Ashley Fox was elected leader of Britain’s Conservative MEPs in November. He and Syed Kamall, leader of the broader ECR group, will provide alternating monthly updates on events in Brussels and Strasbourg.
Reforming the EU is going to be tough. Many ConHome readers will say it is impossible, and they may be right.
But I believe we should make our best effort to change the EU and, having done that, offer whatever deal we secure to the British people to decide whether we should say or leave.
And in that regard, I found some encouragement during December’s plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. It involved a chap called Franz Timmermans, and if you don’t see him in the news too often yet, I think you soon will.
If you follow strict political labelling he is a socialist – but I can only say that if there were a few more socialists like him around, the world would be a better place.
The former Dutch Foreign Minister is now senior vice president of the EU Commission – in other words, Juncker’s number two. And he is charged with addressing our Conservative agenda for reform in Europe. Some have labelled him the Commissioner for Avoiding Brexit.
He speaks half a dozen languages fluently – all of them plainly, I am told, and without political flam.
His English is delivered without any hint of a foreign accent. He looks and sounds British. He understands that Europe is broken and has to change.
He even has a sense of humour. So quite how he got (almost) to the top of the EU bureaucracy I can but wonder. These qualities are normally a positive barrier.
Now, none of this makes him Britain’s salvation. None of it means there will be an easy ticket in our quest for radical renegotiation of our terms of membership. Certainly it does not mean we are definitely staying in Europe – far from it. That is something the British people must decide for themselves.
But it does mean that along with UK Commissioner Jonathan Hill, there is at least one other person high up in the Commission who understands and shares our frustration with the EU’s failings – and will give us a hearing. When it comes to reform, Timmermans gets it.
During this week’s plenary session of the European Parliament in Brussels, he set his stall out by announcing a comprehensive refocusing of the EU’s legislative programme.
This was presented under the uninspiring banner of “The Commission Work Programme 2015”. But what was really served up was a radical first: A senior commissioner spelling out his plans to scrap proposed legislation which he saw as meddlesome or unhelpful, and to concentrate on the more important stuff that would actually drive growth and jobs instead of getting in the way.
My colleague Vicky Ford had co-ordinated a list of our priority items which we proposed for inclusion in the Work Programme. She told both Timmermans and Juncker they must make it easier for businesses to thrive in Europe, which would in turn see higher living standards, an improved environment, opportunity and equality.
She warned: “Europe needs to change. Commissioners, you have talked about change – we need to see you deliver.
A key element of the Timmermans package was withdrawing plans which had been on the books for a so-called Common European Sales Law. We Conservatives happen to think existing British laws do an excellent job already in protecting both consumers and vendors, so in the last parliament we mounted a vigorous campaign against proposals we saw as unnecessary and confusing.
We were pleased by this apparent victory for Conservative MEPs, but we will not be letting our guard down. The challenge is now to make sure that any replacement legislation sticks to simple measures that will genuinely help people buy and trade across national borders – especially online. Eurocrats do have a habit of withdrawing unpopular and interfering proposals in the face of well-organised opposition, only to bring them back in a slightly modified form when they think nobody is looking.
Another major debate was on Jean-Claude Juncker’s much-trumpeted “€315 billion” investment package.
We are all for measures to stimulate jobs and growth – provided they use real money and treat our taxpayers fairly. So while we wish Mr Juncker’s plans every success, we are still waiting for answers to some of our questions about exactly how they will magically leverage such huge sums out of investors without asking taxpayers to shoulder an unjustifiable risk.
As my colleague Syed Kamall, leader of our trans-national European Conservatives and Reformists Group in the parliament, asked Juncker: “How will your fund avoid a situation of privatising the profits and nationalising the losses?”
A majority of MEPs voted through a budget for 2015 which will extract a cool €141 billion from national Governments for the EU coffers next year. We voted against – not least because of the overall cost, but also because once again the budget actually promises even more money to various projects than the revenues that will come in. This structural dysfunction in EU finances has been going on for years and every January leaves an ever-growing pile of unpaid bills that gets automatically loaded onto the next budget.
You and I wouldn’t would stick ever more payments onto our credit cards without knowing how we would earn enough to pay it back. So why does the EU?
My colleague Richard Ashworth, our budget spokesman, in an effort to be constructive proposed radical structural reform to improve the whole budget process and enhance accountability. His suggestions include a bigger role for the parliament in scrutinising budget outcomes and an EU Office for Budgetary Responsibility to examine both the viability of spending plans and their likely success (or otherwise). This makes sense, and we will pushing these ideas hard in 2015.
However, as if we needed it, a prime example of the EU’s fondness for mis-spending our money came the very next day when a huge sum was voted to prop up the notoriously inefficient Air France under the so-called European Globalisation Adjustment Fund.
This fund was originally set up to provide retraining and social support for individual communities hit by industrial collapse through global market forces. But it is increasingly being used to protect struggling companies by providing backdoor funding for restructuring and relocation operations.
In this case, the pretext for funding Air France’s redundancies is that they were caused by commercial pressure created by three Middle Eastern airlines – Etiad, Emirates and Dubai. As if our own airlines are not facing similar pressure – and meeting it by sharpening their act.
The £17 million was successfully proposed, you may like to know, by a member of Nigel Farage’s EFDD Group. I doubt he was bragging about that one down the pub this Christmas.
Just as I thought this made for a depressing end to the year, some truly awful news came to confirm the mood. We heard that our colleague Philip Bradbourn, who has served as MEP for the West Midlands since 1993, had lost his battle against cancer.
The Prime Minister and Grant Shapps led tributes to Phil’s extraordinary contribution to public life – first in local government in his native Black Country, then doing his bit for Britain in Strasbourg and Brussels. He was a determined and consistent opponent of EU over-spending and over-regulation.
Some consolation came from thinking of something Mr Timmermans told plenary, and how it would have gladdened Phil’s heart.
The Dutchman said: “Just because an issue is important doesn’t mean the EU has to act on it.”
Hallelujah. A simple truth that could have come from our own benches. And I can only say: “Let’s hope for more of that in 2015.”