Martin Callanan MEP is Chairman of the European Conservatives. This is his monthly letter to ConHome readers. Follow the ECR Group on Twitter.
MEPs have finally decided to get rid of our monthly “travelling circus” between Brussels and Strasbourg. By a whopping 483 votes to 141, the European Parliament adopted a resolution from my Conservative MEP colleague, Ashley Fox, which said that having two meeting places is an abuse of taxpayer money, and renders the parliament’s environmental pontificating hypocritical. That’s the good news. The bad news is that – in the immediate future – we will keep having to go. You see, the requirement for us to hold 12 sessions a year in the Alsace region is enshrined in the EU’s Treaties, and changing them requires unanimity among all 28 EU leaders.
So in the immediate future we keep going back (and forth) every month. But the vote last week was a very important step forward. The parliament committed itself to using its new Lisbon Treaty powers to seek a specific change in the EU Treaties. Ashley was right in saying that this is far from the end, but it is perhaps the beginning of the end of the travelling circus. We will keep up the pressure, but the key now is for national governments – including our own – to apply firm pressure on the French Government. The Foreign Office needs to drop its reluctance to upset the French, and send a clear message that this historical aberration needs to be reformed, otherwise it will continue to be seen as the jewel in the crown of EU profligacy. As I said to the French President earlier this year, “You label yourself a pro-European, but if you truly were, then you would allow the treaties to be changed so that this Parliament can finally decide where and when it sits.”
As well as the 483 votes in favour and 141 against, there were also 34 abstentions. These included the 4 UKIP MEPs that made the effort to vote.
Ashley’s speech was excellent. Watch it here:
Another long-running saga finally came to a conclusion in Strasbourg: the debacle of the EU’s seven-year budget – the Multiannual Financial Framework. You’d be forgiven for thinking that it had been put to bed in February when David Cameron came away from the EU summit with an unprecedented cut in the budget. But, in reality, that was just the start of a protracted negotiation that must happen between national governments and the European Parliament. Immediately after the deal was agreed, MEPs – led by the parliament’s socialist President, Martin Schulz – attacked the deal, saying it would lead to cuts in projects that add value to the European economy, and that it would lead to “deficit budgets”, because the EU credit card limit would be higher than the money being allocated to pay it. Then, after some arm-twisting from the Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny, the President of the Parliament backed down at the start of the summer.
But MEPs weren’t completely satisfied, and decided to hold the long-term budget to ransom until they got what they wanted. Their two main demands were three billion Euros extra for the 2013 budget, and a group of wise men to look into so-called EU “Own Resources” (a.k.a EU taxes). The extra money for 2013 was basically demanded because, under the current seven year budget, the credit card limit was higher than the cash available and the Commission allowed the credit card to be maxxed out. As the EU legally cannot go into debt it requires what’s called a ‘Draft Amending Budget.’
Obviously. we opposed these extra funds. Budgeting in the European Commission needs serious improvement because any potential shortfalls need to be covered by reductions elsewhere, not by this Oliver Twist mentality of going cap in hand back to national governments. The new seven year budget gives us an opportunity to tighten these rules.
On the issue of EU taxes, the parliament accepted a commitment to set up a group of wise men who will make recommendations. As taxation matters are agreed unanimously by national leaders, I told the parliament that I won’t be losing any sleep over its creation because new EU taxes are a non-starter for many EU Prime Ministers, Presidents and Chancellors.
But, in the end, we achieved the finalisation of the seven-year budget, and we delivered the £30 billion cut that David Cameron won in February. And we did it whilst increasing money to those areas where the UK gets more back than it puts in: notably research funding. Thanks to work carried out by my Conservative colleague, Vicky Ford, this funding – known as Horizon2020 funding – more of this money will go to British small firms, and much of the red tape will be removed to make funding decisions based on who has the best case for assistance, rather than those who are best at filling out forms.
Overall, the budget still spends far too much on French cows, but we’ve taken a step in the right direction by cutting and reprioritising it. You can see my speech on the deal here:
New UK delegation leader
Every year the UK Conservatives in the European Parliament hold an election for their delegation leader. As ConHome reported recenrlt, this year Syed Kamall was elected leader and Jacqueline Foster elected deputy. Syed and I have been friends since 2005 when he became an MEP, and he is one of the most likeable and engaging people I’ve come across in politics. With Syed in charge, I believe the Conservative MEPs will become a more thoughtful, agenda-setting and influential force both in the debates in Britain, and in the European Parliament.
I’d also like to pay tribute to Richard Ashworth, the outgoing leader of the delegation. Richard is a gentleman, and a very strong budgets spokesman for the ECR Group, and I know that Syed will want to continue to make use of his skill, experience and expertise.
On the Wednesday lunchtime, we were honoured to be joined by Malala Yousafzai, who collected the annual ‘Sakharov’ human rights and freedom of thought prize from the parliament. As a political group, the ECR gets to nominate people for the prize, and this year she was our nominee. Malala continues to campaign for education rights – particularly for girls – despite being shot in the head last year by the Pakistani Taleban. It was an honour to hear what she had to say. She ended her speech by saying children in countries such as Pakistan “do not want an iPhone, a PlayStation or chocolates, they just want a book and a pen”.
Women on boards
MEPs also voted on a proposal to require 40 per cent of non-executive directors on listed companies to be women, by 2020. This effective quota would, in our view, risk harming women in the workplace by leading to accusations of tokenism for women in senior positions. As our women’s spokesman, Marina Yannakoudakis said, “We need more women at the top, not just in non-executive positions but in executive positions too. Let us give women the tools to open up the pathway and to work together as role models and mentors. Women deserve our respect and our belief in their ability; they do not deserve to be undermined by quotas.”
For the nineteenth year in a row, the EU’s accounts have not been ‘signed off’. Like in previous years, the EU’s auditors say that the control mechanisms are not strong enough for the money that is spent by national agencies. And actually – and alarmingly – the rate of ‘error’ has gone up this year to from 3.9 percent to 4.8 percent. To clarify, error is not necessarily fraud, and most of that money is clawed back (€3.7 billion in 2012). However, let’s not make excuses for this unacceptable situation. This level of error and this failure to deal with this annual debacle is a disgrace. Conservative MEPs will refuse to sign off these accounts (known as granting discharge to them). If Labour and Liberal MEPs really wish to send a signal to the commission that it needs to get its house in order, then they will join us. And in the long term, we want to see one of the EU Commissioners tasked full-time and exclusively with sorting out this mess by the end of his/her five years in office.
Finally, a few ECR MEPs were fortunate to take a moment out from some meetings we were holding in the Netherlands to visit the war graves at Arnhem and lay a wreath there. Dan Hannan has written a blog on the visit. He recalls the words that our Dutch MEP colleague Peter Van Dalen said at the site: “Many British and Polish soldiers fell fighting for freedom. I wanted to bring you here to say this: thank you for liberating Holland”. It made me both proud to be British, and proud to have such excellent and patriotic friends in the ECR Group.
That’s all from this Strasbourg session. If you want more information on the work of the ECR Group, visit our website, which also has details of our Twitter and Facebook accounts. And you can also sign up to our new monthly newsletter featuring news from Brussels, Strasbourg and further afield.