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Straight Talking - February 2003

Roger Helmer's electronic newsletter from Brussels

Doing an "In Touch"? Feel free to use chunks of this newsletter! The piece on the EU Constitution might be a good choice -- one of the most important issues facing Britain today. If you receive the newsletter second-hand and want to go onto the e-mail list, please click here.

Use your new euro-team!

We have the new five-strong euro-team in place in the East Midlands, and the three new members, Pauline, Sharon and Jonathan are keen to get to work. One of the problems that Chris and I have is that we're out of the region Monday through Thursday most weeks. Now we have three new candidates who will be keen to support events all through the week (diaries permitting, as always). To book one of the new members for your event, contact Ruth Morrison in David Surtees' office at Blaby on 0116 277 9992.

For functions that Chris and I can't make because of diary commitments, our respective diary secretaries Sara and Jane may be able to offer one of the new candidates as an alternative.

We are all looking forward to working with our local council candidates in the run-up to the May elections, and Chris and I will be working with David Surtees and the rest of the team to focus on areas where we can make the greatest contribution.

Don't forget that our Press Officer Emma McClarkin, based in Nottingham, is also able to talk about our parliamentary work, and she has proved very popular at a number of Party events.

The EU Constitution

The so-called "Convention" of 105 parliamentarians from 25 countries, under the Chairmanship of ex-French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, has delivered itself of its draft for the first sixteen articles of the proposed EU Constitution -- expect dozens more articles in due course. It threatens a decisive shift of power from national governments to the EU super-state, covering vital areas such as economic policy, tax, justice and home affairs, foreign policy and defence. Without being alarmist, it represents the end of Britain as an independent nation.

Much attention in Brussels is focussed on the nuts and bolts, and we Conservative MEPs are working hard to propose amendments which might mitigate the damage. But given the overwhelming preponderance of federalists on the Convention, we can be sure that the final text will be anathema to Conservatives -- and indeed to all who care about their country. So the more interesting political question is what we do about the final draft when it's available.

The Labour government has said that the current text is unacceptable, but my prediction is that they will come back in a few months with some cosmetic amendments, they will declare a victory, and seek to ratify the Constitution.

The government has already said that it won't have a referendum on this huge constitutional monstrosity -- although here they may find even the Brussels federalists taking issue. It seems that the EU institutions broadly favour an EU-wide referendum, though this would require Germany to change its own constitution first.

If we get a referendum in the UK, then our approach is straightforward -- to campaign for a NO vote. If not, then my own view is that we should turn the 2004 euro-elections into a national referendum on the Constitution. The timing looks set to be ideal. But we are fighting for nothing less than British independence, democracy and self-determination.

Quote of the month

Sir John Kerr, a senior British civil servant working in Brussels on the "Constitutional Convention", to Jens-Peter Bonde, a Danish MEP who sits on the Convention (private telephone conversation): "It would set a very bad precedent if members of the Convention were able to table proposals".

(The Convention has systematically ignored submissions from sceptics -- and the so-called "Praesidium" of the Convention has consistently ignored the views of the Convention as a whole!).

A day of shame

As I write (Feb 19th), President Robert Mugabe of Southern Rhodesia (or as they now style it, Zimbabwe) will arrive in Paris at the invitation of the French government. Mugabe is as evil a man, in his own way, as Saddam Hussein, though fortunately less well armed. He is a wicked despot. We hear much of the dreadful wickedness he has inflicted on white farmers, but he has done far more harm, at least in terms of numbers, to his indigenous black population, beating, starving and killing his opponents.

France has invited Mugabe despite the protests of Britain and other EU countries. For the first time in my life I feel a twinge of sympathy for the otherwise odious Peter Tatchell, who has gone to Paris intending to undertake a citizen's arrest.

The undercurrent of anti-American feeling in France has also broken out again, threatening our vital transatlantic relationship, and creating a split between "Old" and "New" Europe which even the BBC has noticed and is quoting with relish. And President Chirac's harsh criticisms of those accession states who have expressed support for the USA has been widely attacked in the media across Europe. According to the BBC, his remarks are creating a tide of euro-scepticism in the accession states, which is interesting as they will soon be holding referenda on joining the EU.

It seems that Chirac has yet to learn that to be President of France in the twenty-first century is not quite the same as being Charlemagne or Napoleon.

German Unemployment Shock

Figures announced this month show that German unemployment increased by a massive 10% to 4.6 million in January -- that's around 11% of the workforce. There are a number of reasons for this, including the state of the world economy and the appallingly restrictive employment laws which successive German governments have failed to address. But there is no doubt that the euro's one-size-fits-all interest rate is too high for the German economy -- and locked into the single currency, there is absolutely nothing they can do about it. And the recent appreciation of the euro to (as I write) $1.08, while welcome to the euro-luvvies, is a damaging blow for German exports.

Germany is the clearest possible object lesson on "Why Britain should not join the euro"!

Defending Charity Shops

Charity shops are a familiar scene on our high-streets and a vital fund-raising mechanism for good causes. Yet they are constantly at risk from EU legislation. A couple of years ago it was the Product Safety Directive, which would have required full traceability for all goods sold -- effectively an impossibility for voluntarily donated goods. Now, there's a threat of VAT on charity shops.

At a reception in Brussels organised by my London colleague Theresa Villiers MEP, I met Lekha Klouda, Executive Secretary of the UK Association of Charity Shops, and she came up with a brilliant quote that deserves wider circulation: "Charities are scared of Brussels legislation. They're afraid they'll be killed by accident". I am of course very aware of the concerns of other traders about competition on the high-street from charity shops with low rates and free labour. Ms. Klouda assured me that the proportion of new goods sold in charity shops was small and not increasing.

"It's Your Shout"

I expect to be appearing on "It's Your Shout", a topical political debate programme, on ITV on Sunday afternoon (Feb 23rd). If you have nothing better to do, you may like to watch.

A busy week

This week we've had visits in Brussels from the Leicestershire Economic Partnership (Martin Traynor), and from a delegation of Northamptonshire County Councillors led by Jim Harker, and we're expecting visits from Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa May, and from most of the new euro-candidates who've recently been selected.

Attitudes to the EU

The EU Commission undertakes research into public opinion on EU subjects, and regularly publishes research under the snappy title Eurobarometer. The latest research was published in October 2002. You might like some highlights.

In the eurozone, less than two thirds (62%) said they felt comfortable using the euro. In the UK, more than half opposed the euro. Also in the UK, less than a third (32%) said EU membership was a good thing. 21% thought it was a bad thing, while nearly half (47%) were indifferent.

In the EU as a whole, less than half (46%) said they trusted the EU. This was down from 53% the previous year. 65% feel that further EU integration will lead to more drug traffic and organised crime, and to higher unemployment. On the enlargement issue, only 21% felt "well-informed", and this was down to 14% in the UK.

Nearly a tenth (9%) said they had never heard of the European parliament. And 49% said they had not been aware of, or had contact with, their MEPs since the 1999 election. Chris and I will have to try harder! And remember that these figures are not from me, or from some euro-sceptic think-tank, but from the European Commission itself.

Taking the message to schools

On Tuesday February 4th I was invited to a "Question Time" session with year 9 (that's Third Form in old money!) pupils at the Northampton Boys School. I'd been expecting a class of thirty or so, so I was a bit surprised when it turned out to be the whole year group of around 200 boys, with some sixth-form politics students for good measure.

Questions ranged from the Iraq war to fox-hunting.

Visits to schools and universities are not big news stories, but they are an important part of the work that Chris and I do in the region.


That brings us up-to-date with events in Brussels and Strasbourg. Remember to check my web-site at www.rogerhelmer.com for more background on current parliamentary business and other issues.