“Countries are different. They make different choices. We cannot harmonise everything” So said the Prime Minister in a strong speech made 23rd January at Bloomberg, outlining the case for a major reform of Europe.
Since that speech David Cameron has made European reform something of a personal mission, and indeed a Conservative promise.
It is an item at the top of the Conservative party agenda. Last week in Manchester we heard many references to it. William Hague speaking on Sunday: “Governments across Europe are talking about power coming back to the countries of Europe.”
Boris Johnson praised Mr Cameron as the only ‘statesman’ in Europe capable of reforming the EU. And Martin Callanan MEP, leader of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group in the European Parliament, reiterated Conservative MEPs’ determination to deliver radical reform of the EU. “We don’t go to Brussels to be popular” he said. “We go to defend the interests of our constituents and our country. Sometimes that means standing alone.”
So far so good. A policy that is popular within the party, amongst the wider electorate and, it seems, finding increasing favour across Europe.
So it comes as something of a surprise to find that a party eager to wrestle powers back from the EU is seemingly in cahoots with the European Commission on a Directive running its course through Brussels right now.
Tomorrow the European Parliament votes on revisions to the Tobacco Products Directive. The original 2001 Directive set out to regulate the manufacture, presentation and sale of tobacco products in the Member states of the EU. In 2010, the EU held a public consultation on possible revisions to the TPD. Despite the fact that 96 per cent of those responding to the consultation opposed the revisions that were being proposed to the directive, the Commission decided that wide-ranging changes were needed.
Amongst other things, the directive proposes to ban menthol cigarettes, ban slim cigarettes, ban packs of ten cigarettes, ban small pouches of hand rolling tobacco, ban all packets of cigarettes not conforming to standardised dimensions and proposes an increase in health warnings to cover 65% of the front and back of packs.
Increased health warnings? Standardised pack size and shape? Sounds a lot like plain packaging, doesn’t it? Plain packaging has, as people know, been recently rejected by the UK government on the grounds of insufficient evidence (that, and the fact that two thirds of the 668,000 people responding to the consultation opposed the policy). There is no ban on menthols in the UK (or, indeed, any member state across Europe). There is no ban on slims anywhere in Europe. Three quarters of all hand-rolling tobacco sold in the UK is currently bought in the smaller pouches that the EU wants to ban.
And since when was public health a competence of the EU? The last time I looked at the Treaty it was very clear that member states of the European Union have responsibility for their own health policies – not the EU. Talk about EU mission creep!
So why is it that a party that declares so regularly and passionately about the need for European reform and a government that has itself rejected plain packaging until the evidence in Australia is clearer, is operating behind the scenes to introduce the very same policy?
Labour MEP Linda MacAvan has made available the letter from Jeremy Hunt that has been sent to all Conservative MEPs. In it he clearly states the UK government’s (and therefore presumably the Prime Minister’s) support of the EU plans. Yes really. In his letter he could not be clearer:
“Ahead of the plenary vote on the proposal for a revised Tobacco Products Directive on 8 October, I wanted to set out how important I think this legislation is to improve public health and protect young people from the harms of tobacco”. And: “The UK Government considers the revised Tobacco Products Directive to be crucial to more effective tobacco control across the EU.”
Quite how this fits with the Conservative party’s public stance on Europe is anybody’s guess. It will be interesting to see Conservative MEPs explain to voters on the doorsteps across the next few months how the Conservative party’s decision to hand over public health policy matters to the EU sits with its leader’s commitment to curtail the powers of Europe.
But that is what it appears they will be forced to do. Mr Hunt’s message to MEPs appears to have been listened to. At least by some. Tens of thousands of letters have been sent by constituents to their MPS and MEPS stating their opposition to the revisions to this EU Directive organised through the No Thank EU campaign website.
In replies forwarded to the campaign by supporters several Conservative MEPs have said this (or something similar): “Reducing the harm caused by smoking is a public health priority for the Government and, as such, the UK Government supports the prohibition on characterising flavours.”
If this is indeed the case, then one wonders why no UK government (of any colour) during various tobacco control policy considerations has ever sought to ban menthols? Why indeed, did this UK Government spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayers on a consultation on plain packaging, if in fact its main concern is menthol flavouring?
Fortunately, and in the interests of balance, some Conservative MEPs appear to have rejected the official government advice on this issue. This from one particularly forthright Conservative MEP: “I hope that these proposals will be considered carefully by all members. I shall be voting against them and supporting amendments to remove menthol, slim and e-cigarettes from the legislation.”
And this from another: “Furthermore, I agree with you that the EU really has no right to regulate the type of products on sale in the United Kingdom. I believe the regulation on sale of tobacco products in the UK should be solely a matter for the British Government.”
Thank goodness for some consistency in approach. So we wait to see what happens at the vote in Strasbourg on Tuesday. Will Conservative MEPs vote to enhance EU powers on public health, or vote for the amendments that keep such decision-making powers firmly within the UK? Should MEPs vote to support the EU power-grab, it will fuel yet more support for UKIP which is against both the policies in the directive and (obviously) the EU taking more responsibility.
Of course, it should be said that Conservative MEPs have the UK Government (and two Conservative ministers in particular) to thank for the situation they find themselves in. In his letter to MEPs Jeremy Hunt states: “I was pleased that member states were able to agree their position on the Directive in June”.
What he fails to mention is that member states were only able to agree a position because of the interventions of Conservative Minister Anna Soubry who acted in defiance of the Westminster’s European Scrutiny Committee when she attended the meeting in Luxembourg to negotiate on behalf of the UK at a meeting of European ministers. Furthermore, and in her own words, UK government support for the European Commission’s proposals at that meeting was decisive in securing a ‘general approach’ amongst member states:
“Four member states – Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Poland and Romania were unable to offer their support, which meant that the UK’s support (of the Tobacco Products Directive) was decisive in forming a qualified majority”.
So we have a European Directive that has still to be scrutinised and debated by Westminster Parliament being not just supported, but actively driven forward, by UK Conservative ministers.
Are these really the actions of a party determined to claim powers back from Europe? Or is it, as it appears, the Conservative ministers saying one thing in public and doing quite the opposite behind the closed doors of Brussels?