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Denis Macshane

British MEPs' problems with Latvians, again

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v2-Nigel-FarageOpinion by Dr Denis MacShane 

Latvian MEPs have always caused problems for British politics. The decision of Iveta Grigule to quit the group set up by Nigel Farage means it has had to dissolve itself, leaving UKIP MEPs floating around the European Parliament  like lost souls. They are without the chance of presiding committees, leading parliamentary delegations or being rapporteurs – all posts of influence and previously David Cameron suffered from negative publicity when it was found that a Latvian MEP in the Tory breakaway group from the EPP belonged to a party which was rather keen on commemorating Latvian collaborators in World War 2 who had helped in the Holocaust elimination of Latvian Jews.

To form a political group in the European Parliament at least 25 MEPs from seven countries are needed.  That is not a problem for the big political formations, the centre-right EPP, the centre left Socialists and Democrats, the Liberals, the Greens, the hard left and so forth.

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But the arrival over the last decade of populist, identity, usually xenophobic MEPs has changed the political architecture. There are now 100 MEPs who are non-inscrits in the official European Parliament terminology. In addition to the Ukip MEPs, these include MEPs from Beppe Grillo's 5-Star Party, Swedish Democrats, Hungary's Jobbik and Greece's Golden Dawn as well as MEPs led by

France’s Marine Le Pen and the Netherlands' Geert Wilders. Le Pen and Wilder hoped to form a major Eurosceptic block with Nigel Farage in the European Parliament after the May elections. The British nationalist refused saying that “antisemitism was embedded” in the French Front National. This upset Mme Le Pen as it contradicted her policy of dédiabolisation – exorcising the anti-Jewish ideology that has always been present in the French hard right.  Unfortunately for Mme Le Pen last month her father – still the president of honour of the FN – made a joke about sending a Jewish singer, Patrick Bruel, to the ovens, a reminder of what lies underneath the electoral success of the FN and why Farage wants nothing to do with the French party.

Nigel Farage’s refusal to join with Marine Le Pen left her and other parties with similar Europhobe, anti-foreigner, anti-Islam ideology as Ukip without a political group in the European Parliament.  Now Farage’s balloon has emptied of air and it may be that some of the more extreme nationalists in his group will peel off to link with Le Pen and Wilders and thus allow the French extremist to increase prestige and status in the European Parliament.

Relying on the Latvian Iveta Girgule was always a risk for Farage. She seems to have had several political homes starting as a Latvian Green and then joining the Latvian Farmers’ Party. She won her seat as an MEP for the Latvian Farmers Party.  She opposed Latvia entering the Euro which gives some link to Farage style Euroscepticism.

Farage and his followers remain untouchable for other MEPs across the political spectrum in Strasbourg. The Ukip leader has only himself to blame. He indulges in schoolboy antics in the chamber and in debates and never turns up to serve on committees he is paid handsomely to work on. In 2009, he boasted on British television about claiming £2 million in expenses as an MEP –a  figure which dwarfed all the expense claiming of British MPs.

Farage comes under no scrutiny from a British media which share his Euroscepticism so this break-up of his group will get a passing mention, little more. Similarly David Cameron’s alliance with politicians ready to gloss over the Holocaust never caused him much bother.

The fissiparous and often farcical nature of populist, identity MEPs is mirrored by the endless expulsions and resignations from Farage’s Ukip party as it attracts flakey rent-a-quote individuals who can never settle to the discipline of adult party politics.

Farage is endlessly indulged by most UK journalists, notably the increasingly Eurosceptic BBC. He will survive this latest manifestation of how rickety his political edifice really is. But for those who place hopes in the European Parliament as an institution of prestige and democratic importance, this latest comedy is not encouraging.

Dr Denis MacShane is the UK’s former minister of Europe.

Brexit

#Corbyn - what vision of Europe?

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Owing to the twists and turns of the totally confused politics of Brexit, the prospect – and, to some, the spectre – of a UK government led by Jeremy Corbyn has definitely moved into the realm of the possible, writes Denis MacShane.

However, the European left does not quite know what to make of Britain’s Labour leader. His Bernie Sanders-type speeches denouncing austerity, cuts in the public realm and blasting Trump certainly go down well. But what about his view of – and vision for – Europe?

In an age marked by the dual onslaught of China’s fused communist-capitalist model and the America-first nationalism and rabid protectionism of Trump, that is certainly a key question for voters on the left. Their hope is that Europe can somehow work as a bulwark to maintain proper social policy standards.

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Corbyn in Lisbon

At the recent conference in Lisbon of the Party of European Socialists to anoint Frans Timmermans as the left’s candidate to be the next European Commission president, Corbyn’s talk was therefore keenly awaited.

What message would Corbyn deliver? Would he finally move beyond his barely disguised indifference to supporting an integrated, united Europe?

The expectations were quite high. After all, Corbyn himself regularly proclaims that, once he is the British Prime Minister, he can negotiate a better deal with Europe. To achieve that, he definitely needs to have a good rapport with the left-of-center parties aligned with Labour in the EU.

Corbyn delivered his Brexit stump speech in Lisbon off two teleprompters to ensure that every word was measured. His staff watched nervously to make sure he said nothing that would imply he was taking any fresh steps in Britain’s toxic Brexit debate.

He repeated his mantra that the Brexit decision of June 2016 could not be challenged. He repeated his call for Theresa May to move aside and let Labour negotiate a better, fairer Brexit deal.

But Corbyn’s vision is still rooted in repudiating the EU’s core values and principles, notably the so-called four indivisible freedoms of movement – of capital, goods, services and labor.

Corbyn even went as far as attacking the EU as being responsible for Brexit, saying “EU support for austerity and failed neoliberal policies have caused serious hardship for working people across Europe.”

And he stated his conviction that the EU had “damaged the credibility of European social democratic parties and played a significant role in the vote for Brexit.”

Europe baffled

This view baffles most European leaders, including those on the left. To them, the Brexit vote is the result of a 15-year long right-wing xenophobic campaign. It was led by senior Tories, UKIP, Rupert Murdoch, Europhobe media like the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, as well as crude quasi-racist anti-immigrant demagogy.

Corbyn sounded off key not least because he gave his speech in Portugal whose government is run by the Portuguese Socialist Party. Portugal was also one of the countries hardest hit by the crash.

But instead of adopting the flamboyant anti-EU rhetoric of Yanis Varoufakis in Greece, the Portuguese left worked seriously and professionally with EU officials to get the country’s economy back on its feet. Unemployment is down to 6% and growth at the fastest rate in 17 years.

Corbyn’s EU-bashing is so remarkable because it sounds so much like rightwing criticisms of Europe. Little surprise then that his speech featured no criticism of rightwing populism and identity politics.

There was also no criticism of Boris Johnson, Steve Bannon, Marine le Pen, Matteo Salvini, or any of the other new hard right politics like the AfD in Germany or VOX in Spain that got an immense boost from Brexit.

Instead Corbyn said: “If the European political establishment carries on with business as usual, the fake populists of the far right will fill the vacuum. European socialists have to fight for a different kind of Europe.”

Europe is the problem

This was a revealing reflection of the Labour leader’s belief, which he has held since the 1970s, that Europe was the problem, not the answer. No surprise that Corbyn has voted against every EU Treaty since he was elected as an MP back in 1983.

Corbyn was also totally mum on the fact that Brexit is a major foreign policy win for President Trump who calls the EU “a foe” and for President Putin whose top-line foreign policy goal is to see Europe revert to disaggregated bickering nation states that Russia can deal with one by one.

Corbyn also had no word of praise for the much-admired contribution of British Members of the European Parliament.

The disappearance of 20 Labour MEPs from the European Parliament is a significant blow to the Party of European Socialists and any hopes that the Socialists and Democrats group can be reinforced in the European Parliament.

Long gone are the days when, 17 years ago, Robin Cook, Labour’s progressive and innovative Foreign Secretary, was elected president of the Party of European Socialists. But the days when Labour was a serious player on the European left seem a distant memory

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Brexit

#Brexit - How will business cope?

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At first sight it looked like a strong, clear statement criticizing Brexit. The UK’s top five industry and business federations declared they were “watching in horror as politicians have focused on factional disputes rather than practical steps that business needs to move forward”,  writes Dennis MacShane.

Between them, the Confederation of British Industry, the British Chambers of Commerce, the Federation of Small Businesses, the manufacturers’ association EEF and the Institute of Directors represent the great majority of businesses operating in the UK. That includes most foreign direct investment firms who opened up shop here on the solemn promise from Margaret Thatcher, and all her successors up to the present prime minister, that the UK would guarantee full access to the EU single market of 450 million consumers.

That these organizations have combined to issue such a dramatic call is significant. “Watching with horror” is not language we have heard from business before.

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But what exactly are they “watching with horror”? Is it May’s deal, with its political declaration containing endless contradictory statements that require years of tense, tetchy negotiations with 27 EU member states before the UK has the faintest idea of what its future trading relationship with Europe is?

Is it the sight of the Tory party holding a leadership election to oust the prime minister at a time of national crisis?

Is it horror at the complete absence of leadership and policy from the Labour party?

And what exactly is the business alternative? Many big firms, as well as the CBI, were loudly supportive of the government’s deal. They seem to have no political advisors to tell them it was never going to get through the Commons this month, and is unlikely to next month either.

Inside the CBI, trade specialists told their senior managers that the government’s deal was unworkable in terms of trade access, as indeed it is.

But by nature business leaders lean to the right. Since July 2016, they have been reluctant to say anything that appeared to criticise the handling of Brexit by Tory ministers.

The BCC’s problems are even more acute. Their membership is located in English towns and smaller cities where sentiment in recent years has been heavily influenced by the anti-EU propaganda of the The Daily Telegraph, Sun and until recently the Daily Mail.

Can this omerta change? There was certainly leadership on offer from business figures, including several former CEOs, who yesterday issued a statement calling on the prime minister to “take her deal to the British people”.

In contrast, the CBI/BCC/EEF/FSB/IOD statement is vivid in language but weak in alternatives.

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Brexit

#Brexit – Not even the end of the beginning

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Now the first rule of politics kicks in. Start counting. Not the number of words in the 585 page Withdrawal Agreement or the 7 page political declaration but the number of MPs who will vote Yay or Nay, writes Denis MacShane, former UK Europe minister (pictured).

Already London and Brussels are contradicting each other. Michel Barnier says that EU citizens can live, work, retire in the UK and vice versa for British expats on the continent while in London defenders of the deal say it means the end of freedom of movement.

For the EU-27 the four freedoms of movement of capital, goods, services and people are indivisible. If British business and politicians insist they can start discriminating against EU citizens by imposing work and residence permits the claims from Mrs May that there will be full access for firms in Britain to sell into Europe will simply explode.

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The same internal contradictions mean years and years of negotiation if ever the ambitions listed about the future UK-EU relations are to be set into an international treaty then a Brexternity of talks, rows, political revolts in the UK, and demands from producer and exporting lobbies in the EU-27 countries will create headlines well into the 2020s.

But can Mrs May win backing from the Commons? One minister has resigned saying he cannot accept the deal because it allow for different arrangements in Northern Ireland. The paradox is that the fundamentalist protestant political sect the Democratic Unionist Party refuses to accept the laws of the UK on gay and women’s rights.

The DUP is homophobe and anti-women as well Europhobe so Mrs May will have to live without their 10 votes.

How many of her 315 Tory MPs will back the deal? There is an alliance against nature between passionate Leavers and fervent Remainers. The strong Leavers like Boris Johnson will vote against the agreement and insist on a No Deal crash out of the EU is the best course.

Another hard line anti-European cabinet minister, Dominic Raab, has also resigned. He has been Brexit minister since July but sidelined by the Downing Street who entrusted the negotiations to a senior official, Ollie Robbins, who treated Raab with indifference bordering on contempt.

If the alliance against the deal strengthens it  means destroying Mrs May to elect a new PM with of course Johnson in the front-line of wannabe replacement PMs.

On the other side of the divide there are Remainers who also want to defeat the May-Barnier deal in order to provoke a great political crisis that can only be solved by a new referendum. Tony Blair is the most articulate exponent of this politique du pire – the old Trotskyist line of the worse the better – the only way to bring about fundamental political change is to show that normal politics in unworkable.

For supporters of a new referendum it is only be huge defeat of the deal that can open the way to re-voting the 2016 Brexit result. Their line won support from the Swiss political journalist Andres Allemand who explained in a UK newspaper, the Independent, how in Switzerland it was normal to vote more than once on a difficult issue.

The official Labour Party position under its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who made up his mind in the 1970s that Europe was a capitalist plot of no relevance to his socialist ambitions is also to oppose the deal. He hopes that if it is defeated a general election will then follow and Labour takes office. But he has only 257 MPs and most of the other 393 MPs are not turkeys voting for Thanksgiving. Few MPs, Tory and Labour, give credence to the idea of a new election.

In the middle are hundreds of MPs who do not make headlines, don’t get quoted or interviewed and are torn between party loyalties, support or dislike of their chiefs, local pressure from party activists, worries about jobs and the economic future.

No-one knows yet how they will vote. The London press coverage of politics is based on maybe at best 15-20 MPs in each party. Will Tory anti-Europeans take their lead from the most intellectual of the Tory Europhobes, Michael Gove, who is in the cabinet. In a stormy 5 hour cabinet meeting Gove said they should accept the deal as getting out of the EU  is the priority. Once no longer an EU Treaty member Britain can do what it likes. Perfidious Albion comes back to life.

One senior Tory Brexiter, a member of the so-called European Research Group of anti-EU MPs headed by Jacob Rees Mogg, told me that he and many of his colleagues would not provoke a crisis in December by voting down the deal. “We will accept the deal and soon after we will get rid of Theresa May and elect a new leader and prime minister who will complete a full Brexit.”

On the Labour side, the whips privately say they do not know where all Labour MPs are.  Most will see the vote as a chance to defeat Mrs May. Some have called for a new referendum but there are only 9 Tory MPs signed up for a new vote so it is not clear that a majority in the Commons can be be found for a new referendum.

However some Labour MPs have said they cannot vote for anything that destroys jobs and a No Deal crash out guarantees a major economic crisis with many foreign firms like all the Japanese auto companies saying they will have to relocate to the continent.

Tory whips may try and bribe one or two elderly Labour MPs planning to retire at the next election by offering a seat in the House of Lords with its £300 a day allowance for the rest of their lives.

But no-one can say with honesty what the final parliamentary vote will be. Never has British politics been so polarized. Never has the quality of political leadership in Britain been so weak. The Brexit saga is far from over.

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