ORAN BURKE

Who owns all the oranges? by Oran Burke

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Who owns all the oranges?

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The EU flag

James Elles is an MEP for the South East of England with special responsibility for the Conservative Party in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. He is in his sixth term and is a member of the European Parliament’s Budgets and Foreign Affairs Committees and the EU-US delegation. He is chairman of the Transatlantic Policy Network, which he founded, and was co-founder of the European Internet Foundation.

January 6, 2013

Interview with James Elles MEP

Recent media reports suggest that Eurosceptic ideas within the Conservative Party are growing stronger with David Cameron appeasing his parliamentary party by taking a hard line in budget negotiations with the European Union.

The popular tide would also seem to be on their side with polls suggesting a majority of Britons would vote to leave the EU in a referendum. This, along with mid-term blues and the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), is placing the Tories in an awkward position in their dealings with Europe.

However, as with any organisation that seems to have set itself on an unwavering path there are always those who do not agree. The most obvious choice in the UK would be Ken Clarke but it is rare that we hear from MEPs, the elected officials who negotiate on behalf of Britain in the European Parliament.

Early in November 2012 Conservative MEP James Elles spoke about his party’s relationship with the EU and his own views on the matter – “I’m pro-European and I’ve never had any problems with defining myself as such.”

He has been a member of the European Parliament since 1984 before which he was a civil servant with the European Commission, firstly as a negotiator in the Tokyo Round of trade talks in the 1970s, then as Assistant to the Deputy Director General of Agriculture. Unsurprisingly he says, “I understand the system pretty well and I know the people pretty well.”

He seems so sharply at odds with many other more vocal Conservatives that it’s hard to listen without wondering if he’s really part of the same party, one he describes as mostly Eurosceptic and likely to remain that way for some time. Nevertheless he does generally vote with his party in Europe and supports a membership referendum but believes it will be better for Britain’s economy to stay in the EU and negotiate trade agreements as part of a powerful bloc.

This is a view entirely opposite to that of his outspoken colleague Daniel Hannan, a fellow Conservative MEP, who he describes as “not noted for his business experience”. Hannan believes that Britain should go it alone and negotiate individual trade agreements with countries like China and Brazil as the current reliance on the EU to carry out this function isn’t working.

Elles is unconvinced, saying, “We won’t have the weight to do that, we won’t have the credibility” and describes the idea that Britain can be “a kind of Hong Kong” off the shores of Europe as “looking totally backwards and a romantic view of history and our future.”

Going on to discuss comments by Iain Duncan Smith on The Andrew Marr Show supporting Britain’s ability to survive alone he says, “I don’t see how if you’re looking at the long term trends where we’re going to be smaller, where we know things are going to be more global, when we have big decisions [to make] on climate change, on environmental policy or just in terms of competitiveness, growth and things like that, how we could be better off by being outside.”

He seems mildly exasperated with his party’s EU policy and disagrees with the regularly used argument that it is an undemocratic institution making laws from afar, describing it as a highly political system but not one his fellow Conservatives want to come and see. “It’s a kind of case of denial, see no evil, hear no evil, like the three monkeys sitting on a wall and saying, well we don’t want to be part of that because we don’t control it...they lost control and they want to gain it back for them, rather than seeing a broader vision of how we should actually see our country and where the best interests of our country and peoples lie.”

While largely looking to the future of Britain he does mourn the loss of apprenticeships and manufacturing, making the point that the country can’t run on finance alone. He says that Germany, working within EU rules, has thrived by manufacturing quality goods that people want to buy and wonders what the UK will gain if it has to compete alone with them in markets like China. His arguments are convincing, drawn from extensive experience of trade negotiations and being the longest serving member of the European Parliament’s Budgets Committee.

It is difficult to understand how these opinions will ever be heard above the Eurosceptic chorus although since our discussion some previously unseen allies have spoken out. Ken Clarke, who Elles identifies with as similarly pro-European, said on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that it would be a disaster for Britain’s economy if they were to leave. Sir Roger Carr, president of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), a powerful business lobbying group, also joined the debate saying, “Whilst looking for new partners, we must not forget old friends. Europe, however challenged, remains home to half our exports.”

The interjection of the CBI may ultimately be the defining point in this debate as the Prime Minister’s views have become more cautious in recent times, promising a referendum but not saying when exactly it might be. He has also toned down his echoing of the rhetoric of his own party, perhaps realising that without the backing of the business community in the next election, his party may lose crucial donations. The position now is that there will be a renegotiation of Britain’s dealings with Europe rather than an outright withdrawal perhaps hoping public opinion can be satisfied by the appearance of having a more powerful position in Europe.

James Elles will no doubt continue his work in Europe amidst the antagonism. Aside from defending the EU, this also involves the European Internet Foundation, an organisation he co-founded to ensure the institution remains in step with digital developments. He believes the internet has the ability to enhance economies and enable people to contribute ideas, going so far as to bring Victor Hugo into the internet age – “You can resist the invasion of armies but you cannot resist the invasion of ideas.” It would be ironically unfortunate if a similar offensive helped cause the end of Britain’s 40-year-old association with Europe.

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