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Straight Talking - July 2004 Special Edition

Roger Helmer's electronic newsletter from Brussels

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Dateline Strasbourg -- July 20th 2004

We're here in Strasbourg -- all 700+ MEPs -- for the first full session of the new, 2004/9 parliament. As BBC World Service TV put it this morning, the new European parliament is bigger -- but is it better?

Our first task is to elect a President for the parliament for the first half of our five-year term. And we find we are facing a devil's pact between the EPP and the socialists. In order to get their man, Hans-Gert Poettering, elected President for the second half, they've agreed to support a socialist candidate for the first half.

And the chosen socialist candidate is a loser. It goes without saying he's a federalist. But he's also a new boy, and simply can't have the experience, the knowledge of the way parliament works, to make an effective President (which more or less means Speaker, be the way, in Westminster terms). He's a Spaniard, Signor José Borrell Fontelles, and he was deeply unimpressive in the hearing I attended.

The other only candidates, by the way, were a Polish Liberal and a French Communist.

What's this got to do with us, you ask? Well despite recent reports in the Sunday Telegraph, we Conservative MEPs remain allied to the EPP, and the EPP expects us to support their pact, though so far as I know they never consulted us or sought our approval.

I am not at all sure that Conservatives in the East Midlands will expect me to vote for an incompetent Spanish socialist as president of the parliament. Especially if our only pay-back is to get a competent German federalist in the second half! I am inclined to write "none of the above".

One ray of hope. Our cross-party euro-realist intergroup, SOS democracy, may decide to field a candidate for the second half, in December 2006. Such a candidate would have no hope of success, but could at least provide us with an honourable way to vote. It would also give us a useful measure of support in the parliament for a euro-realist position.

President of the Commission

Later this week we vote on the President of the Commission, to replace Romano Prodi (the last paragraph, to avoid confusion was about the President of the Parliament, not the Commission -- Presidents are two-a-penny on the EU institutions!). Our "centre-right" candidate is a Portuguese called Barosso (why do I always think of him as Barbarossa?). Of course the man is a federalist, but he does seem to be sound on the Atlantic alliance, and unlike Borrell he seems at least competent and articulate.

I shall vote for him, if only out of respect for Britain's ancient alliance with Portugal.

The inexorable march of the English language

A subtle but significant change has taken place in the parliament. All over the building are electronic screens with notices of meetings, timetables and plenary sessions. In the last parliament, these were all in French. But I have just noticed this week that suddenly they're in English. Séances and réunions have given way to sittings and meetings.

It's also refreshing to hear new members from central and eastern Europe talking to each other in English. As in India under the Raj, so in the EU parliament, English is the lingua franca of many disparate tribes who may not understand each other's language, but understand ours.

Conservatives and the EPP

My article covering this subject appeared in the European Journal during week commencing July 12th. By an unhappy accident of timing, the EJ was at the printers just as frantic negotiations were taking place over the EPP-ED issue -- negotiations which resulted in Michael Howard's recent "Dear Colleagues" letter, toughening our stance on the separate identity of the ED.

My criticism of the arrangement was targeted at the "new deal", so-called, negotiated in the spring, not at Michael Howard's new, tougher stance. I am happy to make this clear, and the EJ will be carrying a post-script piece in the next issue making this point. This is also available here.

But the key point of my original article stands. I believe we need a new Conservative policy on the EU. We need to renegotiate a relationship based solely on market access, free trade and voluntary intergovernmental co-operation. Nothing less will see off the UKIP challenge. Nothing less will satisfy the aspirations of Conservatives, and of the general public. Nothing less will ensure the independence of our country and the survival of our democracy.

Leicester South By-election

The good news was we had an excellent candidate, a well-organised, high-energy campaign, and enormous support from huge numbers of activists, councillors, agents, PPCs, MPs, MEPs and the Shadow Cabinet. Chris as the candidate fought an heroic campaign. No one could have worked harder, or done more.

The bad news is that the result failed to meet our expectations. I don't think we really expected to win, but we hoped to come close. We have to start asking serious questions about how we communicate nationally as a party. I believe we have some excellent policies, and we will have more, especially as we move towards Party Conference.

But are they getting through to the public? If you went out on the street and asked the first 100 people you met "Can you think of any reason why you might be inclined to vote Conservative?", how many would give you a coherent answer?

It was the same in our June euro campaign (forgive me for seeing everything through the prism of European policy -- but that's my job!). Our slogan was "Let down by Labour? Vote Conservative". But as the public reminded us, both at the euro election and in Leicester South, they may be let down by Labour, but they have other protest vote options -- the Liberals, UKIP, Respect. We need to give them solid, comprehensible reasons why they should vote for us, and not for other parties. That's what UKIP did in June, and it seemed to work for them.

BBC Reception

July 20th: I have just attended a reception given by the BBC for MEPs in the Strasbourg parliament, to mark the start of the new term. As a freebie, all MEPs attending were given a DVD set of the BBC's "D-Day" programme, which I noticed included a picture of a swastika on the back. How's that for insensitive?

Car for sale

Rover 75 (Oct 2002), "52" Reg, 2500cc V6, many extras -- climate control, cruise control, 6-stack CD player, Xenon headlights, leather seats, wooden steering wheel. Excellent nick, one careful owner, full service record. Pale green metallic. Original 2002 list price £25k. Would take £8,000 o.n.o. Call my office on 01455 558447.

The Gravy Train

My good friend and colleague Phillip Bushill Matthews MEP from the West Midlands has written a book which he chose to call, perhaps unwisely, "The Gravy Train". Rumour has it that the sequel will be called "Gravy Train Two: Return to Euston".


I am now back in Parliament till 30th July when this parliamentary term comes to an end. Parliament, and my office, then reopen on 23rd August. Please remember to check my web-site at www.rogerhelmer.com for more background on current parliamentary business, full details of proposals being voted at the Strasbourg plenary session, and a host of other issues.