Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Labour Party

This week saw Conservative MEPs vote against a Europe-wide initiative to provide aid for those struggling with food poverty. The £3 billion EU fund, known as ‘European aid to the most deprived’, would have sent £3 million in the direction of Britain. The choice to try and block the fund was made on the grounds that “It is not for the EU to dictate…how to help the needy. Individual countries must be allowed to decide for themselves.” It left the Tories among a tiny rump of MEPs voting against, making the Coalition the only European Government to oppose the fund.

With the Tories under pressure to address the explosion in the number of food bank users since they’ve been in office, their approach to Tuesday’s vote baffled many. It comes at a time when pressure is building on the Coalition to address the food poverty crisis, with religious and third sector organisations condemning the effect welfare cuts are having on UK rates of poverty. This week Richard Howitt, my Labour colleague in the European Parliament, called the Tories’ decision to vote against the fund “heartless and callous”.

Blocking European Aid is just the latest in a string of instances which have seen Conservatives adopting indefensible positions in the name of Euroscepticism. Before Christmas they blocked the Estrela report – a strategy to, among other things, end FGM – and they have also obstructed the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, a market-based solution to environmental challenges. They’ve done so on the grounds that endorsing such plans would represent a concession to the EU. This is despite the government’s Balance of Competences review so far finding that the weighting between EU powers and domestic autonomy is roughly right.

David Cameron’s increasingly hostile noises about the EU appear to have been taken by Tory MEPs as a license to indulge their most reactionary instincts. They do this irrespective of morality or the UK’s national interests. As a result we are approaching a state of Tea Party-style fanaticism among some on the British right in Brussels; a new and virulent brand of Euroscepticism. It’s vital that those of us who support the EU do not allow this self-defeating ideology to triumph.

Also this week, UKIP’s Spring Conference was overshadowed by the embarrassing revelation that Nigel Farage’s campaign slogan – “Love Britain: Vote UKIP” – was a rehash of a strapline used by the BNP. Nick Griffin’s far right party campaigned under the same banner in 2010, using the wording “Love Britain: Vote BNP”. The comparisons did not appear to end there, with Farage using his “Love Britain: Vote UKIP”-branded plinth to launch an excoriating attack on immigration, which he claims has made Britain “unrecognisable”. When the BNP link was pointed out Farage argued, bizarrely, that he’d been trying to ‘reclaim’ the slogan.

So far Ukip have resisted calls from the European far right to join ranks. Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen have both attempted, unsuccessfully thus far, to reach out to Farage, pointing out the common ground their respective parties share with his. But with UKIP MEP Gerard Batten’s ties with the far right attracting increasing controversy – not to mention Farage’s recent admission that he supported the “basic principle” of Enoch Powell’s 1968 ‘Rivers of blood’ speech – the overlap between UKIP and the extreme right is becoming hard to disguise.

To avoid a return to the ugly politics and racial tensions of the 1970s Labour must contest UKIP’s narrative every step of the way.

Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Labour Party

Europe dominated this week, with Euroscepticism grabbing headlines not just in the UK but across the continent. On Thursday European Commission vice president Viviane Reding accused British leaders of bowing to populism on the European issue, describing many of the supposed threats the EU brings as “the invention of politicians who like to have populist movements in order to win in elections”. She suggested that by succumbing to short-term electoral temptations politicians were potentially “destroying the futures” of their people.

Reding was joined by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, who described Eurosceptics in his own country as “brainless people”. And throughout the week there was criticism of the UK in many quarters, with a journalist writing in the widely read Spanish daily El Pais that “How Great Britain Turned Into Little England could easily be 2014’s bestselling essay”.

None of this dissuaded Eurosceptics, and the week ended with a large bloc of Conservative MPs writing to David Cameron calling for a national veto of EU Laws. Tory MP Bernard Jenkin, who led the 95-strong group behind the letter, described the EU’s effect on lawmaking as “acidic and corrosive” and said it undermined British democracy.

While senior Tories were quick to slap down the issue – William Hague called the requirements set out in the letter “unworkable” – they are largely responsible for the increasingly forceful and unrealistic demands made by Eurosceptics. David Cameron’s policy of appeasement has seen he and other frontbenchers deliberately conflate the Europe question with ‘dog whistle’ issues like immigration, in order to try and convince those on the right that he is on their side.

What Cameron underestimates is the inexorable nature of Euroscepticism – the ‘ever greater’ isolation that UKIP and Conservative diehards want from Europe and the rest of the world. Being anti-EU is in essence an irrational position, which ignores economic and industrial arguments in favour of a hazy and parochial utopia. It does not allow for compromise. The more ground the Government concedes to its own party’s ultras, the more they will ask for – and the more unpleasant, distorted and short-term the debate will become.

This week also saw a major victory in the battle against homophobia in sport, with former Everton, Aston Villa and West Ham footballer Thomas Hitzlsperger becoming The Premier League’s first openly gay player. Hitzlsperger, who recently retired, told a German newspaper “I was never ashamed of being who I am,” but admitted that homosexuality is heavily stigmatised in professional football.

The former German international played at centre-back for most of his career, and was renowned for his no nonsense style – comprehensively putting paid to stereotypes about gay sportsmen. There are hopes that, with many of supporters’ prejudices against homosexuality retreating, there will be more openly gay players in future.

Social attitudes have come a long way since 1990, when Justin Fashanu became British football’s first openly gay player. Fashanu’s coming out resulted in abuse and ostracism – he tragically committed suicide in 1998 – but a lot has changed since then. I am delighted that Hitzlsperger has taken such a bold position, and would like to congratulate him on his courage. Hopefully more gay players will follow suit, and we will finally be able to overcome the beautiful game’s biggest taboo.

Making the business case for Europe – the UK must side with pragmatism over prejudice

Labour Party

Last week’s comments by Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn expose the flaws of Euroscepticism. In terms of current government policy it is the tail that wags the dog.

Ghosn suggested Nissan’s Sunderland factory is European first and British second. He said his company would need to reconsider its “strategy and investments for the future” if Britain leaves the EU.

His words hit on an uneasy fault line within the coalition government – between economic rhetoric which promises jobs and industrial investment, and social policy which is nationalist and populist in tone. The former can only be achieved through global engagement; the latter relies on a sentimental vision of ‘Little England’. With Tory backbenchers, led by Adam Afriyie, now pushing for an early EU referendum – a demand which is, by Afriyie’s own admission, driven by the short-term political goal of warding off Ukip – the gap between the two is becoming ever wider.

Last week’s disagreement between the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and Eurosceptic campaign group Business for Britain shows how the Europe issue comes down to a straight choice: pragmatism or prejudice.

The CBI, which represents 240,000 UK companies, describes the case for staying in Europe as “overwhelming”. It values the annual benefits of Britain’s EU membership at as much as £78 billion – £3,000 a year for every family. As CBI Director General John Cridland points out, EU membership provides a “springboard” for reaching 500 million Europeans and gives access to trade agreements worth £15 trillion. “We’d struggle to pull off deals of this scale on our own,” he says.

Cridland’s point is very clear: in the face of big global economic changes our best chance of remaining economically relevant is through working with our neighbours.

Business for Britain’s approach, by contrast, illustrates how difficult it is to make economic sense of an argument which is at its core myopic and knee-jerk. The group’s co-chair John Mills drew a blank when asked on the BBC’s Today Programme how redundancies at plants like Nissan tie in with the ‘job creation’ EU withdrawal would supposedly bring. Even Mills’ own organisation’s polling cannot disguise the fact that big businesses – those most likely to generate large-scale employment – say the benefits of being in Europe outweigh the costs. Everything about Business for Britain, from its emotive language to the sepia wistfulness of its website, emphasises nostalgia rather than logic.

The contrast between these two mindsets was summed up nicely by David Marquand last month, when he wrote that “Europhiles speak to the head, Europhobes speak to the heart”. For me these are two approaches which cannot be reconciled; yet by succumbing to backbenchers’ Euroscepticism David Cameron has tried to let them coexist. He has strapped himself to two horses which will never run in the same direction. This is not just the case in terms of business, but also on issues like security, where isolationism threatens the UK’s ability to tackle organised crime.

With senior business figures continuing to speak out in favour of Europe it is important that those on the progressive wing of politics are staunchly and unapologetically pro-European. As the business case for the EU builds the misty-eyed vision of times passed which sustains Euroscepticism (the “never never land” spoken of by John Major) will be exposed.

Regardless of when or if there is a referendum, this is an issue which cannot be thrown into the long grass. Those of us who want a more prosperous Britain must seize the impetus on Europe and ally ourselves with the forces of reason.

Could the Daily Express be more wrong?

Labour Party

373,000 people have signed a petition saying that they want the U.K. to leave the European Union.  That does seem like quite a lot, but the petition was organised by the Daily Express, which carries a rather triumphalist story involving their political editor and a few MPs delivering the signatures to Number 10.

Let’s leave aside for one moment the arguments against such a move and focus instead on the story itself.  I must take exception with Tory MP, Philip Hollobone, who is quoted in the article as saying:

“Congrat­ulations to the Daily Express for saying so clearly what most of Britain actually feels.”

Now last time I checked 373,000 does not represent a majority of the British voting public.  Given that this was a campaign run by the Express for quite a while, it might be worth pointing out to Mr. Hollobone that it’s well under two-thirds of the Daily Express readership, whose circulation is around 640,000.

Given that, I’m not sure on what authority Mr Hollobone can say anything about “what most of Britain actually feels”.

It isn’t much of a surprise that Daily Express readers are not too fond of the EU, given that particular publications penchant for publishing sensationalist, under researched and often downright wrong information about the European Union.  They are famously one of the most prolific peddlers of the ‘Euromyth‘.

Leaving the EU would be absolutely disastrous for our economy.  At a time when we are looking for ways out of a serious financial crisis, cutting ourselves off from, or at least severely damaging links with, our primary export market seems like wanton madness.  It would also ruin the lives of many British workers currently with jobs through-out the EU and the many people from other member states currently contributing to the UK economy.

I don’t believe this is what most people in the UK want as they are generally a sensible bunch.  It clearly isn’t even what all the Daily Express readers want either.

Hague full of sound and fury, signifying nothing

Labour Party

Wiliam Hague was most interesting at the Conservative Party Conference.  I have watched the Tories’ movements regarding Europe very closely since they formed the Coalition and as a result found his speech very enlightening.

As we all know, the Conservatives had to drop most of their Eurosceptic election promises so that Nick Clegg, who for all his faults is at least pro-European, would be able to justify forming a government with them.  Since then the coalition government, far from standing up to what some Tories might call the encroaching powers of the EU, has accepted many new laws from Brussels, including one which hands some powers over financial transactions to the European Commission.

It is, however, becoming increasingly evident that there are those in the Tory party who are very unhappy with the way things are going with Europe.  And it was such a promising start for the Europsceptics. David Cameron took the Tories out of the EPP, the centre right political grouping in the European Parliament. (Tory MEPs then  formed an alliance with far right elements whom Nick Clegg described as a “bunch of nutters”). Cameron also promised to repatriate various powers to do with employment law.

In an attempt to assuage the Eurosceptics’ doubts, William Hague made an impassioned speech to the Conservative party conference that outlined plans to introduce a sovereignty clause on to the statute books in the United Kingdom asserting that EU law only has primacy in the UK because the government allows it to be that way.  He also made some forceful comments about governments being able to “undo” the things they have done. 

All well and good for playing to the Eurosceptic core in the Tories you might think, but unfortunately, if we believe what the Daily Mail has reported, many of them aren’t buying this entirely superficial gesture.  The Mail has a quotation from a Tory MP, Douglas Carswell, saying ‘This is politicians using clever words to appear to be preventing further European integration when they are not.’ 

Attention has so far focused on the internal strife within the Lib-Dems as a result of their involvment in the Coalition.  William Hague has now shown that Europe is proving, as predicted, a difficult issue for the Tories.  In the not too distant past, European issues almost undid John Major’s government leaving him significantly weakened.  If David Cameron has any political antennae left, he will be desperate not to have Europe anywhere near any agenda. However, the decision doesn’t seem to be down to him but rather his restless grass roots.

Seemingly, Wiliam Hague’s attempts to placate the Eurosceptic wing of their party aren’t working quite as well as they might have hoped, as they can see it for what it is, sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The Tories’ shameful Voting Record

Labour Party

The Tories in Strasbourg this week voted against co-operation in Europe to prevent the trafficking of human beings and against a report on equality between men and women in the European Union.

 As I have often said before, the Tory attitude is to either vote against or abstain on all reports and resolutions which come before the plenary session of the European Parliament.  This is, of course, Euroscepticism gone mad, especially when it means opposing measures to help the victims of trafficking and working for a better deal for women. 

 David Cameron says he wants more Conservative women in the House of Commons.  However, his Party’s attitude in Europe tells a very different story.  Cameron says one thing while his MEPs do the exact opposite. 

 Resolution on preventing trafficking in human beings

 In voting against the resolution to prevent human trafficking, the Tories de facto disagreed with the following (to take but two examples)

  …that protection and support for the victims becomes a priority in EU actions in this field, and that victims receive all possible help from the moment they are identified as such

 …draws attention to particularly vulnerable victims, such as children, and calls for specific assistance and protection programmes for them

 The resolution asked for greater European co-operation to tackle the trafficking a human beings.  The British Conservatives obviously don’t want any such thing.

 Report on equality between women and men in the European Union

 This report by Belgian Socialist Marc Tarabella took a wide ranging view over a number of key issues.

 It included the following (amongst many other things)

 …stresses the importance of combating violence against women…….calls on the Commission to start drawing up a comprehensive directive on preventing and combating all forms of violence against women

…welcomes the significant increase in numbers of female chairs of parliamentary committees and female EP vice-presidents as well as the less substantial, though none the less real, increase in the number of female MEPs following the June 2009 European elections

 …women’s personal income and paid employment remains key to their economic autonomy….underlines that in the light of the ageing society in particular, both men and women are needed to prevent labour shortage

 It’s surely unlikely that any political party which voted against such measures would do anything for women, or the wider economy for that matter.

BARROSO IS RIGHT

Euro Election

Iain Dale yesterday demanded that European Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, mind his own business.  Barroso’s crime?  He regretted the Tories leaving the European People’s Party, Barroso’s on political home.

The Tories’ decision is very curious.  The EPP is the largest political group in the European Parliament.  Both Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy lead parties in the EPP, and it has huge influence on the world stage.  Through the EPP Cameron and Co have access to the kind of political clout I would have thought they would be very anxious to exploit.

Clearly not.  The Tories have chosen to throw it all away.  Their proposed new political group, which incidentally do not yet exist, appear to comprise a rag bag of right wing parties all of which have little credibility outside their own member states.

The new group, which is likely to be called the European Conservatives, may (or may not) attract members from the Polish Law and Justice party, the governing party in Poland, the Czech Civic Democrats and other political parties from the Baltic states and beyond.

Law and Justice, which was co-founded by Polish president Lech Kaczynski, is noted for its extreme views.  Last November, Artur Gorski, an MP with Law and Justice, was ordered to apologise for comments he made describing Barack Obama’s election as “the end of the civilisation of the white man”.

The Tories Euroscepticism really has got the better of them.  Giving up Merkel and Sarkozy, allying with a party opposed to President Obama are not sound political judgements.

This is about more than Europe.  Would you want such a bunch of stupid white men to lead your country?