This will be my last update to readers of Conservative Home – at least as leader of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group. Rather than my usual update, I thought I would give you some of my final thoughts after 15 years in the European Parliament.
The North East is a great region with Conservative values
To pinch and amend a line from Syed Kamall: the North East is the greatest region in Britain, the greatest country in the world. It has been an honour to represent it in the European Parliament, and I am grateful to everyone who entrusted me since my election 15 years ago. Being a Tory there has not always been easy, but it has never been dull. And, in many ways, I believe the North East should be predominantly Conservative: as a rule we work hard, believe in community, and want a government that is there when needed but leaves us alone most of the time. Clearly, we have work to do if we are to show many voters that our values are their values; but I believe these values are an asset as we continue to rebuild our party in the north. Don’t let anyone say it is a Labour heartland. Labour’s metropolitan leadership take its support for granted, and we must never allow them to. We have some incredible talent in our party’s northern regions, and I will do all I can to support it as we take the fight to complacent Labour.
We fought an excellent campaign
This was the fourth European campaign I have fought with the party, and it was certainly the best organised that I have seen. Our message was clear, consistent and – most importantly – adhered to with impressive discipline across the party. I can only pay tribute to my own team, our regional team, and CCHQ, who made it run smoothly. I was also grateful for a visit from the Prime Minister, even if we did end up on top of a massive crane on the Port of Tyne. I admit to feeling queasy.
Realistically, governing parties do badly at elections. People are not fully feeling the effects of the economic recovery in their pockets and wage packets. Against that backdrop, to almost beat the main opposition party is a fantastic achievement. In 1999, we won the European elections by a landslide. We all know what happened in 2001. This result was not good for Labour. And for the Liberal Democrats, they proved that they are the Party of ‘IN’ – IN deep s**t. On a personal level, of course, there were some LibDems I got on better with than others (and some that I didn’t get on with at all), but I have some experience of what they must all be feeling. I wish them well with whatever they do in the future.
I also share my sympathy with two sitting Conservative MEPs also not elected: Marina Yannakoudakis and Marta Andreasen. Marina saved UK businesses £2.5 billion in unrealistic maternity leave payments that the EU was trying to mandate. She has led a campaign against female genital mutilation, and opposed patronising EU plans for women quotas on company boards. Since joining the Conservatives, Marta has worked tirelessly and deployed her vast experience on budgetary control issues, highlighting waste in EU spending. She was an excellent addition to the MEP team, and was making a major contribution to our work. I am sure that we have not heard the last of either of them.
The European Parliament is frustrating, wasteful and often remote – but, increasingly, it matters
When I first arrived in 1999, we had won a landslide, and many new MEPs arrived together. One of our first actions was to parade down the Champs Elysees protesting about France’s ban on British beef. It was a protest for which French riot police turned up and threatened to arrest the entire delegation! The banner we held aloft read “”Let them eat cake” – Marie Antoinette. “Let them eat British beef” – Conservative MEPs.”
Back in those days, taking a day out of the office to parade down the Champs Elysees in front of cameras was not particularly problematic. But over the years the workload has increased so much that it would be almost impossible to bring everyone together like that. Whether we like it or not, the work of an MEP – so often unreported – is important to how we live our lives. The Lisbon Treaty gave MEPs co-decision over legislation, and the final say over major treaties and trade agreements negotiated by the EU. At times, this has been frustrating. Even an argument that you might assume is basic common sense can easily be dismissed by other MEPs outright. However, the power of argument can win through in Brussels (actually, having a mother-tongue command of English helps as well). And, more often than not, through a lot of hard work and bloody-mindedness, we have been able to force others to see our point of view.
This might sound odd and even quite concerning, but decisions in the European Parliament are rarely made in the debating chamber, or even in the plenary votes. These days, they are usually made in what’s known as a trilogue – when a selection of MEPs, EU governments and the Commission come together to negotiate on details of specific laws. If you want to defend your interests – that is where it is done. Frankly, we are going to have to work even harder now that our numbers are depleted.
Conservative MEPs really do work hard for Britain
Delivering in these trilogues usually means hours of preparation during the day, followed by hours of talks during the night. They often start these talks at seven or eight in the evening so that the prospect of an all-nighter focuses people’s minds. It’s not glamorous, but we have to do it. Conservative MEPs sit in that room and demand what they want. At 3am, they often get it. I’ve been proud to have been a member of that team of talented and dedicated people from across the UK, and all walks of life. I will miss my colleagues and friends, some of whom I might have fought with on occasion, but all of whom I have respected.
Not everyone in Brussels wants to do us down
And of course, I will miss being Chairman of the ECR Group in the parliament. I had worked for the creation of this group for many years, believing that only it could help to break the federalist monopoly in the EU. Since its creation in 2009 it has grown, and become established. We are here to stay. Taking a group from nothing and making it a major player is an enormous task. Think how difficult it is in one country, let alone 28. Yet we are attracting new MEPs and parties from across the EU, and I am confident that we could end up being larger than we are now – despite losing seats in the UK and amongst our Czech partners.
In the ECR, we have been proud that we sometimes have different national interests and priorities. We don’t paper over them: we encourage them. As chairman, I have learnt a lot about the background and reasoning for these different interests. In doing so, I have made many friends from across the continent and beyond. But let me also say that people from the ECR – and even many in other groups – also want to hear our national perspective on issues, and on the EU. We are respected in the EU, and what always amazed me was how an MEP would make a great British-bashing speech in the chamber, only to come up to me afterwards and say, ‘I wish we had the same guts as you and your Prime Minister.’ As we start to talk about renegotiation and a major reform of how the EU does business, don’t always assume that everyone in Brussels is hostile. Going with the flow is too often an art-form there, and with the ECR we have started to show that the flow need not go in one direction. Others will be increasingly emboldened to call for something different.
The ECR will continue to grow. It will continue to be more relevant. I’m so proud to have been a member and its chairman for the past thirty months, and I hope I can continue to help it expand.
It’s been a blast
There’s an old saying that if you love your job then you will never really ‘work’ a day in your life. Although being an MEP is hard work, I always considered it a great privilege to serve my region, my country, and my party. Next to Newcastle FC, they are my greatest passions. Along the way, I have met some incredible people, whether they be voters on the doorstep, party workers, heads of state and government, and even the odd celebrity. I have enjoyed brilliant colleagues in the Conservative delegation, the ECR Group, and even good people from other political groups (some belong with the ECR really but don’t realise it yet). I’ve worked with dedicated and assiduous staff from the party, in my own MEP office, and within the ECR group. I want to thank them for everything they have done to help me over the years. And last but certainly not least, let me thank the thousands of Conservative Party activists who turn out pounding the streets, folding letters, donating money, calling for pledges, attending functions, standing for office, and serving their communities. I can never thank you enough for giving me this opportunity. I hope I have exonerated your sacrifice during the past 15 years spent in Brussels and Strasbourg.
Here’s to the future
I look forward to reading ConservativeHome every day. It’s a great website and I’ve been proud to work with Tim, Jonathan, Paul and everyone else in the team and I thank you for reading my column. I may write here again sometime, but probably not every month. I hope that my successor will take it up and continue reporting back on our work. But for me, as they say, one door closes and another opens – so I’m off to push on some doors to see what’s next.