It's the same old treaty – so let's have that referendum please
In my last individual newsletter I said that I had reserved judgment on the draft EU reform treaty because the intergovernmental conference convened to finalise it might craft a very different version from that agreed by EU leaders. It seems now that this outlook was a little over-optimistic.
Depending on who you talk to, the document is anywhere between 90 and 100 per cent the same as the failed EU constitution. Even convinced Europhiles admit that the two documents are essentially the same. This has caused Gordon Brown no end of embarrassment in his effort to avoid an unambiguous manifesto pledge to hold a referendum on the issue. He has been at pains to emphasise that it is not a constitution and that the 'trappings of statehood' have been expunged from the agreed version. There are also legitimate concerns whether Brown's so called "red lines" on the opt-outs on the Charter of Fundamental rights, Co-operation in police and criminal justice matters, taxation and social security will stand the test of time.
I'm committed to Britain's membership of the EU. But like so many party members I speak to I, think the transfer of powers has gone far enough and that it may be time to move some powers back to Westminster in order to give some meaning to the concept of subsidiarity. David Cameron has already set the challenging task when we are next in government to repatriate all the Social Chapter legislation which Blair agreed to in 1997
Goodbye to Blackpool
It was great to see so many of the party faithful from London at the party conference. Anyone who was at the London region reception will remember the atmosphere for a long time to come – the live band was superb. There was also a certain sense of poignancy because it was the last ever party conference in Blackpool, but as usual the time passed in a blur of meetings, receptions and presentations, with little time for a stroll along Blackpool pier. It was a lot of fun.
Perhaps the highlight of the conference for me was being invited to a breakfast briefing by John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the UN. In his prepared remarks he dealt primarily with the constant stream of obstructionism and pettiness shown towards the US and Israel at the UN. The guests then asked for his opinions on all sorts of pressing foreign affairs issues, ranging from Iran's nuclear ambitions to Zimbabwe. He agreed with my view, as set out in this article, that a unilateral declaration of independence in Kosovo would be a very risky strategy. All in all I found him far removed from the ferocious neocon image that he has acquired, but then that shouldn't have surprised me given the overwhelmingly left wing bias of much of the US and UK media.
I also hosted a reception for Conservatives for Cyprus, an annual event which I always enjoy. In some cases a long-lasting conflict can wear both sides down to the point that they acquiesce, but the Cypriot community is quite rightly as determined as ever to see a just and lasting settlement leading to reunifying the island.
One of the least well-attended events at conference, but the one that perhaps enthused me the most about the state of our party in London, was a presentation about the work of the dedicated team of Conservatives in Tower Hamlets. I had boundless admiration for their determination and innovative approach to share the Conservative message with the many communities in Tower Hamlets, especially the Bangladeshi community in whose affairs I have taken an interest.
The party conference took place in a frenzied atmosphere of speculation about whether Gordon Brown would call a general election. I lost count of the number of hypotheses put forward during the week, but of course by Saturday it was all moot. I suspect that's no bad thing, because it allows us to press forward with crafting policies and getting our message across.
Gordon Brown's retreat was in fact the perfect ending to the party conference because it served to reinforce that we are a united and committed party on the way back to government. And now, with all the controversy about party donations, it looks as though Mr Brown's premiership is fatally undermined before it has really begun. As a party we would be foolish to let this opportunity slip from our grasp. Let's keep those poll ratings above 40 per cent by remaining strong, united and focused in London where in the next three years we face challenging Mayoral & GLA, European followed by the General Election.
It can not have been a great surprise to many party members that Boris Johnson was chosen as Conservative candidate for London mayor. I was on the committee which short listed the four candidates for the final selection, and I was impressed by all of them, but Boris is a unique character who brings a formidable intellect and tangible energy to the task.
I have given Boris my full support. I was also most impressed by the turnout and debate at a party conference fringe meeting to discuss the priorities for the first 100 days of a Conservative Mayor. The vigorous discussion reflected a genuine sense of confidence that Ken Livingstone's days are numbered. London's three MEPs will be meeting with Boris early in 2008 to discuss how we can best help his campaign.
One of the issues to have figured most prominently in my postbag recently is that of child care in Bulgaria. A distressing BBC documentary highlighted the appalling state of some Bulgarian children's homes. I have made every effort to reply to the hundreds of constituents who have raised this with me. There is little the EU can do directly to intervene but European funds are being made available to bring long-term institutional care up to the standards we would expect of an EU member state.
Others have written to me about
Animal welfare and cruelty is always one of the main topics in my postbag. I recently wrote to the Chinese government on behalf of the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency to protest at the illegal trade in big cat skins centred on China and the farming of tigers for their pelts. Also, in response to a deluge of letters about the use of live primates in research I signed a Written Declaration in the European Parliament (the equivalent of an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons) to register my opposition to primate research.
I have finally entered the digital age and signed up for Facebook. It's certainly a novel way of linking people with similar (political) interests and developing campaigns. When I started out as a party activist pounding the streets was essentially the only way of connecting with voters directly. Nowadays it's so much easier thanks to the internet. All parties struggle to interest young people in politics and anything that reaches out to them – such as an initiative like WebCameron – is to be applauded. We are going to have to reorganise radically our approach as a party to campaigning in future because our membership is rapidly ageing and it's becoming increasingly difficult to get sufficient people out on the streets to deliver and canvass.
Beer we go again
One of the most gratifying aspects of my work is being able to help London companies wanting to trade with the rest of Europe. I was recently contacted by a brewery in Chiswick. The brewery complained about the various different types of alcohol warning labels which are now being mandated by various EU member states.
The lack of a single system across Europe is causing this company a significant increase in costs because one product might have to be packaged in several different ways. This is less of a problem for large multinationals but a serious obstacle for medium-sized companies. I agree with the brewery that this constitutes a restraint of trade in the EU single market and could potentially lead to pro tectionism. I have put a written question to the Commission and I look forward to the answer.
My London MEP colleague John Bowis has announced that he is to stand down as an MEP in 2009. Since his election to the European Parliament in 1999, John has earned a reputation as one of the most outstanding, committed and hard-working parliamentarians. I am proud to have served alongside John. I wish him and Caroline well as they look towards retirement, although I can't imagine John remaining inactive for long.
It was with much sadness that I learned of the death of Lord Bethell, who died in September. Nick Bethell was a man of outstanding integrity and intellect who served as a parliamentarian for the best part of forty years – first in the House of Lords and then as my colleague as an MEP.
A change of leadership
Giles Chichester, MEP for South West England, has been elected leader of the Conservative delegation in the European Parliament. A former chairman of the Industry & Research Committee, Giles is one of the European Parliament's foremost authorities on energy and the environment. I look forward to working with him.
European Friends of Israel
I recently attended the inauguration as the only UK MEP steering committee member of the new premises in Brussels of European Friends of Israel. EFI is an organization modelled on Conservative Friends of Israel. It aims to ensure that the debate surrounding Israel and Palestine is conducted in a balanced, informed and respectful way. It aims to cement the principles of democracy, peace and dialogue at the heart of an eventual two-state solution to the conflict.
Everybody needs good neighbours
The European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) sets out the EU's relations with countries on its periphery. As European Parliament rapporteur for the ENP's 'eastern dimension' I recently presented my report on the progress of this policy.
I made the point in my speech that the ENP should not be a long-term delaying tactic to thwart the EU membership ambitions of countries like Ukraine and Moldova. These countries are unquestionably European. Also, I tried to use the report as a platform for floating the idea that the EU should get closer to Kazakhstan, which has massive mineral resources, and is currently being courted by Russia and China. Linking Kazakhstan to Europe through the ENP would give us access to these resources and also help to push the country towards political reform. It is very important as well that Britain does not become overly dependent on Russian gas as a monopoly supplier as Russia has a habit of using its gas as an instrument of its assertive foreign policy.
Reselection for 2009
This is the last you'll hear from me for a little while. All MEPs seeking reselection (which includes me) to stand in 2009 are required to go into electoral 'purdah', meaning I am prohibited from contacting party members directly and attending Party functions until after the London Region reselection process is completed in March 2008. Nevertheless, I am proud to be submitting my candidature to stand again to represent our great city.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year
Finally, I would like to wish you and your families a wonderful Christmas and the very best in 2008.