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Straight Talking - September 2004

Roger Helmer's electronic newsletter from Brussels

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A new parliamentary term starts

September finds us back in harness, with a new President of the Commission, the Portuguese Mr José Manuel Durão Barroso, and under the six-month Dutch Presidency of the Council.

It has been a strange summer in this election year. Normally we get about four weeks' break in August. This year, we finished our routine work the first week in May. Although parliament met in July, we focussed on restructuring for the next five years -- election of officers, appointments to committees, hearings for the new Commission President -- so the break in normal working has lasted nearly four months. Apologies to anyone who has been in touch over the break and has waited longer than usual for a response.

Tory policy on the EU

There is a bit of a stirring in the grass roots. According to reports in the Daily Telegraph (10/8), several Tory PPCs are calling on Michael Howard to announce a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU, to follow a future NO vote on the Constitution. This, they say, would "shoot UKIP's fox". But rather to my surprise, they insist that in such a referendum, the Conservative Party would campaign to stay in.

Given that an opinion poll before the June euro-elections showed more than half of Conservative voters wanted to leave the EU, this might be a difficult one to sell. I also find it difficult to see how it would "shoot UKIP's fox", unless we said we would campaign for a NO vote. It would simply play into UKIP's hands to have a Conservative government announce a referendum on membership, and then campaign to stay in.

As noted below, it is exceedingly difficult to identify any benefit at all which the UK receives as a result of EU membership. On what basis, therefore, could we campaign to stay in? I can accept staying in if, and only if, we have a real prospect of a radical reform of our terms of membership, which re-establishes our independence and democracy within this country. But we have seen no prospect of radical reform in thirty years.

Let me be very clear on this one. If the choice is to stay in on more or less the current terms, or to leave, I'll vote to leave. Period.

Re-branding the Conservative Party

They say August is the silly season, and a very silly story came up in the press. "Senior Conservatives" were thinking very seriously about re-branding the Party as "Reform Conservatives" or "Democrats". One "Senior Conservative" (un-named) was quoted as saying: "Democrats is a very attractive name, by analogy with US politics. It puts us in the centre ground, to the left of New Labour".

I have been a Conservative all my life. I have campaigned as a Conservative, fought as a Conservative, stood as a Conservative, sat as a Conservative. I confidently expect to die as a Conservative. But I can say without any reservation whatever that I shall never, ever be associated with any new party called the Democrats, to the left of New Labour.

The EU: pious, patronising, hubristic, insensitive, deeply offensive

All decent people have been shocked to the core by the appalling carnage of schoolchildren in the Russian town of Beslan. All, that is, except the EU, which has seen fit to "demand an explanation" of the tragedy from the Russian government. It beggars belief that the EU would make such a demand of a nation mourning its children. The EU's insensitivity and impertinence, its hubris, its pious, holier-than-thou attitude, are astonishing and shameful.

There may well come a time for legitimate questions, but not now, not in the first shock of grief, not while the bodies remain unburied.

The Russian Foreign Minister has described the demand as "deeply offensive", which in the circumstances is a triumph of understatement. The Russian media have described it as "blasphemous", which comes nearer the mark.

I have written to the Russian Ambassador in Brussels to dissociate myself from the EU's initiative, and to the Dutch Foreign Minster (the Minister in Office for the current Dutch presidency of the EU) calling for him to withdraw his disgraceful and inhuman demand.

British Students prefer the Anglo-Sphere

A report from the Department of Education agonises over the fact that more and more British students who choose to study abroad, are choosing to go to English-speaking countries rather than to our EU partners -- despite the truck-loads of money made available by the EU Commission to promote exchanges between EU member-states.

Press reports suggested that this trend arises because British students are "too lazy" to learn foreign languages, and because they prefer the beaches of Florida and Australia to the leaden skies of Paris or Berlin. I'm not so sure. I think it may reflect the ties of culture with the English-speaking peoples -- after all language is a key determinant of identity. And it may even reflect career planning. Anyone planning to go into business will by-and-large learn more, and make more useful contacts, in an Anglo-Saxon environment than he/she would in France -- language or not.

For more on this, see my piece "Students may be smarter than we thought".

Fox-hunting: here we go again

It seems that Labour are determined to have another go at fox-hunting, not because they believe it matters for animal welfare (it doesn't), but as a political tactic, a sop for Blair to throw to his fractious troops. A Prime Minister prepared to ride roughshod over our civil liberties and overturn centuries of tradition for no better reason than party management tactics, doesn't deserve his office. For more on this, see "Good for foxes?".

Benefits of EU membership? What benefits?

I always thought that whatever its faults, at least the EU delivered trade benefits in the Single Market. Astonishingly, the German Bundesbank begs to differ. It says it can identify few if any benefits for German firms arising from the Single Market. This stunning, counter-intuitive fact comes from a new paper from the think-tank Civitas, written by Ian Milne, a Director of Global Britain. The paper analyses a series of areas -- the Single Market, EU regulation, the CAP, inward investment -- and concludes that Britain obtains few if any benefits, and that the total cost of membership is in the region of £40 billion a year.

Milne also reviews a number of authoritative cost/benefit analyses, all of which tend to show that we should be no worse off, and perhaps much better off, out.

Again, a more detailed summary is available.

A European Olympic team?

In yet another bid by the EU to achieve pseudo-national status, out-going Commission President Romano Prodi has suggested that in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, all athletes from EU member-states should parade under the EU flag -- the wretched crown of thorns -- as well as their national flags. British athletes were, not surprisingly, outraged. One of the most encouraging aspects of the Olympics from a UK point of view was surely the sight of our athletes, and their supporters, of whatever ethnic group, proudly displaying the Union Jack. Commenting on Prodi's proposal, Darren Campbell, a sprinter, said that he would rather not go than run under the EU flag at Beijing. Good man.

Denis MacShane gets carried away

Denis MacShane MP, described as Minister for Europe, has started a sustained verbal assault against euro-sceptics. First, we were xenophobes who were damaging British interests, we hated foreigners, we were racists, we were replaying the Second World War. I wrote to him pointing out that euro-sceptics are the true internationalists, because we know Britain is a great global trading and investing nation, and that we cannot be restricted to one trading bloc, especially one with such dire prospects as the EU. I argued that valuing independence and self-determination does not make one a xenophobe (see open letter on the website).

Two days later he was at it again. Britain was under-represented in Brussels because we had so many euro-sceptic MEPs. My rebuttal letter was published in the Daily Telegraph of August 10th. I argued that euro-sceptic MEPs could better fight Britain's corner, and better represent the mainstream views of the British people on EU matters, than the Euro-Yes-Men of Labour and the Lib-Dems.

Watch this space. I suspect that Denis will come back for another go.

KILROY WAS HERE -- wasn't he?

On the third floor of the European parliament building in Brussels is a huge array of MEPs' mail-boxes, eight boxes high and nearly a hundred wide. They are organised by country, and then in alphabetical order. By chance, my box is in the top row, and next to it is the box of Robert Kilroy-Silk. My box is empty (because my staff clear it daily).

I took the liberty of glancing into Kilroy-Silk's box, and it's full to the top. The answer seems to be, Yes, Kilroy was here -- but not recently! It's starting to seem unlikely that we shall be able to make a Kilroy-Silk purse out of a sow's ear.

Euro-zone interest rates -- a wedge driving divergence

The shallow cheer-leaders of the euro currency have thoughtlessly assumed that sharing a single currency will automatically lead to economic convergence in the euro-zone. In fact, it is a wedge driving euro-zone economies apart.

I have always argued that a single interest rate for diverse economies will mean the wrong interest rate for most countries, most of the time, leading to recession in some and inflation in others. But an excellent article in the August 29th Sunday Telegraph by Liam Halligan (Economics Correspondent at Channel 4 News) shows that the reality is even worse than I thought.

Euro-zone countries share the same nominal interest rate, by definition. But the real interest rates (i.e. nominal minus the inflation rate) can be different between euro-zone countries. And perversely, they tend to be different in the wrong direction. Countries in recession, which need a lower interest rate, actually get a higher real interest rate.

Imagine two euro-zone countries, one doing better than the other. You don't need to imagine very hard -- France and Germany are a good example. Because France is growing slightly ahead of Germany, it has a somewhat higher inflation rate. And therefore it has a lower real interest rate than Germany. What Germany needs is a lower interest rate than France, but the euro ensures it gets exactly the opposite.

There is another reason why the euro is driving divergence. Before the euro was launched, euro-zone countries were very successful in achieving convergence of inflation rates. But they achieved it by applying differential interest rates. As soon as the euro kicked in, they were forced to apply a common nominal interest rate -- so of course inflation rates immediately started to diverge again.

A prediction: either

(1)   The euro will eventually collapse entirely, or

(2) Because of the huge political capital invested in it, it will stay on life-support long past its sell-by date, doing huge damage to growth, prosperity and competitiveness in the euro-zone.

Either way, we are very much better off out.

A conundrum

Some people are saying that the war in Iraq was illegal, that we had no right to interfere in the internal affairs of that country, despite the appalling human rights abuses inflicted on the Iraqi people by Sadaam Hussein.

Meanwhile, some people are saying that we have a moral duty to intervene in Sudan, to stop the attempted genocide of African subsistence farmers, with the connivance of the Sudanese government, by the Arab Janjaweed militia in Darfur.

The conundrum? It seems to be largely the same people condemning our intervention in Iraq, who are demanding our intervention in Sudan.


"European federalism is another secular religion, like communism or fascism, whose attractions prove so great because they reassure people who have lost their inner bearings that they are still on the winning side of History. Its proponents display the self-righteousness, the intolerance of dissent, the assumption that the ends will justify the means -- including subversion of a country's democracy -- that their counterparts so enthusiastically practised".

Robin Harris, Consultant Director of Politeia, in the Daily Telegraph of August 23rd.

The brain drain goes on

In the last parliament, I was the Conservative delegation's spokesman on research. So I was sorry to read a report commissioned by the European Union suggesting that Europe is losing many of its skilled workers and top executives to the United States. Over the last thirty years, the total number of immigrants to the US from Europe has dropped considerably, but the US still relies on Europe for high-skilled temporary labour -- in 2001, the EU supplied more than 400,000 of the 1.3 million non-immigrants admitted to the US on a temporary basis, the vast majority of whom went on H-1B (high-skilled) visas.

The report lists the usual economic litany of higher salaries, more flexible working conditions and a more dynamic intellectual environment in the US to explain these transatlantic losses, and concludes that "some might observe that overall, Europe has yet to successfully market the ERA [European Research Area] as a challenging venue to attract the brightest and best from outside its borders".

Time to get serious about energy

Britain is starting to be dangerously dependent on foreign energy sources, as North Sea oil and gas production decline. And according to some scientists, we face a threat of global warming. I am a bit sceptical about global warming, but it would be no bad precaution to seek to reduce CO2 emissions anyway.

Our nuclear capacity in the UK is aging, and much will have to close over the next decade. Nuclear is the only high-volume energy source that does not produce CO2. So we need to get to grips with replacement nuclear power stations merely to maintain current capacity. If we are serious about reducing CO2 emissions, we should be looking at additional nuclear capacity.

At the same time, we should look at replacing imported oil and gas with British coal, to reduce our dependency on imports. Coal is not the cleanest solution, but with new technology it's hugely cleaner than it used to be, and consistent with reducing CO2 provided we also build more nuclear capacity. The problem, as is so often the case, is EU single market rules. For more on this, see my longer article.


Please remember to check this website for more background on current parliamentary business, full details of proposals being voted at the Strasbourg plenary session, and a host of other issues.