Ashley Fox is the leader of Britain’s Conservative MEPs and an MEP for South West England.
In turbulent times, three major issues vie for contention as top talking point in the corridors, coffee bars and committee rooms of Brussels. Greece, the Mediterranean refugee crisis and Britain’s renegotiation and referendum proposals – these are top of the agenda and likely to remain so for some time yet, however they each pan out.
On the Mediterranean crisis, our Prime Minister was in a relatively comfortable diplomatic position at the recent Brussels summit. As other member states such as Italy and Hungary tore lumps off one another in heated verbal battle over refugee quotas and so-called burden-sharing, we were able to stand back. Even if the rest of Europe were to accept mandatory quotas, with each country taking a proportion of refugees crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa, then it would not apply to the UK. We have an opt out. If we are at any point to take a greater share than we already do of the world’s refugees, then it will because we decide so rather than because of an order from the EU. Long may it remain so.
On Greece, as I write the Brussels political elite is still reeling from the No vote, and the Athens has been told to produce some fresh proposals to bring to this weekend’s emergency EU summit. A puzzled Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker told our Strasbourg plenary session on Tuesday that he did not know what the Greek people meant by their vote. I think I can tell him – they meant “No”.
Yesterday, Alexis Tsipras, the Greek Prime Minister, came to address the parliament and I was able to offer him my analysis best advice. I observed that not only did Greece fiddle their economic statistics in order to join the Euro, but the other states knew they were a fiction.
“Now the Euro isn’t working – and nor are millions of young people in Greece and across Europe,” I said. “Greece is bankrupt, and it would be best if Eurozone states admitted this to their taxpayers. Mr Tsipras, your behaviour suggests you know Greece has to leave the Euro, but you don’t want to admit it. You are waiting to be kicked out so you can play the martyr. I recommend you negotiate an orderly exit from the Euro which is the best chance Greece has of recovering.”
I got the impression the advice fell on stony ground. As for new Greek proposals, one wag has suggested they will eventually be just like the old ones but written in different-coloured crayons.
There are still some about this place and even in Westminster who think a solution can be found that keeps Greece in the Euro. But I believe that in any economic test of confidence, when people start queuing outside banks for their money the game is up. Ever since the Greeks elected a hard left government on a “can’t-pay, won’t pay” manifesto, things were destined to end something like this. That famous can, for so long metaphorically kicked further down the road, seems finally to have been booted up a blind alley.
And it was the Eurozone governments who hoofed it there, by suspending support for the liquidity of Greek banks and then setting the Sunday deadline. You know, referendums and democracy never do win much popularity in Brussels. In fairness, the negotiating style of Prime Minister Tsipras and his former Finance Minister Varoufakis have seemed calculated to provoke.
What needs to be made clear to the Greek people is that in Sunday’s referendum, they faced a once-only choice at a fork in the road. They chose as a nation to set their face against playing by the Eurozone’s rules. I believe that means they must now leave it, and make the most of what comes next.
For the rest of the Eurozone, the problem is the awkward truth laid bare by this whole debacle: that a currency union can only exist with hefty and permanent fiscal transfers from richer to poorer states. Politicians in many of the wealthier countries have been less than frank with their voters about this; now they have no choice.
On the final major issue, Britain’s renegotiation and referendum, we are on our way. David Cameron fired the official starting gun in Brussels during the Summit dinner, but only after seeing every one of his fellow EU leaders individually to ensure they understood what we are seeking and why. The message that we Conservative MEPs keep reinforcing in our contacts with other nationalities and other political groups is that Britain is not demanding these changes as some sort of special dispensation or favour to the UK, we are promoting these reforms because they are what is needed for the whole of Europe.
Measures to tackle benefits tourism, fairness across Eurozone and non-Euro countries, increased competitiveness in the global race, more power for national parliaments and “no” to ever-closer union. These are clear and forward-looking reforms we think will deliver an EU worth being in – for all the member states, not just us.
Much was made of David Cameron’s short speech outlining our position as a welcome break from the raised voices of the increasingly fractious talks on the Mediterranean crisis. I believe it is evidence of progress he has already made that an agenda once regarded as explosive and divisive is now seen as the best opportunity to restore some calm.
By some reports, the Prime Minister only spent about ten minutes presenting our case – but it is what you achieve with a message that counts, not how long your spend delivering it.
Inevitably, we then had the EU Council’s President Donald tusk cautioning that the EU’s principles were non-negotiable. Well, we fully endorse the principles of open trade, a single market in goods and services, and also freedom of movement to work – but not freedom to claim benefits. We believe it is important we talk about practicalities and not just principles.
This is the start of the process, not the end. We made our voice heard – calm and determined – in a noisy room. And my hunch is that with the support of his Conservative MEPs the Prime Minister can move things a long way before a new deal is put to the British people in referendum.
My hope is that people inside and outside our party let him get on with the job of detailed negotiation without setting him deliberately unattainable targets, without bewildering him with contradictory advice, without any swaggering talk of holding feet to the fire.
Our Prime Minister deserves this much – and so does our country.
One final word, if I may, about my colleague Syed Kamall, who has declared he will run to be the next mayor of London. We will miss him if he leaves our ranks. We will miss his leadership, good humour and sound political judgment. But I wish him success because I believe he is the type of true Tory our party needs and that London deserves. He may be less well known than other candidates – so far – but as London’s Conservatives and voters in general get to know him better, I predict they will like what they see.