As Tim promised a few weeks ago, I intend to provide ConHome readers with a regular update on the activities of your Conservative MEPs and some of the highlights of the parliament's activities over recent weeks.
The Portuguese crisis and the EU's response to it have dominated the agenda in recent weeks. The Eurozone crisis no longer feels like a crisis in the corridors of the European Parliament: it has become business as usual it seems.
As I set out in another article on this site I believe that there is neither enthusiasm nor need for the UK to participate in the bailout and, even if there were, the legal grounds for it are highly dubious.
Just before the March European Council meeting David Cameron and Baroness Warsi visited our delegation in Brussels for a long exchange of views before the summit and he took time to meet with all of the UK Conservative staff. We all found the meeting to be very productive and the visit put a spring in the step of all our staff.
At the Council itself our PM secured some very welcome language in the official communiqué of the meeting which committed the European Commission to an agenda of revitalising the single market, of reducing red tape and exploring ways of exempting micro enterprises from some EU legislation altogether.
In the European Parliament this week, we followed up on this action. Firstly, the chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists group, Jan Zahradil, raised competitiveness at the 'Question time to Barroso' session (modelled on PMQs but lacking the 'punch and Judy'). Jan talked about a new pamphlet from the UK government called 'Let's Choose Growth'. He also pushed Barroso over the tendency of the Commission to overregulate – something that bizarrely President Barroso did not agree with.
Jan and I also took part in a debate with President Barroso and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy on the outcome of the council (a full ten days after the event). You can see our contributions here.
The parliament adopted three reports aimed at relaunching the Single Market. You can find more information about the parliament's reports here but they are the parliamentary prelude to a European Commission proposal next week called the 'Single Market Act' which is a set of initiatives – some legislative and some not – that intend to make the Single Market more relevant to the 21st century. We'll be eager to see the proposals and I have no doubt that the internal market committee chairman, Conservative MEP Malcolm Harbour, will be working hard over the coming months to improve them.
The EU budget is also still featuring prominently. There are two ongoing discussions: one on the 2012 EU budget, and one on the so-called 'Multi-Annual Financial Framework' (MFF), the EU's seven year budget cycle. You'll remember how negotiations on the last MFF ended with Tony Blair and the now Shadow Foreign Secretary Dougie Alexander giving away £7 billion of the UK's rebate with absolutely nothing in return.
Our government has already secured written agreement from other EU leaders that spending will reflect the times in which we live, which is far more than the last government managed in 13 years. However, there will be major battles ahead on this one. In particular, the MFF will also see various proposals for new EU 'Own Resources' (AKA Eurotaxes). Among those mooted is a Financial Transaction Tax which Labour MEPs have been pushing strongly. Conservative MEPs and our ECR colleagues have made it quite clear that a FTT, especially without any kind of G20 agreement as a prerequisite, would be a disastrous tax on the City of London.
There is also a wider issue for us with EU Own Resources: the EU must not have any direct tax-raising powers. The EU budgeting process is very far from perfect but if we give the EU the power to raise its own taxes then it becomes the master of democratically elected governments, rather than their servant.
On the 2012 budget, negotiations are still at an early stage. The council has already indicated that it will cut its internal budget by 4.4 percent. This stands in contrast to the European Parliament's 'bureau' (made up of the EP's President and Vice-Presidents) which wanted to see an increase to our budget of 5.2 percent. Utterly shameful. These figures have since gone to the parliament's budgets committee where they have been reduced to 2.3 percent, but mostly by postponing spending on matters like Croatian accession to another year.
The budget committee proposals came to the full parliament for a vote this week and ECR MEPs obviously voted against. There were also various amendments to reduce the costs of the parliament, which we also supported.
Perhaps the most ludicrous item of spending proposed in the 2012 budget is the 'European House of History'. The museum will set out our 'common European history' – but only from 1945 because nobody can agree on events pre WW2. The cost to the parliament is expected to be at least €55 million to establish and €13.45 million per year to run.
This museum is an affront in so many ways. If the federalists in the European Parliament want to cultivate a false European identity then there is no way that taxpayers should have to pay for it. As my ECR colleague Professor Bokros said: "We do not need the House of European History. As Europe is losing competitiveness and geopolitical weight, it is becoming a museum anyway."
You can see his speech on the 2012 budget and that of my other excellent friend and colleague Peter Van Dalen MEP, here.
Finally, a few words on the ECR group. Jan Zahradil has made a significant impact already as the new leader of the group and are having a real impact in the parliamentary votes. Repeatedly we are seeing examples of when the ECR's votes and influence are making the difference in areas of importance to us such as the Single Market, opening trade and energy security. Our group is making a real difference by forming a centre-right coalition with other groups when approporiate but we also make a strong anti-federalist case in the parliament. Last week there were also votes on various resolutions regarding the future of nuclear energy in the EU. Actually, no group's resolution was able to receive sufficient votes to be adopted but the ECR resolution secured by far the largest amount of support from across the chamber.
As our group goes from strength to strength, things are not so rosy for UKIP's group, 'Europe of Freedom and Democracy'. One of their Danish members – Anna Rosbach – left last month to join the ECR (making us the joint-fourth largest group in the parliament). And Trevor Colman this week became the third UKIP MEP (after Nikki Sinclaire and Mike Nattrass) to leave and sit as an unattached member. They are now hovering at 28 MEPs, just three above the threshold for disbanding as a group.
This is only a brief snapshot of what Conservative MEPs are doing and it is impossible to cover every policy area. If there are any particular issues in the EP you want me to talk about in next months piece then leave a comment!