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Straight Talking - March 2003

Roger Helmer's electronic newsletter from Brussels

Please feel free to distribute this newsletter or to quote from it. If you want to go onto the e-mail list please click here.

Countdown to war

As I write, it seems more and more likely that we shall be at war within weeks. Surely a Prime Minister faces no more difficult and challenging decision than to send British troops into battle, and right or wrong, that is what Tony Blair seems to have decided.

This is an issue that cuts across party lines, and I know that many Conservatives have serious reservations about the wisdom of attacking Iraq. I respect their views, but I think on balance the Conservative party's position is right.

I heard a commentator on radio recently saying it was "ridiculous" to compare Saddam Hussein with Adolf Hitler. Well they were both militarist, totalitarian dictators. They both attacked neighbouring countries without provocation. They both gassed their own people. They both tried to build a nuclear weapon. They sound pretty similar to me.

Of course no one wants to bomb innocent Iraqi civilians. We want to liberate them. And I suspect that many millions of them will be grateful.

I was struck by Ken Clarke's impressive speech in the House during the Iraq debate. Opening a second front in his dissent from party policy, he argued powerfully against starting a war. How should we feel in the event of a future terrorist outrage, he asked, if we thought that by going to war with Saddam we had prompted the attack? But that question can be so easily turned around. If we fail to disarm Saddam, terrorist attacks might still occur. Would we then have to reproach ourselves that our failure to act had allowed Saddam to arm terrorist groups with weapons of mass destruction?

Looking back over the history of the past hundred years, it is difficult to make the case that appeasement is any guarantee of peace and security.


Should the UN be the final arbiter?

Throughout the Iraq debate, we hear demands for a second UN resolution, as if the UN had a sort of Papal infallibility, or was an undisputed moral arbiter. But the UN is merely a collection of countries, many of whom have a far worse record of human rights and decent behaviour than the Western democracies.

The UN Committee on Human Rights is chaired by Libya. And the UN's disarmament committee is chaired -- believe it or not -- by Iraq! If we insist on a second UN resolution, we are giving a veto to all permanent members of the Security Council. Or to put it another way, we are giving a veto to Jacques Chirac. I'm not sure I want Jacques Chirac to decide whether or not Britain should go to war.


Malta votes "Yes"

Malta has voted YES to EU membership -- but by a surprisingly narrow margin of less than 54%. Even this was only achieved by a massive injection of European tax-payers' propaganda funding. And there is likely to be a general election before Malta actually signs, so it's not yet a done deal.


The Rt. Hon. Patricia Hewitt replies

I recently wrote to Patricia Hewitt MP asking why Labour MEPs in Brussels were repeatedly voting against UK government policy, for example by supporting the EU's damaging "Temporary Workers Directive". In an amazingly frank reply (18th Feb), she admits that Labour MEPs are failing to support the government, says that she and Employment Minister Alan Johnson have been "working tirelessly" to get them into line -- and thanks Tory MEPs for opposing the measure!


Paris in the springtime

I have just visited Paris (sadly for only three hours) at the invitation of Conservatives in Paris. They are re-launching the group, and some forty people attended a meeting chaired by Lord Astor, who is on Michael Ancram's foreign affairs team.

Although there were a range of views on the European project, my analysis of the current state of play was well received, and several members of the audience have come back asking to go on the news-letter mailing list. Lord Astor's assistant is now asking if I could do the same speech in Geneva.....


British are the most reluctant Europeans

The European Commission's new "Eurobarometer" study shows the British as the "most reluctant Europeans", with 65% insisting they "British only", not European, or British and European. Only just over half (56%) were able to relate the circle-of-stars flag to the EU, while three quarters were unable to name any one of the ten accession states, who may be joining the EU next year.

Those who know about enlargement expect our fishermen and farmers will be the losers. The Commission's study show only 28% of Brits want the euro, while 30% say "there have been no benefits at all from EU membership".


Research funding for British firms and academic institutions

The EU's sixth framework Directive kicked in at the beginning of this year. It will make around 17 billion euros (that's about 11 billion in real money) available over a five year period. Funding is available to firms and universities in the UK. Preference is always given to applications from consortia in several member states or accession states, because although the overt purpose of the funding is research, the sub-text as always is European integration.

My experience is that many companies find European grant funding procedures hopelessly opaque and complicated -- indeed I have met companies who have received EU grant funding who say they'd never apply again, as the money wasn't worth the hassle. And we should never forget that each Pound we get back from the EU costs the British economy around 2:60. But as long as the budget is there, we want to be sure that Britain gets its fair share.

In my capacity as Research Spokesman for the Tory delegation, I have now prepared a leaflet setting out in very straightforward terms the best ways of applying for research funding. This leaflet will be widely distributed through Chambers of Commerce and other organisations.

Click here to see the full information.


Pensions threat from Brussels

Last week I had a call from a party member in High Peak, desperately concerned about EU proposals to put a stop to the 25% tax-free lump sum that we are currently allowed on retirement. I checked with Theresa Villiers MEP, our expert on these matters, and there is indeed such a proposal on the table. Theresa thinks we may be able to stop it in the parliament, or failing that the UK might stop it in the Council.

Much of our work in the parliament consists of identifying and fending off threats like this. Sometimes we succeed, but not always. Given the current very low rates offered on annuities, the tax-free lump sum is a very important benefit.

Edward Garnier MP (Market Harborough) has just introduced a Private Members Bill which would allow pensioners to delay buying their annuity indefinitely (provided they bought enough annuity to cover minimum benefit levels), and his proposal has widespread support in the House. So while Edward Garnier is seeking more flexibility, Brussels argues for less.

Of course Gordon Brown stands to gain a lot of tax revenue if the EU proposal is adopted, so he may sympathise with it. Frequently this Labour government will introduce a measure that appears to be a British initiative, but in fact is designed to harmonise with the EU -- such as carbon taxes and regionalisation. We will see if he tries the same approach with pensions.


Welfare of horses

On March 4th I organised a meeting in Brussels between the International League for Protection of Horses (ILPH) and the European Commission. The Commission is preparing a proposal for a new Directive on transportation of horses, and the ILPH was keen to find an opportunity to influence the draft.

There is an enormous problem with horses from Eastern Europe which are transported over long distances for slaughter in the EU, especially in Italy. In a very cordial meeting we found we had a considerable meeting of minds, so we have high hopes for a good outcome.

The ILPH does a superb job of working around the world to protect horses, and unlike some animal charities it spends its money on real welfare issues, not tendentious political campaigns. If you'd like to support its work, the address for donations is ILPH, Anne Colvin House, Snetterton, Norwich NR16 2LR.


A busy day in the East Midlands

Week commencing February 24th was a "Yellow week", when there are no formal activities in the parliament, and MEPs work in their constituencies -- or snatch a quick holiday. I had a particularly busy day on Thursday 27th. At 8:45 I was addressing 250 year ten pupils (that's Fourth Form in old money) at Saint Benedict's School in Derby. Then lunch with the Oadby Rotary Club at the Glen Gorse golf club.

A quick forty-five minute drive took me to Wellingborough School, where I spent over an hour with fifty or so very perceptive Sixth Formers -- before saying a brief Hallo to Allison Holley, our former PPC from Bassetlaw, who teaches there. Wellingborough is just down the road from the village of Orlingbury where I lived for ten years until 1995.

Peter Bone, our excellent PPC for Wellingborough, took me on to a Conservative tea party where I met a number of old friends. We then visited a new Post Office on a Wellingborough estate, and finally went on the meet Andy and Jacqui Meads. Andy is fighting a campaign to save barn owls, and is very concerned about proposals for the Isham by-pass, which could affect barn-owl nest sites.

I wouldn't say that every day is quite so packed -- I need to get into the office sometimes -- but it gives a flavour of the work we MEPs do.


Quote of the month:

"This government is taxing and spending and failing" -- Michael Howard


Conclusion

Please remember to check my web-site at www.rogerhelmer.com for more background on current parliamentary business and other issues.

RFH