Syed Kamall is Chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group and is an MEP for London.
A week before we travelled to Strasbourg for our November plenary, the agenda looked somewhat on the light side, with a visit by the Pope being the major highlight on the calendar. But it didn’t take long for it to become packed.
Juncker censure – and UKIP’s leader doesn’t even bother to show up
Just as the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) Group was finishing its group meeting two weeks ago, we received notification that enough MEPs had signed a motion of censure against the European Commission for a vote to be taken in Strasbourg. The MEPs – made up of UKIP’s EFDD group, and some non-attached MEPs such as Jean-Marie Le Pen – argued that Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, should go for his part in the so-called Luxleaks scandal.
This came to light when a group of investigative journalists published evidence alleging that, as Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Juncker may have been involved in special arrangements with multinational companies to avoid tax. Already the commission is looking into whether Luxembourg and other countries broke state aid rules with these agreements.
It probably comes as no great surprise to you that Luxembourg has been a hospitable environment for those seeking to minimise their tax bills. The situation is rather like a Frenchman becoming Commission President – and then it emerging that he’d given some farmers subsidies.
However, Juncker’s integrity had been called into doubt, and he clearly had questions to answer regarding his role in some tax deals. He has so far failed to answer them during two appearances before the parliament, instead seeking to deflect attention on the first occasion by espousing an agenda of EU tax harmonisation (music to many federalist MEPs’ ears), and on the second occasion by generally being rude to those who challenged him. My Polish ECR Vice-President, Ryszard Legutko, rightly offered Mr Juncker the friendly advice that he might want to clear this matter up as it is fast becoming a shadow that he cannot shake off.
The ECR Group had wanted to put down a motion that mostly focused on questions about the Commission’s on-going hearing, and its impartiality and timetable. Unfortunately, the other political groups did not accept this, and so we were faced with the binary option of either voting to censure not only Juncker but the whole European Commission, or to give him a vote of confidence that would be spun as drawing a line under the issue.
We neither wished to prejudge the enquiry nor to endorse Juncker’s actions, so we were left with no choice but to abstain on the vote, and to publish the resolution and the questions that we would have submitted had we been allowed. Juncker sailed through the vote with a much bigger majority than his election, giving the federalists the opportunity to say that his mandate is now even stronger than before. An own goal by the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) Group. Interestingly, having signed the motion for censure, UKIP’s leader couldn’t be bothered to turn up to vote for it.
The Pope speaks out
On Tuesday, we had a flying visit by Pope Francis, who stopped by to warn us that the EU was seen as somewhat elderly and haggard. I had the privilege of meeting him as he entered the parliament. Sometimes it’s good to take a step back from the political machinations and hear a different, more spiritual, perspective. It was a thoughtful speech, and probably the longest standing ovation anyone has received in that chamber, despite its rather constructively critical nature.
Will the EU Investment fund work?
On Wednesday morning, we heard from Juncker about his flagship plans for a 250 billion Pound ‘investment fund’ that he claims will help to kick-start Europe’s ailing economy. The plan would see around £17 billion of EU and European Investment Bank money used as a kind of seed corn to leverage private investment.
The idea is that the EU money would help to encourage investors into projects that they might not otherwise have invested in without government offering to take the ‘first hit’ if things go wrong.
I sincerely hope that the fund will work, but it is no substitute for the major reforms that many European economies still need to make. The commission believes that the EU element can be leveraged by 15 euros to every one euro put in. I worry that the only way to achieve that is for the EU to venture into such high-risk projects that it leaves taxpayer money very exposed. As I said in the debate with Mr Juncker, is this a case of “heads, investors win. Tails, taxpayers lose”.
We have some questions about the detail, but if the scheme can be made to work and unlock much needed investment then it is definitely worth further work.
Ashley Fox succeeds me as Conservative Group leader
On Tuesday, I stood down as the leader of the Conservatives in the European Parliament to focus on my role chairing the ECR. The success of our group in the European Parliament means that we now have many more nationalities and members to get around and deal with, and more interest in our group from outside. Therefore I need to devote more time to the group’s development, and to its efforts to become a hub for new ideas about EU reform. My fellow British Conservative MEPs elected the South West and Gibraltar’s Ashley Fox to succeed me, and I know he will do an excellent job.