A boost for Middle East peace
The quest for a lasting peace in the Middle East goes on. Although an agreement remains elusive, the European Parliament continues to support a two-state solution to the conflict, with Israel and a Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security. I am known as a staunch friend of our democratic ally Israel but I have always supported a two-state solution as the only just and practicable long term way out of the impasse.
I was therefore delighted to be asked by the prestigious London-based think-tank Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) to host a one-day conference in the European Parliament looking at ways to reinvigorate the peace process.
Our meeting was marked by frank and open dialogue. The participants included representatives of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, as well as diplomats from Middle East countries such as Egypt and Kuwait and officials from the EU External Action Service.
The conference was the prelude to a major ministerial-level follow-up event in London, which is due to take place later in the year. RUSI is to be congratulated for embarking upon such a bold and promising initiative, and I am glad to be playing my own small part in trying to construct a lasting peace in a key troubled region.
Foreign policy perspectives
I was invited to address a European-Atlantic Group dinner at the Carlton Club to discuss the upheaval in Egypt and neighbouring countries - events that have been called the Arab Spring, although that is perhaps something of an over-optimistic moniker.
I focused not only on the momentous political events taking place in the Middle East and North Africa but also on the EU's response. It is essential to work to stabilise these countries so that they do not become harbours for Islamist extremism. Supporting economic development is also vital including EIB loan finance, not least because it reduces migratory pressures that some EU member states have struggled to deal with in recent months, and would augment massively if say the Egyptian economy were to collapse.
Another recent speaking engagement was at Europe House, the new joint office of the European Parliament and European Commission in London. I was invited to talk about my role as Conservative foreign affairs spokesman in Brussels and in particular my interest in the Western Balkans. The high-level audience included several ambassadors in London of countries that I was talking about but I think I managed successfully not to offend anyone!
I also went into detail about MEPs' increased roles and responsibilities in the field of foreign affairs since the entry into force of the Lisbon treaty. One such responsibility is the approval and supervision of the budget of the EU External Action Service. The EU's foreign policy supremo, Baroness Ashton, has called for more money to fund the service. However, in this as in so many other areas of EU funding, we need to vigilant and firm and oppose any increases. The EU cannot continue to spend freely while Britain and other member states ate tightening their belts.
World-class research into blinding diseases
As a former NHS consultant myself, I am always interested in following medical innovations, particularly when they can help transform people's quality of life.
Blindness is one of the most feared health problems in our society. It also has profound socio-economic and public health implications, and has a strong age-related component. Currently, millions of people in the UK and across Europe are threatened by blinding untreatable eye diseases with an associated loss to the economy of several billion euros each year.
In June I hosted a mini-conference at the European Parliament in Brussels for eye specialists from all over the world, including London’s famed Moorfields Eye Hospital. The event was intended to provide information for devising and implementing EU 7 Framework Programme for Research programmes and projects in Europe for new therapeutic strategies including gene therapy to combat eye diseases that are currently difficult or impossible to treat. The meeting covered the most up-to-date scientific developments in this field, and sought to raise awareness in the EU institutions of the need for centres of excellence to be better supported and networked in order to share these developments for all patients’ benefit.
The meeting took place under the auspices of the EuroVisionNet project. The concept of EuroVisionNet is to coordinate and consolidate activities and policies in Europe in order to overcome a degree of national fragmentation (health provision is primarily a responsibility of member states, not the EU).
Supporting our armed forces in Libya and Afghanistan
The RAF is playing a vital role in enforcing a no-fly zone against the Libyan tyrant Colonel Gaddafi and his forces. Similarly, British soldiers are at the heart of efforts to stabilise Afghanistan, ten years after the West first intervened there.
With so many servicemen and women coming from the London region, I take a particular interest in these conflicts and the welfare of our troops. I have long been concerned that British forces - along with our American allies - have tended to bear a disproportionate share of the fighting burden in Afghanistan.
At the recent NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Bulgaria I was able to express my concerns to parliamentarians from the 28 member states of the Alliance. I am a vice-chairman of the European Parliament's delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.
I felt somewhat vindicated when I saw that the outgoing US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, expressed his own concerns about the widening gap in military capability and spending between the US and other NATO members. He said that NATO risked becoming a military irrelevance and warned that the US could one day walk away from NATO because of a lack of political will among European countries.
This is a difficult issue that Europe needs to grasp before it's too late although I don't think his remarks were aimed at the UK, which generally spends more of defence than countries of a similar size. It would be tragic if NATO, which has been the foundation of transatlantic security for 60 years, is allowed to atrophy because of political sensibilities in Europe. Yet I can't help feeling that this process reflects the influence of the Left across Europe, which has always resented America's role as a guarantor of European security. It must be resisted with determination and fortitude.
After Bulgaria I travelled west to Macedonia, a country whose EU ambitions I have long championed. Macedonia has been a candidate for EU membership for several years but is locked in a dispute with Greece over its official name.
Like many of the new democracies in the Balkans, Macedonia is generally making strong progress but it remains vulnerable to occasional political instability.
Earlier this year the opposition boycotted parliament. In response, the governing coalition, led by the VMRO-DPMNE party - the Conservatives' sister party - called an early election. I was asked by the former Foreign Minister Antonio Milošoski to travel to Macedonia during the election campaign to help show voters that our sister party has strong supporters and connections internationally.
I travelled extensively all over this small but pretty country, meeting voters and campaigning for our allied party. I am pleased to say that the ruling coalition secured a victory in the polls and has consolidated Macedonia's Western-oriented foreign policy. Greg Hands MP Chairs the Friendship Group in the House of Commons and we coordinate our help to this small but friendly country
Backing our region's businesses
I'm partial to the odd beer now and again so I was very pleased to receive an invitation to visit the Fuller's brewery in Chiswick, the largest independent in London. This family business has been going strong for 300 years and remains highly successful.
During my trip around the company's hi-tech facilities I discussed with the managerial team the problems that Fuller's could experience if there is any erosion of the UK's opt-out from the EU's Working Time Directive. Like many companies, Fuller's wants to have maximum flexibility and to give its employees the chance to do overtime if they want to. Several EU member states are pushing for the EU's opt-out to be scrapped but I am glad that the coalition government is leading a blocking minority in the Council of Ministers
I also recently visited the Tate & Lyle Plant in Newham. Tate & Lyle has traditionally imported sugar cane from outside the EU as its principal raw material, whereas its competitors in Europe refine sugar beet grown in the EU. Sugar beet farmers in the EU benefit from guaranteed prices but imported sugar cane is even more expensive because it's subject to protectionist tariffs under the EU Sugar Regime.
I'm right behind Tate & Lyle. Subsidies distributed under the EU's Common Agricultural Policy account for around 40 per cent of EU spending, which is scandalous at any time but particularly during a time of austerity. Conservatives are pushing for wholesale reform of the CAP and Sugar Regime as part of the negotiation of the EU's next medium-term budget.
A new Conservative MEP
David Campbell Bannerman MEP left UKIP in May and re-joined the Conservative Party. In doing so he took the Conservative whip and joined the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR), which is now the fourth-equal largest political group in the European Parliament.
David is an old friend of mine from the days before he joined UKIP and we recently debated jointly with the Bow Group in the House of Commons on what will become of the Eurozone following the Greek debt crisis. When I knew he was dissatisfied with UKIP's direction and lack of political impact I encouraged him to cross the floor and helped engineer the practical steps of his defection. It's therefore very gratifying that David's move has bolstered both the UK Conservative delegation and the ECR Group. A constant priority for me is to seek out new MEPs and allied parties as I travel across Europe.
Healing the scars of conflict in Cyprus
The Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus (CMP) is a non-political organisation that seeks to help Cypriots find out what happened to their relatives who disappeared in inter-communal violence in the 1960s and 1970s - a period of conflict that culminated in the Turkish invasion and occupation of the northern part of Cyprus in 1974.
The CMP, which is backed financially by the EU and UN, works to locate burial sites, recover and identify human remains and return those remains to families for a dignified burial. The CMP's work, therefore, is vital in the context of reconciliation between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.
I co-sponsored with my London MEP colleague Marina Yannakoudakis an initiative in the European Parliament called a Written Declaration, which is effectively a statement of the Parliament's policy on a particular issue. Our Written Declaration was essentially an expression of support for the CMP and its work.
Very few Written Declarations ever gather the requisite number of signatures (50 per cent + 1 of all MEPs) to be adopted. However, thanks to broad support from all the main political groups in the Parliament, the Written Declaration was adopted. I'm very proud that we managed to gain the backing of a majority, and I hope the CMP's work will continue to help bring truth and understanding to the beautiful but still divided island of Cyprus.
Welcoming South Sudan to the family of nations
The declaration of independence by the newly-minted nation of South Sudan on 9 July is the culmination of a long struggle for freedom by its people. For much of the past fifty years, the Arab, Islamist theocratic regime in Khartoum has waged merciless war against the African Christians and animists in the south.
A peace deal agreed in 2005 promised southerners a referendum on independence in 2011. Unsurprisingly, 99 per cent of voters chose a future as a sovereign state. In June I spoke in a debate in the European Parliament calling on the EU to make South Sudan a priority for humanitarian and political support. I have no doubt that President Bashir of Sudan - a man indicted by the International Criminal Court on genocide charges for atrocities in Darfur - remains a grave threat to its nascent neighbour. Another war in Sudan would be a catastrophe of unthinkable proportions. British politicians given its former status as our colony have a special responsibility to support this fragile new African nation.
A voice for Britain’s overseas territories in Europe
My interest in foreign affairs extends not only to the world’s great powers and political conflicts but to the less well-known – some would even say forgotten – parts of the world. I was therefore intrigued to receive an invitation to the open day of the European Overseas Countries and Territories Association, an organisation that seeks to lobby the EU on behalf of the self-governing territories under the sovereignty of an EU member state. Almost all of these territories are tiny and fairly remote islands.
Britain’s Overseas Territories are remnants of the British Empire. They include Montserrat, Anguilla, British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Falkland Islands, Pitcairn, St. Helena and the Turks and Caicos Islands. France and the Netherlands account for most of the rest, although Greenland – officially part of Denmark – is also a member of this club. All in all, the EOCTA encompasses twenty territories.
Strictly speaking this is not a foreign policy issue at all, because the external policies of these territories are managed by the member states claiming sovereignty. However, in Britain’s case at least, the British Overseas Territories are encouraged to assume the maximum possible responsibility for their own affairs.
It was a fascinating occasion and I learned a lot, in particular about how the UK Overseas Territories Association (UKOTA), the UK branch of the European umbrella organization, is trying to raise awareness in the EU institutions of the development challenges facing our tiny overseas outposts.
By sheer coincidence, during this open day I met the Chief Minister of Montserrat, which only stoked my interest more. I have now agreed to become a European Parliamentary adviser to UKOTA and to do my bit to support these territories, which want both to manage their own affairs and keep their loyalty to the Crown.