Nigel Farage gets too much air time (continued)

Labour Party

There is obviously a risk of giving Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), rather more column inches on this blog than he deserves in the wider scheme of British and European politics. However, it is important to talk about his appalling and gratuitous rudeness since this is often the reason he gets coverage.

Farage has no compunction about tearing into EU and European Parliament figures with no respect for either their or, indeed, Farage’s own, dignity. Jolly old Nige seems to believe it’s perfectly all right to be as offensive as he likes with no thought for either how he comes across to the outside world or whether what he is saying about his targets actually stands up to scrutiny.

The most extreme example of the Farage tendency happened in Wednesday 24 February 2010 when he notoriously told Herman Van Rompuy, the President of the European Council, who was actually sitting near Farage in the European Parliament chamber at the time, that he (Van Rompuy) had “all the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk”. Farage then went on to dismiss Van Rompuy’s home state of Belgium as a “non-country” and criticised the President’s pay packet. Farage further claimed that no-one in Europe had ever heard of Van Rompuy.

This, of course, says more about Nigel Farage than Mr Van Rompuy, who happens to be a former Belgium Prime Minister. He is also a distinguished economist whose first appearance in the European Parliament impressed the vast majority of MEPs.  Please see the post on this blog for further information.

As the clip on Van Rompuy shows, Nigel is ignorant and offensive but never witty. Most of us will relate to a public speaker who performs with a lightness of touch while at the same time showing thoughtfulness. Farage is merely rude – quite a different matter.

Sadly the Farage approach in Europe appeals to the British media and achieves coverage in the UK, coverage which is often sympathetic to the UKIP leader. In a way this surprises me since Farage does not carry on the British parliamentary tradition of robust debate coupled with intellectual depth.

Farage, in fact, has no depth. He does, however, stand out from the European Parliament crowd. There are 27 EU member states all debating in the European Parliament chamber in their own mother tongue. This in itself does not make for the kind of strong discussion the British are used to. Moreover, most MEPs are from countries where the parliamentary system is far less confrontational than our own and do not therefore indulge in the kind of loud and noisy behaviour seen in the House of Commons.

The Van Rompuy story is not the only example of the Farage factor. Former leader of the Socialist and Democrat Group Martin Schulz had to put up with similar treatment on becoming President (Speaker) of the European Parliament. And there are more.

Yes, Nigel Farage does stand out in the European Parliament. He does not, however, do so in a dignified and intellectually rigorous way. Quite honestly, Nigel Farage is an embarrassment for the UK. He is most certainly not an asset. His rude and offensive antics are not by any stretch of the imagination worth the amount of air time he currently receives.

Hungarian Premier Orban seeks to out-Putin Putin

Labour Party

The European Parliament Socialist and Democrat Group earlier today expressed extreme concern at the antics of the right-wing Fidesz governing Party in Hungary led by the populist and dictatorial Viktor Orban.

On 1 January a new prescriptive constitution entered into force in Hungary which will slash the powers of the judiciary, the central bank and the media. Orban has also gerrymandered parliamentary constituencies to keep his party in power and cemented loyalists in key positions for nine years.

You may be forgiven for wondering what this new constitution and governmental set-up offers that differs in practice from the Stalinist era one imposed in 1949 which it aims to replace.  It would appear that Orban is intent on out-Putining Putin, despite his impeccable credentials as a dissident hero in the 1989 revolution. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union activist, Szabolcs Hegi, is right when he says, “The constitution is an undemocratic law that came from an undemocratic legislative process.” And it gets worse, if that’s possible. Not content with decimating Hungary’s legal system, gagging its media and turning its government into a virtual dictatorship, Orban has also introduced a flat rate personal income tax.

He may have got away with this utterly regressive financial measure but for Hungary’s dire economic situation. As its economy falters, Hungary needs assistance from the International Monetary Fund in the form of its second bailout in four years. However, Christine Lagarde, the strong and determined head of the IMF, is not minded to grant such help while Hungary maintains the flat rate tax on income. She told CNN on Friday, “We’re not complacent. We don’t compromise.”

Meanwhile, last Monday 30,000 Hungarians protested against Orban and his government on the streets of Budapest and the incoming Danish presidency of the EU is facing pressure from its MPs at home to do something about Hungary. The European Commission is meeting in Copenhagen today and will discuss Hungary in some depth, although the Commission is not expected to come to a conclusion for a while yet.

It is, however, clear that the EU will not put up with a member state defying the acquis communautaire, the criteria required for a country to be admitted into the EU in the first place. Whatever its faults, the European Union is a bastion of democracy and the rule of law, and those of us elected to the European Parliament in the Socialist and Democrat Group will make sure the core values of the EU are consistently upheld by all member states.

S & D Group Leader warns that Gadaffi will not escape Punishment

Labour Party

Yesterday Socialist and Democrat Leader Martin Schulz warned that the Libyan crisis confronts Europe with “a huge challenge” in which wrong decisions could have dangerous long-term consequences

Speaking in a Strasbourg debate with EU foreign policy supremo, our very own Cathy Ashton, Schulz declared:  “Gadaffi is a criminal.  He is a murderer who should be put in the dock at an international court.  This man will not escape his punishment.”

Schulz continued, “We are confronted with a serious, difficult challenge which demands clear-headedness on our part.  We need to see a stop to fratricide in the country and we should not exclude any measures to achieve that, and that includes military ones. 

“But we have to look at our conscience.  A wrong decision here could potentially have a long-term detrimental impact.” 

Martin Schulz insisted on involvement of the Arab League and the African Union in action over Libya, including the potential introduction of a no-fly zone.  “On the basis of the UN Security Council and with the involvement of Arab countries — that is the only path that we can follow.”

He added:  “I don’t think that we should act prematurely, which might salve our conscience on a short-term basis, because it could be dangerous.”

Mr Schulz welcomed proposals for a Marshall plan for the region. But he stressed that the original Marshall plan for Europe had required a one per cent commitment of the total economic performance of the US to Europe.  Its result was the European Union, with peace dividends, prosperity dividends and the development of democracy never before seen on the continent. 

Criticising EU leaders who thought a one per cent commitment was excessive, Mr Schulz said: “If we really want to stabilise our southern neighbourhood countries, there is something that people need.  They need prospects of being able to live in peace, democracy and prosperity.  They should be getting what we already have.”

He concluded:  “It’s all very well to make noble pronouncements but that doesn’t help people in the southern neighbourhood.  They need these words to be matched by tangible deeds.”

Martin Schulz is absolutely right that if peace is not restored to the middle east with a commitment from the west to increase prosperity in the region, we will all suffer. Libya is a concern  for all of us in Europe and I hope Martin Schulz’s ideas for improving the region’s infrastructure and raising the general standard of living will be taken on board.

Stephen Hughes for President of the Socialist and Democrat Group

Labour Party

I’m very pleased that my colleague, North-East MEP Stephen Hughes, is running for the leadership (President as they call it here) of the Socialist and Democrat Group in the European Parliament. European Voice ran this article last week indicating that the contest has now begun, assuming, of course, that the vacancy for Group President is actually created due to Martin Schulz taking over as President of the European Parliament.

Stephen will make an excellent Group leader.  He has huge experience of economic and social issues, having been Chair and Socialist Group Co-ordinator of the Employment and Social Affairs Committee. Stephen deserves a medal for his long service as an MEP, 26 years in all. With this has come considerable knowledge of the Socialist and Democrat Group, the European Parliament and how to get things done in this place.

The great thing about Stephen is that he listens and part of his election platform is to listen to Group members and develop a common purpose. I am sure I”m not alone in welcoming this. Those in leadership positions sometimes have a tendency to carry on without taking the views of their supporters into account. I’m confident Stephen will not do that and will represent Socialist and Democrat MEPs in a fair and reasonable way. 

We will vote on the President position at the mid-point of the current parliamentary mandate, sometime at the end of 2011 or the beginning of 2012. This obviously means a long campaign and I will try and keep you updated as much as possible.

Education, Education, Education

Labour Party

The Queen’s Speech highlighted only one specific aspect of the educational system, local authority involvement.  Having been a local authority school governor for over 20 years, I am not in favour of encouraging schools to opt our of  local authority control.  The reason is simple and obvious – schools in more disadvantaged areas will lose out.  In this I agree completely with the Head of Deptford Green School who appeared on various TV new bulletins yesterday.  Since Deptford Green was one of the school governing bodies I sat on, albeit under a different Head, I am pleased to see the views of this school being sought.

It would be very bad indeed for Britain if the Coalition government put the clock back and recreated an educational system which consigns many children, possibly the majority, to second rate education with all that means for their future and the future of the country.

Education is, in fact, one of the EU’s current top priorities.  In the Socialist and Democrat Group we are concerned that in these harsh economic times Member State Governments may cut education expenditure.

Last week I spoke about education cuts in the European Parliament. 

I also made a speech about the need for universities to be closer to business in order to adequately equip students for work.

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.

Crunch Day for Europe President

Labour Party

This is it.  All will be decided later today or perhaps tomorrow if the deliberations in the European Council of Ministers about the position of President of the Council and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs continue late into the next day.  We are already hearing stories about participants taking one, two or even three shirts to see them through.  (They are almost all men – hence the shirt question).

Well, will our very own TB make it?  Tony’s chances do seem to have revived during the past two days, but whether he can overcome the “small country” challenge is still not certain.  Some of the tiniest EU states don’t want a large country holding the post as they fear this will smother them.  So we are now seeing an attempt at a classic EU fudge – find the lowest common denominator and go with that regardless of whether or not that is the best and most effective decision for Europe as a whole.

This mindset has led to Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy emerging as the front-runner.  I hardly think Belgium is a shining example of how to run a country.  A population of about 10 million is split into two linguistic groups with three federal regions, a system which is so unworkable that Belgium was recently without a federal government for nearly two years as the various parties were unable to agree on a coalition.

The other two small countries who are realistic contenders aren’t much better.  Peter Balkenende from Holland verges on the Thatcherite.  Luxembourg has, as ever, staked its claim.  Yet can anyone take Jean-Claude Junker seriously when the entire population of Luxembourg is only 488,000.  Yes 488,000 compared to over 60 million in the UK and Germany’s 82.5 million.  I am tempted to use that dreadful Americanism – “give us a break!”

There are two other factors working against our Tony.  Most importantly, the Socialists do not have a majority in the European Council.  The system of qualified majority voting used gives that to the EPP.  Moreover, the Socialist governments do not always all vote the same way.  Just to muddy the waters further, the Socialist and Democrat Group in the European Parliament has waged a strong campaign, which some Socialist governments have bought in to, that the Socialists should let the EPP have the President while the Socialists make a concerted bid for the High Representative.

The small country and/or EPP bid for the President position may well be the way it goes today.  I understand that there is everything to play for, and unusually in the EU the result has not been fixed in advance.  Since the Socialists are going for the High Representative, could this be what Tony ends up with?  I gather he may not be averse to the idea.  The job will, after all, be to act as the face of the EU across the whole globe and the post holder will also control the world-wide network of EU missions (embassies).

Crunch time indeed.