Syed Kamall is Chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group and is an MEP for London.
My role in Brussels involves me wearing two hats. The first is as a Conservative MEP for London, representing my constituents and my country and helping to shape legislation..
The second role, perhaps less known in the UK, is as leader of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) Group, the third largest of the eight political groupings in the European Parliament.
Formed at the initiative of David Cameron in June 2009, many in Brussels – particularly the socialists and federalists – predicted the ECR would not survive more than a few months. However our message of reform, of better Europe not more, and of greater democracy and transparency, resonated across bloc and led to the ECR becoming the third largest group, with MEPs from 18 Member States in just five years.
Not only was this unprecedented, but it led to the ECR overtaking the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) group, much to the annoyance of its leader, Guy Verhofstadt.
Just as it is in both the UK and EU’s interests for the UK to remain good neighbours, as we cease to be reluctant tenants, British Conservatives should also be seeking to maintain our links with like-minded politicians and allies at the heart of the EU. Therefore it is very much in the our interests that the ECR continues to thrive post-Brexit.
This means planning now for the departure of our Party, which remains the Group’s largest single delegation. With the future in mind, this week ECR MEPs voted to change the group’s constitution to establish a joint chairmanship.
As March 2019 approaches, I will be sharing some of my duties with my Polish colleague, Ryszard Legutko, and preparing the Group for life without us Brits. The message being sent to both Group members and the rest of the Parliament is that the ECR is stronger than any of its individual delegations and will continue to be a political force beyond 2019.
My priority as a London Conservative MEP will be to help the party reach out to voters as London continues to change, especially younger and BME voters. Watch this space for news of initiatives I will be launching in the Autumn.
As co-Chairman of the ECR Group, my priority will be to continue to act as a bridge between Westminster and Brussels over the next 20 months, explaining the UK’s position, clearing up misunderstandings, and doing all I can to secure a Brexit deal that protects the interests of both sides.
Although negotiations between the UK and the EU have only just started, I am happy with the progress made so far. The right tone has been set and Theresa May’s has made a generous offer on EU citizens’ rights, while waiting for the EU to confirm how it intends to treat UK citizens remaining in EU countries.
These are initial positions. Neither side wants the talks to get bogged down early on. With a little give and take as well as the right attitude, I am sure agreement on this point is within reach.
The new pragmatic mood was obvious at last month’s European Council Summit in Brussels. Such was the absence of discord that the headlines were made by Donald Tusk’s decision to quote from the John Lennon classic “Imagine.” When asked if the UK could yet remain in the EU he replied: “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”
It was clearly a (no doubt rehearsed) response which achieved it’s aim of generating newspaper headlines. However, a more appropriate reference to the negotiations could probably be found in the earlier Beatles song: “We can work it out.”
This week has also marked the end of Malta’s six month European Council presidency. A record 20 laws have been signed off in that time, including the long awaited removal of mobile phone roaming charges and the establishment of visa free travel with Ukraine. Significant progress has been made on several tax files, notably the reduction of VAT on e-publications, a measure Conservatives strongly support.
The mantle has now passed to Estonia, which takes over the Council presidency for the remainder of 2017.
Pressing problems remain. In the European Parliament, the ECR Group is working closely with other political groups to establish a special committee on terrorism, which hopefully will focus on how we can tackle Daesh/ISIS internationally, at the national level, and in our local communities.
Asylum and migration may have slipped from the headlines, but the people keep on coming. According to the International Organisation for Migration, 24,513 people landed in Italy in the first three months of 2017, up 30 per cent on the same period last year. About 10,000 people arrived last week alone, prompting a government threat to bar foreign ships carrying migrants from Italian ports. Shockingly, one in 30 migrants in the central Mediterranean now dies en-route.
The arrival of summer and the inevitable increase in refugees and irregular migrants attempting to reach Europe, often losing their lives in the process, reminds us that the EU has still to find a sustainable solution.
There are no easy answers, but the lack of media coverage must not see us slacken our efforts. Sadly, at a time when a constructive and cooperative approach amongst EU Member States is needed more than ever, the European Commission is determined to force upon Central and Eastern European countries a failed compulsory relocation scheme for asylum seekers, and withhold funds for countries that refuse to take their quota.
If we are to really tackle this crisis, reduce the number of irregular migrants, and help genuine asylum seekers, then we need policies which are firm but fair, and unite rather than divide us. Politicians and officials in Brussels need to admit that the policy on relocation and asylum is in danger of recreating geographical and political divisions within the EU, whilst doing little to abate the crisis.
If we are to make progress in this area, then some EU leaders must be ready to review those policies which simply are not working, rather than carrying on in an attempt to save face.
Also, while the yield on Greek government bonds have been approaching pre-2010 levels, government debt has increased. Opinion is divided over whether we are on the verge of another Greek debt crisis and yet another bail out.
But let’s end on a positive note. Two new Conservative MEPs have arrived in Brussels to replace our former colleagues and freshly minted MPs Vicky Ford and Andrew Lewer. Rupert Matthews (East Midlands) and John Flack (East of England) have a big job to do and a steep learning curve ahead. Welcome both and best of luck!