Syed Kamall is Chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group and is an MEP for London.
I have always enjoyed Conservative Party Conference – from meeting friends old and new to taking part in fringe debates. This year’s was no exception, with a huge amount of discussion about where we need to go next to make the most out of Brexit. As I said in my speech in the main conference hall, Labour’s conference was about the future of their party, but our conference was about the future of our country.
As well as my main speech, I hosted a fringe meeting with allies from the ECR Group on where the EU – without the UK – should go from here. The panel featured Timo Soini, Finland’s Foreign Minister, along with Sander Loones MEP, vice-chairman of Flanders’ biggest party, the NVA, and conference stalwart Jan Zahradil MEP from the Czech ODS. Two things struck me about what they were saying: first, that the UK must not be punished for Brexit, and that it is in the interests of both the UK and EU to seek a deal that is as close and open as possible; and, second, that our referendum (alongside EU referendum results in the Netherlands, Denmark and Hungary in recent months) needs to be seen as a real wake-up call for the EU to change.
Sadly, it seems that this message of change is still not getting through the insulated walls of the European institutions. Whether in last month’s set-piece State of the Union debate, or in more recent debates, there has been no sense that anything had changed. The EU elite tell us that the UK was clearly in the wrong to vote to leave. They blame us for the fact that Le Pen and Wilders are knocking at the door of power, and that the rise of Euroscepticism is the fault of “populists and demagogues”, not that of mainstream political parties which have failed to address the genuine concerns of their voters.
The EPP Christian Democrat group believes it has now come up with a real winner to get us to love the EU: to give a free interrail pass to every 18 year old as a birthday present. That’s right: it seems that the EU can reconnect to people by giving richer middle class kids free summer holidays backpacking around the Dordogne at enormous cost to the European taxpayer. For a group that lambasts populism at every turn, it fails to see the irony, or why unemployed youth in some EU countries might have higher priorities, such as getting a job.
The EU’s response offers the ECR Group a great opportunity. Yes, it will eventually lose British MEPs who make up one of its larger delegations when we leave, but it very clearly still has a great purpose – to offer people an alternative to the status quo, and to push for deeper reform of the EU. We are currently working on the ECR’s platform for the second half of the parliamentary term, and it will be a clear rallying call for all of those people and all of those parties across the EU that share our belief that – after Brexit – the EU really has to change to decentralise, and to be more flexible whilst treating all of its Member States equally and fairly.
As well as working on this new purpose for the ECR Group, I have also been doing what I can to act as an interlocutor between the EU and the new government. The EU now has its key negotiators in place, and Michel Barnier of the Commission and Guy Verhofstadt of the Parliament have caused waves in London. I know both pretty well and whilst we don’t generally share the same vision for the EU (and I was very unhappy at the way in which Verhofstadt was appointed), I actually find both of them to be generally quite pragmatic behind the scenes. We can do business with them both. If you want more information on Brexit and the options available to us, download my newly-launched Pocket Guide to Brexit.
In the Brussels bubble, MEPs are starting to turn their thoughts to who will be the next President of the European Parliament. The incumbent Martin Schulz is looking at an unprecedented third term. My colleague Ashley Fox has suggested that the Parliament’s rules be changed to prevent this, and the ECR Group has this week nominated Helga Stevens, a Flemish MP, to be our candidate. Last week, Helga hosted a massive event in the main parliament chamber bringing together over a thousand deaf people from across Europe. It was the first time that all of the EU’s spoken and sign languages were together in one room. She is liked and respected across the entire Parliament, and I truly believe she would be an excellent and much fairer President.
Finally, I learned a new bit of Eurospeak this week. While EU politicians keep telling me that there can be no pre-negotiations before Article 50 is invoked, one influential individual told me that we are still able to “communicate” before then. So, that’s clear then. I shall be communicating, not pre-negotiating with them (and you) as we approach the date of Article 50 being triggered.