Syed Kamall is MEP for London, leader of Britain’s Conservative MEPs and chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group. This is his first monthly letter to ConHome readers, succeeding that previously written by Martin Callanan.
It has been an eventful few months. First, we had the European elections, where as Leader of the Conservative MEPs, I campaigned with my MEP colleagues across the country to deliver our message of reform, renegotiation and referendum. No sooner had the results been declared, we were into the European Parliament’s “transfer window”, where different political groups seek to woo the newly elected MEPs. I am delighted to say that the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) Group came out of that process greatly strengthened as the third largest group in the parliament. Then I was, rather unexpectedly, elected as Leader of the ECR Group.
As Leader, my responsibilities have been considerably widened. I represent the interests of 70 MEPs from 15 states, 19 of whom are British Conservatives. The various ECR parties have come together because of general shared principles and views about the future development of Europe, but we are also strengthened by the different perspectives brought by the large number of countries in the group.
We are greatly strengthened, but there is still an ostrich-like business as usual mentality among many in the EU establishment. The boys’ club that rallies against change, even now, has its own ‘exclusive’ EU sash, which MEPs have been invited to purchase. I opted not to spend the 120 or so Euros for the privilege!
There are people who are so obsessed with the rightness of their cause that they fail to see the mounting evidence to the contrary and they fail to hear the calls for change in the EU. These are the same people who railed against the creation of the ECR Group, and sought to undermine or pillory the group from the outset.
But we have shown that the ECR is a growing force. We have pushed the federalist Alliance of Liberal and Democrats of Europe group, where the Lib Dems’ single MEP sits, into fourth place, much to the horror of those who were predicting the demise of the ECR in the weeks before the May elections.
The European People’s Party (the group that David Cameron pulled us out of in 2009 to create the ECR) and the Socialists group are now joined in a unholy alliance to protect the status quo. This ensured that their favoured candidates, Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz, were appointed to the key positions in the European Commission and the European Parliament. With the two largest groups seeking to form a de facto coalition (which probably won’t survive for long), it falls to the third group – the ECR – to offer an alternative vision.
Much of the credit for the strong position of the ECR should go to my predecessor Martin Callanan, a close friend and impressive politician, who sadly just missed out on being re-elected in the recent European elections. His hard work over the past five years is now bearing fruit, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank him and wish him well. The ECR would not be the force it is today without Martin.
With our new, stronger, position in the European Parliament, I am convinced that we can provide an alternative to those people who are fanatical about federalism to the point that they cannot understand how people might want something different.
I have said repeatedly that we should be reshaping an EU of member states to face the challenges of the 2050s, not one that harks back to a dream from the 1950s of a federal United States of Europe. When it came to the parliamentary vote on Jean-Claude Juncker for Commission President, we took the view that he represents that old style of politics and, as he said to MEPs, he is fully committed to “more Europe”.
We could not vote for him for it is precisely the blind faith in “more Europe” that has led to economic malaise, misery for tens of millions of Europeans and popular disenchantment with a Europe that is increasingly remote and out of touch.
Mr Juncker and his colleagues have a view of democracy I find troubling. During the debates on the abortive European Constitution, he famously said of the various referenda taking place in a number of European countries: “If it’s a Yes we will say ‘on we go’. If it’s a No, we will say ‘we continue’.”
When the Constitution was ultimately rejected, its main provisions were simply re-introduced via the Lisbon treaty that conveniently did not require popular votes.
However, we will not subscribe to the UKIP strategy of obstructing and derailing negotiations for the sake of it. We will continue to stand up for our constituents by engaging in the legislative process to amend, or block, damaging or silly proposals.
But, it is not just about stopping proposals or opposing, but also about showing a positive way forward for the UK’s future relationship with the European Union. For example, the ECR will focus on completing the Single Market, the “Common Market” that the British people signed up to in the 1970s. The Single Market should bring many benefits for a trading nation like Britain, but unfortunately, it has increasingly become an excuse to come up with “one size fits all” harmonised, rigid, inflexible laws and rules that stifle growth and the creation of jobs, rather than encourage healthy competition.
That is why I want the European Commission, the European Council (representing the EU’s 28 member states) and my colleagues in the European Parliament to focus on stripping away red tape, completing the digital single market, removing transport bottle necks, making the EU budget work for its citizens, not its vested interests, and signing up to ambitious free trade agreements with the US, Japan and growing economies.
When a Conservative government is re-elected, the Prime Minister has promised that the British people will be given the chance to vote in a referendum to decide whether or not we wish to see the UK continue to be a member of the European Union. This gives Conservative ministers more than two full years to try and secure meaningful changes to our relationship with Europe, and also significant changes within the EU that will benefit everyone.
If we can secure those changes, then David Cameron will be able to recommend, in good faith, that the British people should vote to stay in. If, however, Mr Juncker and those that share his vision of “more Europe” refuse to allow any significant change, the British people will still have their say.
Until then, the ECR, of which the British Conservatives are such an important part, will continue to offer a realistic and constructive alternative. We owe it to our country, and some would say to Europe, to succeed.