Martin Callanan MEP is Chairman of the European Conservatives. This is his monthly letter to ConHome readers. Follow the ECR Group on Twitter.
Malcolm Harbour CBE
I wish you all a belated Happy New Year. For my West Midlands colleague Malcolm Harbour it was a happy occasion as he was finally able to inform us of his CBE in the New Years list for services to British business. Nobody could argue that Malcolm hasn't worked tirelessly to extend and complete the EU's Single Market. As Dan Hannan wrote on his blog, "Unusually for a politician, he is more interested in understanding detail than in striking poses. He is rarely happier than when mastering a complex issue – the minutiae of EU copyright and patenting rules, say - and then putting that expertise at the service of British industry. He is also, for want of a more precise term, a jolly nice fellow…" Congratulations to Malcolm.
In the European Parliament we had a relatively light agenda, with most of the conversations focused on our Prime Minister's Amsterdam speech. More about the content later but what surprised me about the build-up was the number of MEPs that made the effort to come up to me with a sympathetic position and a willingness to discuss the UK's call for a different relationship. Unfortunately, when it came to the chamber of the parliament it was a different story…
'Future of Europe'
The parliament has held a number of key-note debates with European leaders around the subject of the 'Future of Europe'. Next month we have the joy of listening to President Hollande but because he is a Head of State, it is not yet clear whether group leaders will be given a right of reply to his speech. I do hope so. I have a few things to say to him. However this month it was another socialist, the Chancellor of Austria's turn and, as a simple Head of Government, we were given the opportunity to respond to his speech. Unsurprisingly it was something of a socialist wish list for Europe: the importance of 'solidarity', shared management of European debt, a European Youth Guarantee of employment, a Financial Transaction Tax, blah, blah, blah…..
Instead of giving the Austrian Chancellor the respect of addressing his speech, the Belgian Liberal Group leader Guy Verhofstadt decided to launch a tirade against David Cameron for a speech he hadn't yet delivered. Verhofstadt's position was quite clear: "only with a more integrated Europe can we face these challenges, and not with individual renegotiations by one or other Member State of the Union." Thankfully he ranks as probably one of the most obsessively and dogmatically federalist MEPs in the chamber so not every MEP agrees with him. In fact many MEPs in his own group struggle with him at times, but we rarely hear a peep from the Liberal Democrat MEPs who, as the largest party in the group, should surely be reining in some of his federalist ambitions?
In my speech I said that the problem with the EU is that the very model of a one-size-fits-all ever-closer union was outdated. The Euro crisis has brought this situation to a head and the only way the EU can survive is with a much more flexible model where politicians start from the assumption that they are as much a part of the problem as they are the solution. You can watch the whole speech here.
Speaking of socialist wish lists, the parliament adopted a resolution on a proposal to create a Youth Guarantee. Essentially this would mean that young people who cannot find a job within four months of leaving education should have the right to employment or training. It's of course well-meaning, and such schemes have had varying levels of success in some Scandinavian countries but my fear is that, once again, our response to the unemployment crisis is yet more red tape which risks only exacerbating it. My Czech ECR colleague Milan Cabrnoch put it best when he said, "Unfortunately, the increasing regulation is acting as an obstacle for businesses. It complicates the creation of new jobs. The labour market needs to increase its flexibility and new regulatory measures should not interfere." It seems that the proposal will be voluntary for national governments to decide, but of course there will be plenty of pressure from European socialists to make it mandatory.
Another somewhat utopian report passed last week was one that sets out options for the introduction of eurobonds, or some kind of mechanism that will mutualise the debts of the eurozone. Unsurprisingly, most German MEPs voted against all of the options, as did we, and the report was only supported by 55 percent of the parliament, including Labour and LibDem MEPs. As my Belgian colleague Derk Jan Eppink said: "If we follow the road map of Ms Goulard (the French Liberal draftsman of the report), the EU will be in the same position as Belgium now: a transfer economy whose political foundations are crumbling because solidarity became a one-way street."
But it wasn't all socialist and federalist wish lists in the parliament.
On Wednesday morning we held a debate with the Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny to mark the start of Ireland's time in the chair of the Council of Ministers – the so-called Presidency. Of course Mr Kenny is from the EPP so there was a fair bit of playing to the gallery that you would expect in a speech to MEPs. However, as someone who is half Irish myself, I also heard a lot of the kind of down to earth common sense that you expect. The Taoiseach has rightly worked out that there's going to be little to no progress made on the eurozone in the coming months thanks to German and Italian elections. So he's charged his Presidency with delivering an agenda of 'jobs, growth and stability'. There's quite a bit in their programme that sounds positive and that you would find in a David Cameron speech: delivering a digital single market, reforming procurement to help small businesses, increasing the number of free trade deals, including with the USA etc. In my speech to Mr Kenny I said that, "Our peoples want to see Europe making a difference in those areas where it can genuinely add value. What they do not want to see is more institutional navel-gazing or theological blueprints for deepening Economic and Monetary Union." I also reminded the Chamber that one real reason why the Irish economy is doing comparatively better than the other PIIGS is because of its lower corporate tax rates. Watch the speech here
An update on the long-running saga that is the European Parliament's calendar. You'll all recall that in 2011 my colleague Ashley Fox was able to build a wide coalition in favour of placing the parliament's two October sessions in Strasbourg into one week – thus meaning that we could fulfil the EU treaties by holding 12 sessions in Strasbourg but with only 11 trips. Unfortunately at the end of last year the European Court upheld an objection raised by France, meaning that this year we have had to revert to 12 sessions, including two return trips in October. Annoyingly the President of the parliament warned us that he would rule as inadmissible any further amendments that sought to change the length of a parliamentary sitting, making it impossible for us to move any further amendments. Just before the vote, I called on the President to share this legal opinion, and to postpone a vote on the new calendar so that we could study our options more fully. Despite a supportive speech from a Scandinavian socialist, the parliament rejected my proposal. It's a setback in our campaign, but the battle goes on and anybody who has yet to sign Ashley Fox's petition is invited to go to http://www.stopthestrasbourgcircus.com/
And finally a few comments on #thespeech. I'd travelled to Amsterdam on Friday to support the PM but I wasn't able to be in London on Wednesday because of a packed diary. Nevertheless I was pleased to host a small screening in the parliament for ECR MEPs and some journalists, which enabled a number of British and non-British media outlets to gain immediate reaction from us following the speech and the supportive words of myself and my colleagues Nirj Deva and Vicky Ford featured on a number of broadcasts across Europe. Our little gathering even featured on the BBC One and Six o'clock news, with supportive reactions from Jan Zahradil, the ECR group's Czech Vice-President. You can watch it (and the usual negative waffle from Liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt) here.
My overall impression of the speech was positive and I was pleased that a lot of the language used by the PM re Europe's collapse in competitiveness, and the need for a more flexible EU, is what I've been saying in the parliament for some time. The PM even called for a dedicated Single Market Council, which I called for just last week in the Irish Presidency speech.
Clearly public disenchantment with the EU is now at such a high that it is only right that we ask the people what they think and that we have a debate about what kind of future we want. There are a number of other countries that do not want to move closer and closer towards a federal Europe – some inside the euro and some outside. What David Cameron has started is not the great disintegration of the EU that people like Guy Verhofstadt threaten but the end to the notion that there is only one way that the ratchet of integration can turn. For federalists such a move will elicit shrieks and cries. But for those of us who want a different type of relationship with a different type of EU, it is a welcome development.