David Cameron is becoming Isolated in Europe

Labour Party

David Cameron is about to head to Europe to discuss the growing crisis in the Eurozone.  He is planning on meeting with Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council, and Angela Merkel.

I can see this being an uncomfortable trip for Cameron; people from Merkel’s cabinet are already speaking out at against what they see as Cameron’s selfish and short-sighted thinking.

He also has to contend with his deputy Prime Minister ridiculing him in the most forthright terms for his stance towards the EU.

But what is Cameron’s stance on the Eurozone crisis, not to mention the EU itself?  His response to date has been less than clear.  Cameron recently stated he would like to see the European Union become more of a network, as opposed to becoming more integrated as Merkel is proposing.  The problem with this is Merkel’s proposals, whether you agree with them or not, are clear and understandable, where as for the life of me I don’t know what Cameron is talking about.  He waffles on about a less integrated Europe at a time when everyone else is saying that, if we want to avoid an even more serious financial collapse, the Eurozone countries are going to need to work more closely together.

It’s pretty obvious why Cameron is having such difficulties getting his point across.  Timothy Garton Ash made the astute observation that Cameron is working in a tri-partite coalition; Conservatives, Lib-Dems, and Euro-sceptics.  This has bound him to the fantasy of ‘repatriation of powers’, which has earned him the opprobrium of Europe’s heads of state.

It may turn out that treaties will need to be renegotiated, perhaps just within the Eurozone, so probably not affecting the United Kingdom.  It is clear, however, to me that Britain needs to be involved in these discussions.  What I’m certain of is that David Cameron is in no position to adequately represent British interests at the EU level.  He’s not only too confused, he’s also too much of a pariah.

President Van Rompuy Proves he is a Man of Vision

Labour Party

You may be forgiven for all the misconceptions you probably have about Herman Van Rompuy, the newish President of the European Council.  He didn’t get much coverage in the UK when he was Prime Minister of Belgium, and most of that written and said about him since becoming President has been negative, sometimes even insulting. 

 President Van Rompuy spoke to the Socialist and Democrat Group this morning, and believe me he is far from lightweight.  His knowledge of economics is outstanding.  What is more, he is capable of strategic thinking and has a genuine vision for Europe, a vision much more in line with British views than you may expect.  President Van Rompuy sees the EU as a grouping of sovereign states with certain common objectives.  I’d certainly buy into that, as I’m sure would the vast majority of people in the UK, except perhaps those on the extreme margins of politics.

 The President showed a rare degree of radicalism this morning, all the more surprising as he is from the centre-right EPP family.  It was his support for the tax on financial transactions which finally convinced me that he is a man we could do business with.  When answering a question from fellow Belgian, Marc Tarabella, it became clear that President Van Rompuy not only supports the “Tobin” tax in principle, but as Belgian Prime Minister he implemented it on a national basis.  You may also be interested to know that the G20 is looking at such a tax and the IMF is preparing a report.    

 The economic issues obviouly revolved around the current downturn.  The President was unrepentant about the EU’s policy of protecting the internal market and the euro and the pursuit of inflationary measures.  He was, on the other hand, clear that we all need to return to balanced budgets in order to pursue social goals such as sustainable pensions and improved health care.  While I would not necessarily support his contention that we need balanced budgets to carry out a social programme, the President does, at least, believe in the social dimension of Europe.  He was also clear that the EU needs to ensure that the new EU 20:20 strategy is successful, unlike the previous Lisbon Strategy which did not achieve anything very much.

 Climate change was the other big topic.  Since Copenhagen has not moved anything forward, Europe needs to keep on working at this agenda.  There were several calls, including one from EPLP Leader Glenis Willmott, for green, sustainable jobs which President Van Rompuy supported wholeheartedly.     

Herman Van Rompuy is an engaging speaker, though like many Europeans he lacks some of the rhetorical flourish so beloved by the British. He gave his presentation in English, he then answered questions in French and understood German as well as his native Dutch.  I wonder how many of us are fluent in at least four languages.  He also listens and made a promise that he would take seriously all the points raised at the Group meeting.

 It’s a real tragedy for us that both President Van Rompuy and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs, our own Baroness Ashton, get such a bad press in Britain.  They are both excellent at their jobs.  One socialist MEP said today that Herman Van Rompuy is the right person in the right place.  The same is true of Cathy Ashton, and we would do well to take a leaf out of the books of many other countries in the European Union and support our national appointees.  

 And finally… it was good to see former Labour MEP Richard Corbett sitting at the top table with President Van Rompuy.  Richard is now head of the President’s Cabinet.  Congratulatons Richard.  You deserve your success and we all know you will do exceptional work  for Herman Van Rompuy and, by extension, for all of us involved in the EU.

Farage Acting Out Again

Labour Party

It would be quite remiss of me not to comment on Nigel Farage’s latest attempt to garner publicity in the run-up to the General Election.  In a pathetic and offensive attempt to get himself noticed, the  co-chair of the European Freedom and Democracy Group yesterday launched an unprecedented personal attack on the new President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy.

Mr Farage’s reference to President Van Rompuy as a “low grade bank clerk” with the “charisma of a damp rag”, was deeply insulting and unsurprisingly elicited loud protests from those listening in the European Parliament Chamber.  They were quite simply shocked by the outburst, as indeed was I.

Mr Farage didn’t just limit himself to insulting Mr Van Rompuy.  Later in his speech he turned his puerile attack on to the entirety of Belgium, referring to it as a “non-country”.

Mr. Farage, who stepped down as Leader of UKIP last year, has controversially broken with British political convention by running against Speaker John Bercow in the upcoming General Election.  Farage now needs to get people to vote for him, and it seems he will stop at nothing in this futile quest.

A lot of what Mr Farage does is, of course, an exercise in self-promotion, both for its own sake and more recently to further his Westminster ambitions.  After the announcement of President Van Rompuy and Cathy Ashton as President and High Representative, Mr Farage gave a scurrilous speech in the Chamber full of fatuous points and inaccurate statements; a man very much in love with the sound of his own voice.  On that occasion Jerzy Buzek, the usually placid and even-handed President of the European Parliament, felt the need to reprimand Farage for his outburst.

I was very interested to hear the coverage of yesterday’s incident on the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 this morning.  The journalist Jonny Dymond stated that Mr Farage was aiming to get himself expelled from the parliament as a “martyr” for euroscepticism.  Apparently he believes that this will help in his fight against Speaker Bercow.  If this is true I am not the least bit surprised.  Mr Farage is not interested engaging in political discussions in a proper and reasoned manner.  He would much rather go for the headline grabbing, shock tactics, because they focus the attention more on him than on the debate.

I would urge my colleagues in the European Parliament not to rise to his bait.  Don’t expel him, don’t give him what he wants.  He should instead be treated like a naughty child who is acting out.  Just ignore him, he’s only doing it for attention.

My admiration goes to President Van Rompuy, whose response was succinct and dignified:  “There was one contribution that I can only hold in contempt, but I’m not going to comment further.”  Quite.

I support Tony Blair for President (even though I was against the Iraq War)

Labour Party

Blair at the European Parliament

Now is the time, I believe, for all good men and women to stand up and be counted.  I believe Tony Blair is not only the right person to be the new President of the European Council, but the only possible choice.

 It all comes down to how we see the EU and where we want Europe to go in the future.  While I am not a European integrationist as far as domestic policy is concerned, I do believe the EU’s presence on the world stage needs to be strengthened.  The EU should be able to rise to what we may now call the “Obama challenge”, an idea first articulated by Henry Kissinger when he asked, “If I want to talk to Europe, who do I ring?” 

 The two new posts (a President of the European Council and a High Representative for Foreign Affairs, both to serve a minimum of two and a half years), to be created under the Lisbon Treaty will go some way towards answering this question.  Answering this question becomes ever more crucial as the years go by and both Europe and the world change.  Indeed, the environment in which Kissinger operated over thirty years ago is almost unrecognisable today.

 One of the ways to deal with the Kissinger question is, I believe, to have a strong and experienced President of the European Council, a charismatic leader who will be President Obama’s equal, a real player on the international stage.  In short, the EU needs a credible leader to execute its external relations policy. 

 Foreign affairs and defence have moved beyond the realm of individual nation states.  The EU itself now has a developed common security policy and speaks as one voice on very many external matters.  The only time in the recent past when this did not happen was the Iraq War when Britain went out on a limb with the United States.  I opposed the Iraq War all the way through, spoke against it in public and voted for the resolutions in the European Parliament condemning the war.

 I am not, therefore, a blind Blair loyalist.  But I do believe he is the man to be President of Europe.  He is also an ex-Labour Prime Minister, and hence our, the Labour, candidate.  I have never had much time for those Labour Party members who were against Blair because they viewed him as not “old Labour” and not left wing enough.  Tony Blair is Labour. End of story.

 Tony Blair’s record as Labour Prime Minister speaks for itself – the national minimum wage, Sure Start, extended maternity leave, paternity leave, a massive reduction in NHS waiting lists, a huge hospital building programme, a reduction in class sizes, peace in Northern Ireland, tripling overseas aid, establishing devolved government in Scotland and Wales and setting up the London Assembly, to name but a few.  You will all, I am sure, be able to add to this list.     

 Given that it is now almost certain that Czech Republic President Klaus will sign the Lisbon Treaty, it will probably come into force towards the end of November.  The EU therefore has less than two months to shape its future.  Let’s hope it takes the bold decision and appoints the man who once affirmed that “We are at our best when we are at our boldest”.