Euro Realist

The Independent on Sunday – Sunday, 31 May 2009

The European elections: Is Cameron leading his MEPs astray?

A senior MEP has spoken out against the Tory leader’s decision to pull his party out of the main conservative grouping in Strasbourg and says he will ‘bitterly regret’ it. Jane Merrick, James Ball and Emily Dugan report

David Cameron faced embarrassment over his hardline European policy yesterday as one of his MEPs gave a warning that his stand was heading for “disaster”.

Just days before the local and European elections, when all the major parties expect a battering over the expenses scandal, the Tory leader was criticised for his plan to leave the mainstream grouping in the European Parliament and join forces with a party which is anti-gay rights.

Caroline Jackson, the Europhile MEP for South West England who is standing down at the election, said Mr Cameron would “bitterly regret” the decision to withdraw from the European People’s Party (EPP), whose members include Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy.
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At the same time, a string of senior Tory figures have given a warning that the move risks damaging Britain’s influence in the EU if the Conservatives win power.

Last month, The Independent on Sunday revealed that senior Foreign Office officials are also alarmed at the likelihood of a Cameron government leaving the UK isolated in Europe.

Mr Cameron has also said his government could hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty even if it has been ratified by every EU nation.

The criticism was all the more embarrassing for Mr Cameron, shifting the heat of controversy on to his party at a time when Labour and a weakened Gordon Brown government have been bearing the brunt of public anger over the expenses scandal.

Mr Cameron was in Warsaw yesterday to share a platform with the Czech ODS and Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party. Leading members of the PiS have outspoken views on homosexuality, including banning gay rights marches.

Writing in the European Voice, the European affairs weekly, Ms Jackson said: “If you see an old friend about to drive full tilt into a brick wall, you will want to try to stop him. Today the appalled bystanders are the British Conservative MEPs who oppose David Cameron’s pledge to leave the largest group in the European Parliament and form a new group, set apart from the continent’s Christian Democrats and conservatives.

“The deed is done. Only those of us not standing again in June have the freedom to advocate an alternative policy. Most of us regard Cameron’s policy as a disaster. Events are reinforcing our arguments.”

Ms Jackson said the party’s influence in the City would suffer, as well as in Europe.

Lord Patten, the former cabinet minister who became a European Commissioner, said: “It is an unwise decision and will reduce the Conservatives’ influence in the European Parliament.”

The former home secretary Lord Brittan, who also became a commissioner, said: “There is no doubt that the attempt to leave the EPP has annoyed a lot of the European leaders who are members of the EPP and are in government. It will make it more difficult to establish relations with them.”

There was further criticism from outside the party. Tim King, the deputy editor of European Voice, said: “This is ideological, not pragmatic. On financial services legislation, for example, Conservative MEPs will be on the outside, which was not the case in the past. Cameron has been so desperate to escape the Christian Democrats that he is going to end up with far-right people, some of whom are racists. All that social liberalism of Cameron Conservatism is not the way that the Law and Justice party of the Poles goes.”

Dr Anthony Zito, a European politics expert at Newcastle University, said: “If they follow through with this – and I remain sceptical that they will once they’re elected – I think it would be extremely problematic. In terms of British politics they are ceding the ground operating in the European process to Labour and the Lib Dems.”

Mr Cameron remained defiant yesterday over his plans, which he wants in place as soon as possible after this week’s poll.

A spokeswoman for Mr Cameron said: “Caroline Jackson has always held these views, but these are not the views of the Conservative Party. None of this is new. This is absolutely the right thing to do, to pull out of the EPP and form a new grouping. You cannot say one thing in Britain and another thing in Europe.”

Mr Cameron pledged to leave the EPP during his leadership campaign, winning over many Tory MPs from the Eurosceptic right and helping win. In a highly risky strategy, he has refused to order a U-turn despite the widespread condemnation.

The Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, Edward Davey, seized on reports that the Tories have met members of a Latvian party with links to Nazi sympathisers. Mr Davey urged the party to reveal with which parties they had been engaged in talks ahead of Thursday’s Euro elections.

In a letter to the shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, he said: “The Conservative party’s refusal to name its future partners in the European Parliament denies the public the information they need to make their choice at this election. This wall of silence, despite your many secret meetings with potential partners, is utterly disingenuous.”

He went on: “Political groups in the European Parliament are the platform for joint political agendas. In Brussels and Strasbourg, the politics of the wider group often informs the voting choice of the national delegation of MEPs. Is it not then grossly hypocritical for you to leave the European People’s Party on the basis that they do not reflect your views, only to go about obscuring those parties you will work with after 4 June?

“Is this because they are reportedly made up of homophobes, anti-Muslims, climate change deniers and Nazi sympathisers?

“The electorate is entitled to know what secret deals have been made. What manifestos have been prepared behind closed doors but not put before voters? Where will you stand on climate change? On civil rights and equality? On the economy?

“More radio silence from Conservative HQ will merely confirm the suspicions of many that you are ashamed of your new partners and will do everything to keep them hidden away until after the election.”

Caroline Flint, the Europe minister, said: “The shadow Business Secretary, Ken Clarke, has previously described David Cameron’s Europe policy as ‘head-banging’ and now other senior Conservative grandees have described it as a ‘rigid commitment to impotence’, ‘unwise’ and ‘a mistake’.

“David Cameron should listen to the experienced voices in his party, put the national interest first, and re-think his decision to leave the European People’s Party.

“The choice for voters on Thursday could not now be any clearer: vote for influence with Labour or isolation with the Conservatives.”

The row came as research for The Independent on Sunday revealed that Labour and Liberal Democrat MEPs have represented the best value for money for taxpayers, while Ukip’s members have been the worst.

All MEPs have netted themselves £700,000 each over the past five years in pay and office expenses –not including staffing, travel and attendance allowances. However, an examination of the amount of work each MEP has carried out, including written questions, taking part in speeches and legislation, shows that their work rate has varied considerably.

Robert Kilroy-Silk, the maverick independent and ex-Ukip MEP, cost the most of all British MEPs, at £5,965.71 per minute of speaking, based on the £41,760 he claimed for signing in to the chamber. The cheapest was David Martin, Labour MEP for Scotland, who cost £90.21 per minute. He spoke to the European Parliament more times than all 10 Ukip MEPs combined.

In total, Ukip MEPs passed fewer motions, sat on no committees, filed fewer questions per head and spoke less than any of the major parties. A typical Labour MEP spoke twice as often and tabled five times more questions than a typical Ukip MEP.

Conservative MEPs put in the least activity of the three major parties. They spoke less, asked fewer questions and sat on fewer committees on average, yet claimed more attendance allowance than the other major parties.

Labour MEPs were slightly ahead of the Liberal Democrats in how much they spoke, while Lib Dem MEPs asked more questions. SNP MEPs beat both parties on these counts.

Britain in Europe: Ten leading MEPs

Robert Kilroy-Silk The former chat show host known for his stint in the I’m a Celebrity jungle was elected with Ukip in 2004 but quit to form Veritas. He now sits as an independent.

Daniel Hannan The Conservative MEP became an internet sensation in March when his European Parliament tirade against Gordon Brown became YouTube’s most-viewed video.

Caroline Lucas One of two UK Green MEPs, she became the face of the political organisation in England and Wales after being elected the party’s first leader last year.

Nigel Farage The Ukip leader has courted controversy, notably by remaining seated during a standing ovation for the Prince of Wales when Prince Charles addressed MEPs last year.

Roger Knapman Farage’s predecessor as Ukip leader, who led the party when it voted against admitting east European states into the EU, he was embarrassed in 2006 by the revelation that Polish workers he employed were sleeping in the attic.

Michael Cashman The former Eastenders actor has been an MEP since 1999, but is still better known as his on-screen character Colin Russell, famous for having the first on-screen gay kiss in a soap opera.

Godfrey Bloom The Ukip MEP got off to a rocky start in 2004 after getting a seat on the women’s rights committee. He told journalists women did not ‘clean behind the fridge enough’.

Giles Chichester The South West member stepped down as the leader of Conservative MEPs last year after an expenses scandal. An inquiry cleared him of wrongdoing.

Tom Wise The Ukip MEP appeared in court with his researcher last month on charges of false accounting and money laundering, charges that both deny.

Mary Honeyball The web-savvy Labour MEP spreads the ‘Honeyball Buzz’ and voices her views on women’s rights through her blog and regular Tweets.

Kate Youed

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The Independent on Sunday – Sunday, 31 May 2009

Leading article: Policy counts, not pique

This is utterly ridiculous, we know. But bear with us. Let us pretend, for a moment, that the European Parliament elections on Thursday are about the future of Europe. Let us put aside wanting to “send a message” to Gordon Brown or to Westminster politicians generally. Put aside moats and Tudor beams, floating duck houses and flipping second homes. Put aside, even, domestic politics – put aside Labour’s proposal to bring in a 50p tax rate for high earners or the Conservative plan to cut inheritance tax for millionaires.

The Prime Minister invited us last week to cast a vote for Strasbourg on the basis of his handling of the global financial crisis and £60 for British pensioners. David Cameron used his first election broadcast to advertise his assertiveness with his own MPs and their expenses. Even Nick Clegg, the self-avowedly most pro-European leader, used the Liberal Democrat broadcast to say, “I wanted to say something that hasn’t been said before,” before going on to say roughly the same things that Mr Cameron said.

Ignore them. Read the party manifestos instead. Inform yourself about the powers of the European Parliament. And then decide.

The opinion polls suggest that many people intend to punish the Westminster parties by voting for parties that are not represented in the House of Commons. In one survey last week, the UK Independence Party even overtook Labour. This is, to put it politely, a paradox. Members of the European Parliament are hardly ascetics when it comes to the perks of public life. And some of UKIP’s representatives have been exceptional in their generosity towards themselves.

That said, there is a democratic case for UKIP, in that it stands for a policy of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, which, however much this newspaper disagrees with it, is widely held. If people vote UKIP, though, it should be because they want Britain to have the same status as Norway or Switzerland, dominated by the rules of the EU but without a say in their making, and not because they are angry about MPs’ expenses.

Furthermore, a vote for UKIP is preferable to one for the British National Party, a party that has racism written into its constitution. The fact that the BNP might win a seat is not, however, an argument against proportional representation – a suddenly fashionable topic of political debate. PR is not the answer to the abuse of expenses, as Lord Adonis observes today, with all the authority of his mentor, Roy Jenkins, who reported on the issue a decade ago. But PR does allow a wider range of democratic expression, although this week’s particular system of closed lists, in which voters are unable to express a preference between candidates of the same party, is far from ideal.

One other party that might benefit from a desire for a new politics, and which would deserve to do so, is the Green Party. Under Caroline Lucas, its new leader (new in the sense that the party now has a leader, which it refused to have before), it has moved away from its fundamentalist anti-EU past – it used to regard the EU as an anti-green capitalist conspiracy – and now favours positive engagement.

The party that does not deserve to benefit from the voters taking the elections seriously, however, is the Conservative Party. David Cameron ought still to be paying the price for the Faustian pact that he made with the Tory Eurosceptics in order to secure the leadership three and a half years ago. He promised then to pull the party out of the main centre-right grouping in the European Parliament. Now, finally, after Thursday’s elections, he is actually going to do it. When challenged about who the Tories’ new partners will be, he names the Czech Civic Democrats. They are the most respectable of the mere handful of possible partners. But who else is there? Yesterday, Mr Cameron met the leaders of the Polish Law and Justice party that is hostile to equal rights for gay people. This is not grown-up politics.

Whatever else might be said about the two main pro-European parties, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, their engagement with the Strasbourg Parliament is the mature politics of co-operation and compromise. They offer a meaningful choice of degrees of enthusiasm, with the Liberal Democrats having long been the most pro-European of the main parties.

The Independent on Sunday is never so crude as to advise its readers how to vote. But on this occasion we urge our readers (a) to vote, and (b) to make their decision not on the basis of Westminster MPs’ expenses but what they think is right for the future of Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe.

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