Syed Kamall is Chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group and is an MEP for London.
It is slightly strange being a Brit in the European institutions right now. In some ways, it is still business as usual, with Conservative MEPs continuing to debate and scrutinise legislation as we deliver on our manifesto commitments. But, following the referendum result, we are also in an almost surreal “pre-match phase”, in whuch the EU and the UK seem to be doing the diplomatic version of the New Zealand rugby team’s Haka, before the real match begins.
Many people across the remaining EU27 want to see an orderly and fair transition for the UK from reluctant tenant to friendly neighbour. At the moment, these people are not interesting enough to the media to make the headlines. Instead, the stories are about those in the UK who are either trying to block Brexit, or who want to see an almost immediate exit from the EU, as well as those in other EU countries who want to teach us a lesson, and send a warning shot across the bow of other countries that might dare to follow.
In my regular meetings with Ministers and MEPs from across the EU, I have sought to explain that it is in everyone’s interests that we take this time now to prepare the detail of how that future relationship may look. Not just from the UK perspective, but from the EU side as well. As a senior MEP told me: “we cannot yet negotiate, but we can discuss.”
This week, I and other group leaders met with Michel Barnier, the European Commission negotiator on Brexit. He has been touring the capitals of the 27 other EU countries to try and establish a clear common position. Although he is sometimes painted by some sections of the media as a French pantomime villain, I have always found him to be a reasonable person who, while committed to the European project of political integration, is methodical and willing to listen. Of course, we will not always agree, but we could do a lot worse for negotiators across the table.
Meanwhile in the European Parliament, the coffee bar gossip has turned to the election of a new President of the Parliament in January. The German Socialist incumbent Martin Schulz has decided to move to German politics and possibly run against Angela Merkel for the post of Chancellor. I have a good personal relationship with Schulz, but he will leave behind him a European Parliament that is much more divided than before, and that is at least in part because of the way he has handled his Presidency, seeking to pre-cook major decisions among himself and four other men – the President and Vice-President of the Commission, and the leaders of the EPP and Socialist groups. This impression that the European Parliament was a remote, back-room institution only grew under his Presidency, and MEPs (and the people they represent) from many parts of the EU, and different parts of the political spectrum, were shut out completely.
During the last few elections, the President of the Parliament has been chosen by a stitch-up between the two biggest groups, but this time could be different. The EPP will soon announce their candidate, and this week the Socialists’ leader, Gianni Pittella, put himself forward too. The Liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt is also likely to run, meaning the outcome of this election – for once – might actually be decided at a ballot box, rather than in a back room.
The ECR Group was the first to nominate our candidate – the brilliant Helga Stevens from our Flemish NVA party. Helga represents the change the European Parliament needs, and so if anyone from another EU country is reading this, I urge you to contact your MEP and tell them to vote for Helga! You can read her platform here.
Meanwhile, against these backdrops, Conservative MEPs have also been active and still playing a major role in the daily work of the parliament. For example, Julie Girling led through a new law on improving air quality, which seek to tackle major pollutants in a balanced and sensible way until 2030. Strangely the Green group voted against improvements in air quality. No, I don’t get it either.
Dan Dalton is leading a revision on the rules called type approval – which all new cars must meet. Vicky Ford is working flat out to bring sense to EU-wide gun laws that were poorly drafted, in a knee-jerk reaction to shootings. Vicky has made it clear that the new rules should seek to tackle the illegal trade in weapons used for terrorism, but they must not target legitimate owners, hobbyists and sportsmen.
Why is all this important if we are leaving? Because these laws are still likely to affect British people and companies in some way after we leave the EU. So whilst we are doing what we can to assist the Government and smooth relations in the Brexit pre-talks, we will continue to do our day jobs, in standing up for British interests, up to the point we leave.