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Conservative leaders in Europe set out views on Turkey, the €uro, climate change, 'variable geometry' and the Tobin tax

Tim Montgomerie

Up until the last European elections there was quite a distance between the outlook of the Tory grassroots and the party’s MEPs. About a third of the delegation was as Eurosceptic as party members but one third were as committed to the EU project as the likes of Ken Clarke. The other third stood in the middle. Despite incumbent MEPs being protected from grassroots accountability in the last selection process, the delegation did become a little more Eurosceptic (or should that be Eurorealist?) at the 2009 European Parliamentary elections. This shift was confirmed when, last November, Martin Callanan became the delegation’s leader – replacing Timothy Kirkhope. His scepticism might have been a barrier in the past but broader leadership credentials now decide these elections, too.

Callanan and Jan Zahradil, the new leader of the umbrella group for Tory MEPs – the European Conservatives and Reformists – addressed a ConservativeIntelligence meeting in London on Thursday. Some highlights from the Q&A period that followed are posted below.

On Turkey both MC and JZ – speaking personally rather than for the group - said they favoured Turkish membership of the EU. Both saw it as a way of entrenching western-style democracy in a Muslim state. JZ said much of central Europe saw Turkish entry as a way of shifting the equilibrium of the EU, away from German-French dominance. Both men, however, said that accession was now most unlikely because of strong German and French opposition.

Both said that the €uro crisis was far from over. MC said it was hard to see how the peripheral countries could remain members long-term. The €uro had always been a political project and all EU nations had effectively turned a blind eye to how Greece, for example, had massaged its borrowing and national debt data in order to meet the pseudo-economic tests for membership. Germany’s Merkel was now paying a heavy political price for the €urozone bailouts. Her voters were giving the CDU a very rough time and the courts may yet rule that the bailouts were unconstitutional.  JZ noted that there had not yet been a political realignment in Germany but significant academic and business leaders were voicing concern about the direction of European economic policy.

Questioned on climate change policy, MC was very robust. He likened the kind of action against climate change, being urged on EU countries by green campaigners, to “unilateral economic disarmament”. Without unlikely buy-in from China, India and USA the EU would be imposing high energy prices and deindustralisation on itself without helping the planet, he warned. Industrial capacity would simply be exported to other nations. JZ said that the identification of 20% reductions in emissions by 2020 sounded more like an aliterative soundbite to him than a carefully calibrated identification of the ideal environmental adjustment.

Neither of our guests were optimistic about the EU budget negotiations for the period beyond 2013. The chances of agreeing serious reform among 27 nations were slim, they agreed. A budget freeze was the very best likely outcome. MC expressed personal disappointment that the Coalition was not pursuing serious reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. Given that CAP accounts for 45% of the Union’s budget it was hard to see structural reform of spending – and a better deal for European consumers - without a major overhaul of agricultural subsidies.

MC predicted that a multi-speed Europe would become more and more evident in the years to come. They noted that on the €urozone, the Schengen accord, new patent legislation and, soon, on economic governance the vision of “variable geometry” was already materialising.  JZ that Germany and France had always been most insistent on all EU members marching in lockstep but newer member states were less enthusiastic about such “centralism”.

Finally, MC signaled concern about the Parliament’s emphatic vote for a Tobin Tax to fund the EU (a vote opposed by the ECR). Britain, he said, could not afford to be complacent about the moves to introduce such a tax [a tax dubbed the Sheriff of Nottingham tax by Roger Helmer]. It now enjoys the support of the German Finance Minister and would have a serious impact on the City of London if introduced. Britain has a veto but vigilance would be needed if, over time, a softening up process tried to persuade Britain to embrace the tax in return for some other concession or deceptive sweetener.

MC said he supported continuing UK membership of the EU but was happy if the new Peoples’ Pledge campaign succeeded in giving the British people a say on whether that should continue. JZ argued strongly for Britain to stay in the EU and suggested that Conservative disengagement with central European states after 1997 was a reason why many centre right parties had gravitated towards the federal EPP. A free, decentralised and liberal Europe depended upon Britain, he said.

> I am delighted to report that Martin Callanan will soon be starting a monthly report for ConHome on what our MEPs are doing.


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