Monday, 30 March 2009

CYRIL FOR PRESIDENT


I pay a visit to Liberal doyen Sir Cyril Smith at his home in Emma Street, Rochdale. He's a bit frail now, and very much lighter than in his heyday as Liberal chief whip. "What do you think of this Le Pen business, should he be allowed to chair the first session of the new Parliament?", I ask. "Let him do the job," says Cyril, "it's only a bit of ceremony. If he starts going on someone can always move a vote of no-confidence."

"One way around the problem would be for a party to put up a candidate who is a bit older than Le Pen," I say. "What about you standing on the Liberal Democrat list in the North West? You could chair the first session of Parliament, then resign. There would be no by-election and I could step into your shoes."

Cyril's eyes lit up. "Where will the Parliament be meeting?" he asks. When I say it is in Strasbourg his enthusiasm appears to diminish.

Still, maybe it's an idea worth pursuing.

I get back to my office and check the dates. Alas, Cyril is 8 days younger than Le Pen, so no deal.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

THE LE PEN PROBLEM

Much debate amongst MEPs stemming from the awful realisation that Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the Front Nationale, convicted racist and known Holocaust denier (or diminisher) could chair the first session of the next Parliament in July.

The job is to preside over the election of the Parliament's next president, and the rules say that the job goes to the oldest elected MEP, who might well be 80-year old Le Pen.

"We will have to change the rules," say many MEPs. A British Labour MEP has just told me of looking at pictures of Nazi Party members in full kit sitting in the Reichstag before Hitler came to power. "You can't give them an opening," she says.

My liberal instincts come to the fore. I draw the line at someone advocating violence against others, but I want to support the principle of defending the right to speak even though I may detest the words that are spoken. Changing the rules with the aim of discriminating against one specific elected representative seems squalid to me; it brings the Parliament's defence of freedom of speech into contempt.

I expect to vote against any such proposal.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

STRASBOURG SCRUTINY


No MEP has done more than Cecilia Malmstrom to try and put an end to the European Parliament's travelling circus, the term often used to describe the monthly shifting of its operations between buildings in Brussels and Strasbourg. She organised a petition of 1 million signatures to protest against the colossal waste of money involved.

These days my Liberal former colleague is the Swedish European Minister, so in Stockholm I asked her how she might pursue her campaign when Sweden takes over the EU presidency.

She picked up my suggestion that she could call on MEPs to have a clear vote on the issue to express their own preference. (It is divisive and the party bosses are good at keeping it off the agenda). But she made it clear that her freedom for manoeuvre was limited.

"Recently I wrote an article criticising the parliament's arrangements in a very small Swedish newspaper," she said. "In response I had a letter from the French government reminding me that the two-seats arrangement is specified in the EU treaty."

No change is possible so long as any one government can exercise a veto. The French are watching!

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

THE EU AND PALESTINE


Sweden takes the EU Presidency in July, and at a private meeting in Stockholm I had the chance to put questions about Palestine and the nature of the incoming Israeli government to Carl Bildt, the foreign minister (and former prime minister).

"There are two pieces of good news," he said. "The Gaza situation has helped ensure that the EU is more united in its policy than ever before. And the Obama approach with the appointment of George Mitchell has brought us even closer to the US administration.

"There is no more good news. I think it was a mistake for Israel not to do a deal with Hamas over the release of prisoners. The Gaza blockade continues. There is no reconstruction. The Israelis say they are concerned about arms smuggling but no arms will pass through Israeli checkpoints.

"Our policy has to be to insist on the Palestinians' right to a separate state."

No commitments were made. A wait-and-see approach continues. But the way Bildt spoke was a great deal more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than anything I have heard from the current Czech Presidency.

Monday, 16 March 2009

A DAY AT THE GAZA CHECKPOINTS

Last Tuesday was a not untypical day at the Gaza checkpoints. A total of 110 truckloads of merchandise (2,134 tons), mainly basic foodstuffs but also some cooking oil and some hygiene products, were allowed through from Israel, together with some heavy diesel oil for electricity production. The volumes were small given that UNRWA says that 500 truckloads of goods are needed every day.

The Israelis allowed no items into Gaza that could be of use to business or industry. No paper for the schools passed the checkpoints, no household goods, no electrical equipment, no concrete, steel, timber or building materials to enable reconstruction to commence. Having been bombed so extensively, Gaza now stagnates.

The European Commission tells me that the rules keep being changed. One week jam is allowed in, the next week it's prohibited; sometimes toilet paper is allowed, sometimes it is not. Even the Americans have been making protests.

The first visit to Gaza by Tony Blair attracted much publicity. The fact that nothing has changed since receives less attention. Palestinians must wonder whether the words of concern expressed by so many in Europe will ever be backed up by any kind of sanction against Israel.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

70 POLICE INJURED, BEE ESCAPES



The phalanx of police officers faced us on the other side of the gate. Grim faced, unspeaking, and dressed in full riot gear they looked as though they meant business. Their foes were formidable, a 54 year old politician, and the managing director of a business that makes transformers to get electricity from renewable sources into the grid, both of us trying to engage them in conversation about global warming.

True it was midnight, and we were in the countryside, and they were from Wales and perhaps had never been to Kent before, but the climate change camp in the field at the back of us did not consist of a bunch of violent insurrectionists but of middle class students and assorted greenies.

I spent a couple of days camping and occasionally speaking at last summer's protest camp against a new Kingsnorth power station. My impression was of it being a cross between a scout jamboree and a party conference held in marquees rather than hotels: a happy-clappy affair with very eco toilets. Non-violence was the order of the day.

Not many of the police were like the Welsh lot. I chatted to officers from the 26 forces represented who were relaxed and friendly, but there were more police around than campers and the whole thing was ridiculously over the top.

Kent police claimed that 70 officers were injured in the £5.9 million operation, but a series of questions by Lib Dem MPs (Norman Baker also made it to the camp) revealed that none were inflicted by protestors. A bee sting appears to have been the worst case, although one officer was off for a day or two after hurting his toe when he shut his car door. The allegations I heard at the time of crayons and board games being seized have been proven true.

Protestors should take copies of the Lib Dem report to future camps and make sure every police officer gets a copy. They can then spend their idle time wondering how people who ordered such an approach can get into senior positions of command.

THE REAL REASON FOR TORIES' DEPARTURE



And so it came to pass. It has taken them years to do it but the Tory MEPs have finally split from the European Peoples' Party, the home of European conservatives, of Merkel and of Sarkozy.

This leaves quite a lot of their older MEPs unhappy, because the European Parliament is the one place left where pro-European Tories are still to be found, but the EPP's federalist stance is anathma to the party in Britain.

Did they jump or were they pushed? EPP bosses said "time's up." They wouldn't allow the Tories to be involved in election planning unless they declared their intentions.

But maybe the exact timing of the decision had something to do with Tuesday's exchange in the Strasbourg chamber during a long session of votes.

A British Tory got up to grumble about the excessive number of roll call votes that had been called, each one slowing the process. "Some of us want to get to lunch," he declared.

A German Liberal rose: "Mr President. Every one of these roll call votes has been requested by the EPP!"

It was the final straw.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

THE CASTRATION OF MEPS

Amendments to pollution legislation aimed at introducing limits on CO2 emissions from new power plants were ruled inadmissable in the Parliament. Apparently we have adopted a rule for ourselves that says we shall not explore new topics when existing legislation is being updated, as in this case.

I rise to make a point of order: "The Parliament has no powers to initiate legislation so with these rules we have castrated ourselves. If our virility is to be restored they will need to be reviewed."

General appreciation, but some laughing comments about my 'sexist' use of language. When the session ends I challenge some of my female colleagues to give me words with the same meaning appropriate for their gender, but they are stumped.

Suggestions please.

video

LEGALISE DRUGS NOW!


The UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs meets in Vienna to determine its next 10 year 'strategy'. I have used the opportunity to make one of my ritual attacks on the utter failure of the "war" on drugs - a "war" which has enriched criminals and led to the promotion of drugs use. I have called (again) for legalisation of most illegal drugs to destroy the profit incentive that drives forward their sale. They should be available through government regulated outlets while health warnings about their use are stepped up.

I assume I will get coverage in the north west regional press, and no doubt some Liberal Democrats will be upset with me for being "off message." But I feel strongly about this issue. Politicians should be leading the call for change, not leaving it to newspaper columnists.

Gradually the protests against existing policy are growing - 30 members of the House of Lords have raised their voices - but the majority of elected politicians stay mum. It is so easy for opponents to score points against those brave enough to declare that the emperor wears no clothes.

Former deputy drugs tsar, Mike Trace, writes in the Guardian that evidence of the failure of policy is overwhelming but that nothing will change. "We can all book our seats for 2019 to go through this charade again," he says.

Monday, 9 March 2009

POLITICAL KILLINGS

The president of the European Parliament, Hans-Gert Poettering, takes his place to open the session. He rises to condemn in English the "utterly despicable" murders in Northern Ireland, "an attack on the basis of a free and democratic society."

What ludicrous logic motivates the killers? What real difference could it possibly make if a largely self-governing Northern Ireland were to be within the Republic of Ireland rather than the UK? We are both partners within the EU for heaven's sake. We are in many respects bound by the same laws and united by the same principles.

STRASBOURG SOJOURN

On the coach from Frankfurt airport to Strasbourg, a 2.5 hour section of a 7 hour journey from home to the European Parliament's second building - or is it our first one?

This will, I think, be my 113th journey to Strasbourg since my election nearly 10 years ago. My heart sinks at the thought that we are due to have 4 sessions in the city over the next 8 weeks. Normally we are here for a 4-day period only once per month but the EU treaty requires the Parliament to meet in Strasbourg 12 times a year. The dissolution period caused by the elections in June means that we have to cram in extra sessions now - not that there is any extra business to be done.

The real working home of the Parliament is in Brussels, and many of us complain that we are locked into performing in this ridiculous and expensive travelling circus only because of the weakness of governments to stand up to France, and the 'national honour' associated with having the Parliament meet in that country.

But in truth MEPs have failed to make their own wishes abundantly clear. It's a divisive issue and the party leaders are good at keeping it off the agenda. Reformers must press for a set piece debate and vote on the issue after the elections.

HIGHLIGHTS OF HARROGATE

Liberal Democrats met for their spring weekend conference over the weekend. There were a few new faces to be seen, together with the familiar ones who have attended each such event since my own first experience in 1976. Lib Dem conferences do sometimes feel like the gathering of an extended family.

I was pleased that a motion calling for suspension of the EU-Israel association agreement was passed by an overwhelming majority. "Enough is enough," I said in my speech. "The European Commission claims that our close partnership with Israel gives us influence over policy. In fact Israel ignores every word we speak. Time for words to be supported by deeds."

I was sorry to have upset an old friend by pouring scorn on his suggestion that this website should have pages written in Polish to make it more friendly towards potential voters from Poland. I think anyone interested enough to look at my website will probably have a good command of English.

And I was amused when my press officer completely lost his thread when heckled by Baroness Sarah Ludford MEP for patronisingly telling a fringe meeting audience that they should use words like "countries" not "EU member states."

Richard, I understand the point you were making, but being patronising is surely part of your charm?

Friday, 6 March 2009

BEATING THE BNP

The BNP has been talking up its hopes of winning a North West seat in the European elections. Victory in council by-elections could provide momentum and credibility, and the resignation of a Liberal Democrat councillor in Carlisle gave them an opportunity. According to The Independent (Feb 28), the BNP candidate in Castle ward was given a friendly reception on many doorsteps, and they would deliver 10 leaflets to every home by the March 5 poll.

Everything the BNP stands for is anathma to Liberal Democrats. We champion the right of every individual to reach their full potential. We oppose all forms of discrimination. We believe in the concept of community, and we have little time for national borders getting in the way of the need to develop shared solutions to common problems. To borrow the old anti-apartheid slogan, Liberal Democrats believe that there is only one race - the human race.

But a time when people are worried about their future is the perfect opportunity for racists to exploit fears, and with low turnouts in council by-elections there was the danger of complacency and the risk that we might have been caught napping in Carlisle. So in the last few days of the campaign we got on the telephone, summoned some help, and raised our game.

The BNP were out in force on Thursday, with party leader Nick Griffin amongst them. Their hopes were high - only for the people of Carlisle to dash them by a significant margin.

The Castle ward result:

Lib Dem 465
Labour 304
BNP 255
Con 143
Green 125

Turnout: 30%


This contest may have been the last chance before the European elections for the BNP to snatch a seat off the Liberal Democrats. They failed to do so, and I for one will use this result to point out that even in times of trouble a very large majority of people prefer Liberal values to fascist ones!

ISRAELIS LAUGH ALL THE WAY TO THE BANK

A fund raising dinner to support humanitarian relief in Gaza is organised by Muslim groups in the Rochdale area, and I am one of the speakers. It's well supported but not a huge affair, yet it raises £30,000! If nothing else that should serve as a reminder that many British voters want their representatives to start speaking up for justice in Palestine. So far as Israeli actions are concerned "enough is enough" they will say.

But how will the money be used? In recent days we have had Kerry, Solana and Blair visiting Gaza, all have called for the lifting of the economic blockade, but what has actually changed? Month after month passes but Israel ignores every entreaty. It is still not allowing concrete into Gaza, despite having destroyed the concrete making factories. It is not allowing paper for use by 400,000 children in schools. It is not allowing water purifying tablets to enter. Of course some of these products are in fact available at a price, smuggled in from Egypt through the hundreds of tunnels that the bombs were supposed to have destroyed. The Gaza mafia gets rich on the proceeds. But Israel puts two fingers up at all the senior people asking for a change in policy, and we never hear another word out of them.

The British government has pledged some £30 million to help with reconstruction. Hilary Clinton has promised hundreds of millions on the farcical basis that the elected representatives in Gaza (Hamas!) won't have any control of it. But who really benefits?

Most goods have to come through Israel or be purchased in Israel. The European Commission reckons that 60% of money given for Palestinians is spent in Israel, and the bombing of the Gaza economic infrastructure must increase this dependence.

Israel destroys Palestinian property. The EU pays for humanitarian relief and restoration of the damage. Israel makes money in the process.

Nice little scam, and EU citizens pick up the tab.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

MY GREATEST MISTAKE

I have been making political speeches for nearly 35 years. Tonight I own up to the occasion when telling the truth became my greatest mistake.

I'm in Saddleworth, at the Delph Methodist Hall, speaking to an audience of Liberal Democrat members and friends at a 'pizza and politics' evening. The faces are very familiar, many I have known since 1985 when I became parliamentary candidate for the Littleborough and Saddleworth constituency.

These people supported me through two unsuccessful general election campaigns and a triumphant by-election.

"The year was 2000," I said, "the anniversary of my election to the European Parliament. I was speaking in this constituency at a celebratory dinner, and reflecting on my 1997 failure to hold my seat in the House of Commons and win the new Oldham East & Saddleworth constituency."

With hindsight," I recall saying, "I am not sorry I lost."

It was a slap in the face to all those people who had worked so hard to get me re-elected in 1997, and who had been proud of having a local Liberal Democrat MP.

In truth I am still local to them, and stories about my work still appear regularly in the local papers, but being an MEP is not the same thing.The reasons I gave reflected my true opinion, but at the time they hurt.

I use tonight's occasion to apologise, but then repeat the reasons I gave.

"I like working in the European Parliament with people of so many different nationalities and different political cultures. I like the fact that the issues so often seem of a bigger order than at Westminster. I like the fact that as an ordinary MEP I have a much greater opportunity to influence the shape of legislation than I would have at Westminster, and it is legislation binding on 27 nations not just one."

The reason for this greater influence is the separation of powers between the EU institutions; the European Parliament is not subject to control by a government and MEPs are much less accountable to party whips.

At Westminster, opposition MPs seek to exploit political differences in order to score political points; in Brussels, MEPs explore the common ground between members in order to build up the majorities necessary for their power to be exerted.

"Very often, it feels like more grown up politics," I conclude.

My audience appreciate the apology for my past mistake, but this time they also seem to enjoy the reasons.

Lib Dems like the idea of "grown up" politics.