers' money. I was surprised at the avalanche of protests I received from people claiming I had been 'got at' by the Serbs!
A shining example
I was recently a guest of the famous diamond company De Beers, whose experts gave me a thorough and fascinating briefing on the process of mining, cutting and marketing the most precious of all stones.
De Beers is a leading light in the Kimberley process, a certification system which aims to guarantee the origin and traceability of diamonds. The Kimberley process, which the EU currently chairs, sprang from worldwide disgust at the savagery of a succession of civil wars in Africa, many of which were financed through illicit sales of diamonds in exchange for weaponry - hence the term 'blood diamond'.
As one of the oldest and perhaps the best known of all diamond companies, De Beers has a reputation to protect and a discerning market to respond to. It's easy to be cynical about the level of social responsibility shown by multinationals but I was most impressed by the way De Beers has confronted this issue head-on. The company is clearly committed to investing ethically and responsibly in Africa.
I've invited De Beers to Brussels to set up an exhibition looking at the issue of blood diamonds and highlighting the work of the Kimberley process. I'm looking forward to it.
An end to the sickening trade in cat and dog fur
Animal welfare continues to be one of the issues that many Londoners write to me about, and I'm pleased to say that we have finally succeeded in banning the import of cat and dog fur. A parliamentary vote in June put a triumphant seal on a campaign which Conservative MEPs have waged for a number of years. Once we got the Commission onside the practicalities of the ban quickly fell into place.
Most of the cat and dog fur imported into the EU comes from China, where standards of animal welfare are notoriously poor. Secretly shot videos from China show animals being beaten and skinned alive. Furthermore, this fur is often labelled as non-existent animal species to dupe consumers. The campaign has taken several years but I'm delighted that the efforts of various NGOs and celebrities, not to mention my colleague Struan Stevenson MEP who spearheaded the initiative, have finally paid off.
My best wishes
On that note, I shall sign off. I'll be back in touch in the autumn. I'd just like to wish you and your family a very enjoyable summer, and to thank you for your continued support.