Tag Archives: Tony Blair

The Tories and UKIP are using the EU for party advantage

Contrary to much popular opinion put about by those with a stiletto-edged axe to grind on the European Union, the majority of businesses in Britain are in favour of EU membership. The reason is very simple: 47 per cent of our exports of to EU member states while 50 per cent of foreign direct investment is from EU countries.

Speaking to the Business for New Europe coalition tomorrow, Tony Blair, in a strong return to the domestic political scene, will point out that since major economies such as China, India, Brazil and Russia are emerging as formidable competitors in the global power game, EU membership is more important than ever. Sunday’s Observer quotes a source close to Blair as saying: “Whereas the post-war argument for Europe was about peace versus war, he [Tony] will make the point that the 21st century case for Europe is about power versus irrelevance.”

This is, I believe, the most powerful argument for being in the EU. It is, in fact, the only realistic way Britain can remain at the top table. Added to this is the statement by CBI President Sir Roger Carr last week that UK membership of the EU is the “launch pad” for much international business. Again according to the Observer, Sir Roger said, “Whatever the popular appeal maybe of withdrawal, businessmen and politicians must keep a bridge to Europe firmly in place.”

Enter the hapless Tory MP former party whip Michael Fabricant, who now goes under the title of Conservative campaign chief and wants an electoral alliance with the manically anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP). In charge of the Conservatives’ marginal seats strategy, he thinks teaming up with UKIP cold win the Tories an extra 20 seats at the general election

The huge mismatch between what is good for Britain and what the Tories believe is good for their party is becoming ever more apparent. Senior Tories are clearly prepared to go down the route of seriously considering withdrawing from the European Union in order to try and maintain their domestic political advantage.

Make no mistake, UKIP not only want to come out Europe, it is their very reason for being. Some top Tories appear to be prepared to ally with a rabid anti-EU party which is not even part of the mainstream in this country to gain a few additional seats in the House of Commons. Rarely has such brazen political opportunism been so rife on the right of British politics.

UKIP, of course, has a presence in the European Parliament. That is, however, as far as they have got. They have no MPs and only a handful of local councillors. They make a lot of noise but they are nowhere in national politics. However, if the Tories were to grace them with their support, UKIP would have a way in. This could be the beginning of the end for Britain and the European Union. We would be left without the massive trading advantages the head of the CBI has emphasised, isolated and much worse off.

Meanwhile, it is not just Tony Blair from the Labour side who recognises that Britain needs the EU. Labour Leader Ed Miliband has recently made an important speech outlining the very same case. Britain staying a member of the EU is, as they say, really a no-brainer.

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Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. So it was apt to be reminded of some of the figures relating to domestic violence. Yesterday’s Sunday Mirror carried an exclusive story which revealed “victims of domestic violence make one in five of all 999 calls to police in some areas.”

The article called this a hidden crime which affects over a million women each year. Of course it is not always and exclusively women who are affected by this crime but nevertheless funding has been cut which is essential to helping support victims of domestic violence across the UK.

The article revealed the area with the highest proportion of domestic violence reports was Merseyside, where they made up 21% of all emergency calls. In both West Mercia and Lancashire the figure was more than 18%.

Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper called for action on the problem, saying a new organisation should be set up to tackle domestic violence. She also said ministers haven’t helped and have compounded the problem by slashing funding to refuges.

She told the Sunday Mirror’s Vincent Moss: “This is a hidden emergency for over a million women every year who call out for urgent help but are not ­properly heard,” she added. You can read the full story here.

Meanwhile on the question of Europe, yesterday’s Observer had a well written piece by Andrew Rawnsley who warned those who are rushing to remove us from Europe not to wish too hard.

This is something I’m often asked about and I think it’s important to remember that in order to have a say in Europe, a strong and influential voice we must not deny ourselves representation a the top table. We must be there to negotiate on trade, borders and security and all the things which affect us as a nation.

Rawnsley’ s article said that Tony Blair is to make an “important intervention”, this Wednesday where he will tell a business audience that “the case for Europe is no longer principally about maintaining peace on this continent but about projecting power in the world. Out of the EU, Britain will be denied representation at the top table when Europe negotiates – on trade, for example – with America and China,” he is expected to say.

Rawnsley concludes that those who are calling for us to leave Europe are not influential in comparison to those who are gunning for us to stay in Europe. He says: “So on the fundamental question, in or out, here is the line-up of forces. On the side of remaining in the European Union: the Lib Dems, the Labour Party, an important number of senior conservatives, the vast majority of business and the vast majority of trades unions.

“On the side of leaving: a lot of Tories, a few noisy newspapers, hardly any businesses and hardly any trades unionists. That is why I say the ‘outists’e are unwise to toast victory before the battle has even been properly joined.” You can read his article in full here.

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Britain’s EU bill explained without the anti-European hype

Mark Reckless, Bill Cash, Douglas Carswell and the other feral Tory Eurosceptics are quite simply wrong on the EU budget. At best they have either not bothered to do their homework or quite simply and naively believe the plethora of misinformation that surrounds us in Britain. At worst they are so utterly opposed to the European Union that they will always twist the truth to suit their own purposes.

I was particularly disappointed by an article in the Sunday Times full of prejudice taking little account of the facts. Britain actually received a £5 billion rebate back from the EU last year and will continue to get this sum adjusted for inflation for every subsequent year. The reason the UK is one of the highest contributors to the EU is that we are one of the largest member states.

What is more, the EU budget is nothing like as huge as current folk lore would have us believe. In 2011 it was € 140 billion. The average EU citizen pays only about 50p on average per day to finance the annual budget which represents only around 1% of EU-27 Gross Domestic Product

The budget is, in addition, always balanced, meaning nothing is spent on debt. Moreover 94% of what is paid into the EU budget is spent in Member States on EU funded programmes, many of which are about economic development creating jobs and generating wealth. Those who complain about EU payments to Kosovo being lost to corruption as outlined in the Sunday Times would do well to understand that this is proportionately a very small sum of money. Of course, corruption is always wrong, but the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown decision to support Kosovo was made in good faith with the aim of rebuilding the war torn country.

I get very annoyed when we are told that the EU budget and almost everything else is imposed by Brussels. The budget and, indeed all European legislation, is decided by elected politicians, in the European Parliament and in the Council of Ministers comprising member states’ elected governments. The EU never “imposes” anything on member states; it is all agreed by elected governments and elected MEPs.

The Sunday Times article sadly relied on briefing from the Open Europe think tank. They are by their own admission anti-EU as this quote from their website demonstrates: “While we [Open Europe] are committed to European co-operation, we believe that the EU has reached a critical moment in its development. Globalisation, enlargement, successive No votes in EU referenda and the Eurozone crisis have discredited the notion of ‘ever closer union’ espoused by successive generations of political and bureaucratic elites.”

While this is an opinion, it is not the only one and the Sunday Times would have done well to take on board other arguments. They tell us that 53% of those in David Cameron’s Witney constituency favour withdrawal from the EU. That means that 47% do not, enough I would have thought for their views to be taken on board.

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The House of Lords with 792 members is in urgent need of reform

It has always been a mystery to me how Britain can claim to be a modern, twentieth-century democracy and have its parliament’s second chamber chosen by prime ministerial patronage. The only other country with an appointed second chamber is Canada, based on the British tradition.

 Every other democracy with a second chamber elects its members. As a parliamentarian, I find it difficult to accept that Britain is so behind in this matter. Other European countries either have no second chamber or one that is either directly or, as in the case of the French senate, indirectly elected.

Even those countries which, like Britain, have undergone minimal disruption by war or revolution throughout their history have managed to come to a democratic conclusion. Sweden has a unicameral system as does Denmark; both countries evolved peacefully towards this state.

 Yet Britain is unable to get anywhere with this thorny problem. Members of the upper house who gained their place by heredity lasted far too long. Now we have a truly messy mish-mash of appointees who got there by virtue of their relationship with the prime minister. Just to add to the mix, there are also 26 Church of England bishops whose status is a historical remnant of the landed wealth of the medieval church.

There is no way the current state of affairs can be viewed as an edifying way to run a country. Indeed, I am reminded of those robber barons who came to England with William the Conqueror and were rewarded with tracts of the English countryside, not to mention royaly dispensed titles. The current situation whereby the 21st century equivalent of William the First’s cohorts gain advantage is the same in principle, if not in practice. A second chamber appointed by the prime minister is positively feudal, its antecedents brought into sharp relief by the strange costume peers wear for formal events and the Lords’ quaint customs.

The powers of the House of Lords are almost as murky as its composition. While it can certainly influence government, its real role is to scrutinise legislation. Yet this is constantly under threat as successive prime ministers seek to pack the Lords with their own place men and women. Tony Blair created 162 Labour peers while David Cameron has already appointed 47  Conservatives. The result of prime ministerial attempts to neuter the Lords is that the upper house now has 792 members, compared to 650 for the House of Commons (probably to be reduced to 600) and a mere 754 for the European Parliament.

The case for reform of the second chamber is, I believe, irrefutable. As ever, the current debate is being dragged down by various vested interests, namely the Lords themselves, those in government who find the present set-up to their advantage, Tory right-wing Eurosceptics who bizarrely think a referendum on Lords reform can also be a referendum on EU membership together with woolly well-wishers who respect the peers who are experts in their field. There are, of course, also those who think the current economic malaise makes this a bad time to introduce constitutional change.

The debate about the powers of the second chamber strikes me as a rather clever red herring. The argument that an elected second chamber would challenge the supremacy of the House of Commons is both arcane and obstructive. Of the 13 countries in the EU which have second chambers, four of these are directly elected. Interestingly three of the four are in former Communist countries. These three and the other, Spain, all seem to manage quite well, as does the United States, home to the world’s most high-profile dual camera system.

The United Kingdom, or at least its constituent parts, are old and proud nations. Our distinctive customs and ways of doing things should, of course, be preserved when they are beneficial.  However, we must learn when to let go of the past. Reforming the House of Lords to make it a modern, elected second chamber is well overdue. Achieving this would be a credit to our country both now and for a long time into the future.

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Rupert Murdoch owns too many newspapers

Rupert Murdoch owns too many newspapers. This was the uncompromising message from the Shadow Culture Secretary Harriet Harman at the Westminster Media Forum yesterday as reported in the Guardian.

It’s not solely a British problem. Here in the European Parliament we have debated media pluralism, or plurality as we call it in the UK, on many occasions. One of the first debates after the 2009 European elections was about Silvio Berlusconi’s vast and often unedifying media empire. The vote on the resolution went narrowly against the appalling Berlusconi to the surprise of many on the centre right who wrongly foresaw an easy victory for their side.

The media pluralism question raised its head again during the Hungarian EU Presidency. Prime Minister Viktor Orban of the right wing Fidesz Party sought to change the country’s constitution in a number of ways, including curtailing the freedom of the country’s press and media outlets.

Control of the media, specifically media plurality, is a polarised issue in the European Parliament. Given that much of the business here is conducted on the basis of consensus and the rough and tumble of robust debate so strong in Britain is largely lacking in the European Parliament, this is an unusual phenomenon. The only conclusion I can draw from the way parties of the right and centre-right in the European Parliament have rallied round to defend mass ownership of the media is that they benefit from such an arrangement. Berlusconi as Prime Minister of Italy and media magnate was very much to the right as are most owners of newspapers and television.

Harriet Harman is right when she says, “Murdoch owns too many newspapers and had it not been for the phone-hacking scandal the government would have waved through his bid to take control of the whole of BskyB. Both Ofcom and Leveson are looking at ownership . It is clear that there needs to be change.”

This is very welcome news and I for one will be following the progress of the forthcoming Communications Act closely. As Harriet said yesterday, it will be “an opportunity to take action to deal with difficult, historical problems which have been unaddressed to too long.”

Meanwhile the debate on media pluralism continues in the European Parliament. Control of the media is now more than a national issue. Media spans borders and what happens in one European country affects another. I do not wish to see the mauling received by the Labour Party before the 1992 general election happen anywhere else. Neil Kinnock was vilified by the Murdoch press because he bravely committed Labour to tackling media ownership were it to form a government. Tony Blair later felt he needed to make it up to Murdoch prior to the 1997 election.

This is not the way the UK should be conducting its relations with the media. Political parties should never feel they have to be nice to an all-powerful media baron and they should never feel any pressure to compromise their principles and beliefs to get support from such a quarter. The UK and Europe as a whole needs a free and fair press and media. It’s one of the best ways of securing our democracy.

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The Euro was Tony Blair’s lost opportunity

Peter Hain in his excellent memoirs Outside In recounts one of the greatest lost opportunities in post-war British politics.  According to the article on Hain’s book in the Guardian today, Tony Blair set up a secret group to do the necessary background work for a successful referendum on Britain joining the Euro.

Blair was, it appears, intent on the UK joining the single currency in 2002 or 2003. In the middle of 2002, according to Hain, the Prime Minister “talked discreetly to key pro-Europe individuals about raising funds for communications research, focus groups, opinion polling and detailed research.” Pro-Euro business figures raised £200,000 very easily for this enterprise.

A small, select and seemingly secure group which included the pollster Philip Gould and Blair aide Pat McFadden, now an MP, was formed to look at the whole question. Secrecy was paramount as Gordon Brown would never have agreed to join the Euro and had therefore to be kept away from these initial discussions.

Secret cabals in politics are rarely a good thing – they have no actual power and are unlikely to be kept under wraps for any significant amount of time. Something ended up going horribly wrong with Blair’s Euro group in that the whole project was stymied when Gordon Brown devised the five economic tests for joining the Euro and then declared the UK had not met them.

 You cannot help wondering whether Brown had heard what was going on and devised a way to kill any idea of a referendum on joining the Euro stone dead.

Despite current orthodoxy, I remain convinced that Brown’s opposition to the Euro was extremely short-sighted.  Given that the UK economy is so tied up with the Eurozone and Britain gains considerably from the EU single market, being in or out of the Euro makes little difference economically. Indeed George Osborne has recently agreed another tranche of funding to contribute to the additional $500 billion the International Monetary Fund says it requires to protect the world economy from the European debt crisis.

The UK quite simply cannot ignore the Eurozone in its hour/day/week/month/year of need. What is more, there is little difference between UK and Euro interest rates.

Britain is also suffering as much as the Eurozone with rising unemployment and poverty. Indeed, this Tory-led coalition is increasing the burden on the sick and vulnerable and would, I am certain, be doing the same whether or not we were in the Euro.

Economic arguments aside, what is truly unacceptable about Britain’s status as a non-Euro country is that we are unable to be a major player in the European Union while we sit outside the single currency, a fact thrown into even starker relief by David Cameron’s walking out of the recent European summit during the small hours of 9 December last year.

In order to be a power in the world, the UK has to be a power in the EU. Unpalatable as this may be, it is undoubtedly the case. In the 21st century the world power is the EU, not Great Britain. True, the United States remains up there, but our transatlantic links are weakening and Britain is very much the underdog in the modern “special relationship”. That leaves the emerging powers of China and India, both of whom are racing well ahead ofBritain in the world power stakes.

Thus being outside the Euro has huge national and international implications forthe UK. Outside the Euro with David Cameron we really are not much more than Norway. I have never bought the UKIP argument that it would be good to be like Norway. Excellent country that it is, it is not really significant in the scheme of things, does not take part in major international decisions and appears to be content to sit at home avoiding power and responsibility.

As a British patriot, I do not want the Norwegian option for our country which ruled the waves only 100 years ago. I want to be where it matters. That is at the heart of the European Union with a seat at all the tables and the power due to us as one of the second largest EU member states after Germany. In order to be where we should be, Britainhas to be a member of the single currency. It’s as simple as that. We ignore this at our peril.

It was, therefore, a tragic shame that Tony Blair did not take us into the Euro. Apart from giving Britain a place in the world, it would also have sealed his legacy, a legacy which became so damaged by the Iraq war. As a strong Blair supporter, I believe he deserves to be better remembered than seems to be the case at present. This may have been the reality not just something on my wish-list if Blair had found the courage to put our country well and truly at the economic and political heart of Europe.

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A Stranger in Europe by Sir Stephen Wall

What a real joy to read a well argued and thoughtful book on the European Union which takes a rational, objective view rather than the strident Euro-bashing all too available in Britain. Sir Stephen Wall himself makes the point that there is nowhere near the level of anti-EU feeling in any other member state that we see in Britain.

A Stranger in Europe proved a surprisingly good choice for Christmas, not too heavy and showing real insight. So much so that, now fully back in the swing of things in Brussels, I thought it deserved a review.

The author, a leading diplomat whom I met at 10 Downing Street when he was Tony Blair’s Europe Advisor from 2000-2004 shows in the course of his book that he represents the very best of the British Civil Service – hugely intelligent, balanced with great analytical ability. Wall’s essential thesis is that Britain’s major problems with the EU, especially the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) came about because we weren’t there at the beginning. By the time Britain finally got over its distaste and joined in 1973 it was too late, France and Germany ruled the show and weren’t going to make any major moves to accommodate late comers. Britain had to take it on their terms or not at all.

Wall, always the quintessential civil servant, tells how Margaret Thatcher had no real friends in Europe. Although she joined the UK up to the single market her stridency in securing the British rebate ultimately prevented her from forging real alliances. Having been John Major’s Private Secretary, Wall is immensely qualified to write about the Maastricht Treaty and the concession which allowed Britain to decide when to join the single currency.

Wall, an insider though not a politician, brings a welcome objectivity to this and other seminal moments in Britain’s relations with the EU. Tony Blair sought to move public opinion in the UK in a more EU friendly direction. Wall mentions Blair’s speech to the European Parliament in Brussels during the British presidency of the EU in 2005. I was there and the speech was, indeed, a masterpiece. Outstanding rhetoric aside, Blair put climate change on the EU agenda, a significant achievement for the UK.

I generally find books by civil servants about their time at the top very illuminating. Wall’s book is no exception, drawing as it does on his wealth of experience. As well as working for Prime Ministers Major and Blair, Sir Stephen Wall was posted to Paris in 1972 as Private Secretary to the Ambassador. From 1979 to 1983 he served in the British Embassy Washington. On return to the FCO he was Assistant Head and then Head of European Community Department (Internal). From 1988 to 1991, he was Private Secretary to three successive Foreign Secretaries – Geoffrey Howe, John Major and Douglas Hurd.

Wall’s practical knowledge of the EU which began at the very beginning of Britain’s accession is second to none. He is not only uniquely qualified but uniquely coherent. This relatively recent book published in 2008 is a must for all those genuinely interested in Britain in Europe.

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