Martin Callanan MEP is Chairman of the European Conservatives. This is his monthly letter to ConHome readers. Follow the ECR Group on Twitter.
Thanks to everyone who came to the ECR Group stand at the Party Conference in Manchester, and particularly to everyone who came to the fringe meeting that we organised. It was extremely interesting to hear the perspective on European reform from fellow ECR Members Jan Zahradil from the Czech Republic and Lajos Bokros from Hungary, and also from Timo Soini of the anti-bailout Finns Party.
The UK Conservative MEPs also held a fringe meeting with William Hague who, despite a cold, gave an excellent speech on the importance of voting Conservative next year in order to get both a referendum and MEPs who are willing to work hard to defend British interests.
And the Alliance of the ECR (which brings together both the parties linked to the ECR Group and other centre-right parties across Europe) also held a successful fringe meeting with Dan Hannan and Alejo Vidal Quadras, a Vice-President of the European Parliament from Spain, which was chaired by Geoffrey Clifton Brown.
In the main hall I spoke in the foreign affairs debate and said that increasingly governments and parties across the Continent are coming round to the Conservative agenda of reform. Only we can deliver the radical change the EU needs, and only we can out that change to the people. If you didn’t see it you can watch the speech here:
We arrived back in Strasbourg to hundreds of people wearing white coats. After 14 years in the place I’ve often wondered when the men in white coats might come to take a few people away, but it turns out that this time they were protesting against a de facto ban on electronic cigarettes.
The parliament was voting on an update to the Tobacco Products Directive which governs how tobacco is sold and marketed. The main aim of the directive was to find ways of discouraging younger people from wanting to take up smoking in the first place.
I took on the role as lead member on the Directive for the ECR Group. Overall, the Directive was always going to be a balancing act between protecting jobs in the industry and discouraging smoking. Some of the proposals were towards the zealous end of the scale, such as a ban on packs of ten and a ban on menthol cigarettes, although this will not take effect for several years. However, there was one issue that we were not prepared to compromise on, and that was E-cigs.
Electronic Cigarettes provide a nicotine hit without the tar, smoke or carbon monoxide of normal tobacco. I don’t pretend they are good for people, but they are far better than smoking, and countless people have told me that they have acted as a quitting aid – a stepping stone off smoking altogether.
Unfortunately, the Labour MEP who was leading this directive through the parliament wanted these products to be put through a medicinal authorisation procedure. The costs and processes associated with such an authorisation are far more onerous even than traditional tobacco, so the many small businesses that have emerged would be put at risk.
Normally when we pass legislation, MEPs are inundated with correspondence organised by companies or (usually EU funded) NGOs. We receive thousands of identical emails that have taken the sender two clicks to send, and it normally takes us two clicks to send the same reply. But on this issue I received hundreds of personal emails detailing people’s experiences with E-cigarettes and how they have quit smoking because of them. It was a powerful argument.
We proposed an amendment (with the LibDems) that would require e-cigs to be treated in the same way as tobacco. Thankfully, it passed by a majority of around a hundred votes. The whole process now goes into ‘conciliation’ with the council and we will continue to advocate the rights of e-cig users.
We also voted on proposals that would make it easier for a professional to have their qualifications recognised right across the EU. Of course, one matter of real concern in the UK related to healthcare workers, and particularly their ability to speak English. This follows the case of David Gray who died after a German Doctor accidentally gave him an overdose of diamorphine on his first shift. Under the new law the recruitment of doctors and nurses will require much stronger language checks, and if a professional has been struck off in one country they will also be struck off across the EU.
My colleague Emma McClarkin took the initiative to bring forward these proposals. She wrote a ‘pre-legislative’ report, which was adopted by MEPs two years ago and most of the proposals that she made were taken up by the commission. She’s delivered a law that will stop protectionist countries from blocking some professions, and make sure that those medical staff who treat us are fully qualified and able to speak the language.
There were also votes on shale gas, where the parliament foolishly wants every tiny exploration to be governed by onerous environmental impact assessments. And MEPs also adopted a report by my colleague James Elles which argues the EU needs to do more to look into long term trends and make policy accordingly, not in the knee-jerk way it often acts today.
The parliament awards an annual human rights prize, called the Sakharov Prize. Generally my group doesn’t support prizes and awards from the European Parliament, which are often wasteful and used for rewarding the vested interests of the EU. However, this is one prize that has made a major impact in highlighting the work of some incredibly brave people such as Aung San Suu Kyi or the Cuban Ladies in White.
Each group nominates someone and then the group leaders vote on who should win the award. This year, the ECR decided to nominate Malala Yousafzai – the Pakistani education rights activist who was shot in the hear a year and a day before the award was decided. Other groups had also nominated her and I was pleased that she was given the award by a unanimous decision of parliament’s group leaders.
Another nominee for the award was Edward Snowden, the NSA fugitive, who was nominated by the Greens and Communists. When you consider the previous nominees for this prize and the struggles they went through to gain freedom from oppression, to even nominate Snowden was, in my view, a disgrace. Although, as I remarked to one reporter, part of me hoped that he did win the prize so that when he came to Strasbourg to collect it he could be arrested and extradited as a fugitive, not a defender of human rights. It is a real shame that such an award was hijacked for petty political purposes, but I expect nothing less from the Greens.
We’ve only just returned from Strasbourg, but would you believe we’re going back AGAIN next week. The Treaties say we must hold 12 sessions a year there, and because we miss a session in August we have to hold two in the autumn to make it up. Last year, you’ll remember that my colleague Ashley Fox was able to bring the two sessions into one week – cutting the number of journeys we must make down to 11. MEPs were due to operate the same arrangement this month, but we had to add in another session after France took the reviled ‘L’Amendment Fox’ (they spit it rather than say it in the French Parliament) to the European Court, and won.
Not to be deterred, Ashley continues with his campaign. As I write, MEPs in the Constitutional Affairs committee have passed a vote on a report he authored saying that the parliament wants a change in the Treaties so that it has only one seat. This campaign is probably not going to be won by a big bang event, but by a long and incremental process that chips away support for the Travelling Circus. In that process, Ashley continues to work with a number of other MEPs in the ECR Group and across the parliament to force EU leaders to finally confront this symbol of EU waste and nonsense.
But until then, we’ll be heading back to Strasbourg next week where the agenda includes the final vote on the seven-year EU budget, a vote on the 2014 annual budget (which is being cut in line with the new framework), money for cross-border research projects called the Horizon 2020 programme, and a vote on whether to suspend a major EU-US counter-terror agreement in light of the NSA allegations (which we think would be a foolish and presumptive move). We’ll also hear from Aung San Suu Kyi who will finally collect the Sakharov award she was given – in 1990.
At the end of the week I’ll be back in Brussels for the EU summit where the economy will be discussed. Already we’ve seen the UK Government taking the lead by providing a checklist of EU red tape that needs to be eliminated. I’ve always said that the best way to encourage a bit more employment in Europe is to create a bit more unemployment in the European Commission – starting with the Socialist Commissioner for (un)employment Laszlo Andor. Oddly enough, he’s not my biggest fan!