Sceptical response to Blair's EU lecture

TONY BLAIR'S speech to the European Parliament in Brussels yesterday – telling MEPs that Europe faced a crisis of political leadership – has cut little ice with two of the East of England's Euro MPs Geoffrey Van Orden and Tom Wise.

TONY BLAIR'S speech to the European Parliament in Brussels yesterday – telling MEPs that Europe faced a crisis of political leadership – has cut little ice with two of the East of England's Euro MPs Geoffrey Van Orden and Tom Wise.

The Prime Minister told MEPs that he had always been a passionate pro-European but said the union had to recognise that only by change would it "recover its strength, its relevance, its idealism and therefore its support among the people."

The constitution, endorsed by all Governments and supported by all leaders, "was then comprehensively rejected in referendums in two founding member states, in the case of the Netherlands by over 60%.

"The reality is that in most member states it would be hard today to secure a `yes' for it in a referendum.

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"There are two possible explanations – one is that people studied the constitution and disagreed with its precise articles. I doubt that was the basis of the majority `no.'

"The other explanation is that the constitution became merely the vehicle for the people to register a wider and deeper discontent with the state of affairs in Europe. I believe this to be the correct analysis.

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"It is not a crisis of political institutions, it is a crisis of political leadership."

He then called for a modern EU budget that in ten years time was not spending 40% of its money on the Common Agriculture Policy. He told MEPs the UK would not acquiesce in its demands to reform farm subsidies before giving up its rebate. "Don't kid yourselves that this debate is unnecessary."

Tory MEP Mr Van Orden claimed the Prime Minister had flunked a "marvellous double opportunity. The defeat of the constitution was a chance to go back to the drawing board and start to sketch out a minimalist European Union that might have some relevance for the British people and the citizens of other European countries.

"The referendum results in France and the Netherlands show that people are not happy with the EU and do not want more integration. Yet Mr Blair said frankly that he would `never accept an EU that was simply an economic market' – but isn't that exactly the kind of Europe we signed up to?

"Mr Blair has laid his cards on the table. He said he believes in Europe as a political project. While paying lip service to economic reform and modernisation, he clearly wants to take Britain deeper into a federal Europe. He wants a social Europe with all the unnecessary burdensome trappings that would entail.

"The fact that East Anglia's taxpayers have been helping bankroll French farmers and other crazy schemes for the past 30 years is a disgrace. We need proper reform of the EU budget, but Mr Blair has said that he is willing to `put the rebate on the table' in exchange for a remote hope of reforming agricultural payments sometime in the future - so much for putting Britain's interests first."

Mr Wise who represents the anti-EU UK Independence Party said nothing the Prime Minister uttered on Europe could be trusted. "In 1983, he campaigned to quit the Europe, so how can he claim to always have been passionately pro-European? He's promised referendums on the euro and the constitution and scrapped them both.

"The whole EU project is crumbling. How wonderful."

GOVERNMENT demands for Essex to take tens of thousands of new houses have caused some of the county's Conservative MPs to fret about sustainability, the fear of flooding, and the impact on public transport.

Led by Simon Burns (Chelmsford West), the MPs have urged the Government "not to take forward the current misconceived proposals, which will be harmful to the Chelmsford local authority area and Essex."

In a parliamentary early day motion, Mr Burns speaks of grave concern at plans to impose massive house building on Essex under the sustainable community's plan "which would have an extensive environmental impact."

And he backs the Environmental Audit Committee's concerns at the lack of an adequate evidence base for the Government's plans "which fail to refer to environmental protection . . . and which are likely to result in a significant increase in the number of local properties flooded."

The overdevelopment of Mid Essex "will also create traffic congestion, overcrowding on trains and other public transport and place undue pressure on local services and public facilities."

His motion is backed by MPs John Wittingdale (Maldon & Chelmsford East), John Barron (Billericay), Bob Spink (Castle Point), Brooks Newmark (Braintree), Mark Francois (Rayleigh) and Andrew Rosindell (Romford).

Early day motions are an opportunity for MPs to raise subjects close to their hearts, hoping that enough of their colleagues will support them to put pressure on the Government ministers to change their minds.

I fear a Tory-only signed motion on house building will do no such thing. Most Labour MPs from other counties will say "thank God it's Essex that has copted it," sit back and do nothing.

A WEEK after his maiden speech in the Commons, Mr Newmark this week ventured to the lion's den by asking a question during the Prime Minister's session on Wednesday. It was a bruising encounter.

Mr Newmark said his constituents wanted to know if the Government stood by Gordon Brown's pledge 12 years' ago to end the means test of elderly people.

The Prime Minister snapped: "I feel very proud of the fact that the Government have helped pensioners so much over the years – millions of pensioners have benefited from the pension credit, the winter fuel allowance, free TV licences for over-75s and help with free bus passes.

"The hon. Gentleman should go back and tell pensioners in Braintree that, even though they elected a Conservative MP, they should be very glad that they still have a Labour Government."

ANNOUNCING the appointment of Nick Robinson to replace Andrew Marr as BBC Political Editor, the BBC's Internet site failed to note that Robinson is a former national chairman of the Young Conservatives.

Robinson's aggressive questioning of Tony Blair and other ministers during the election campaign, when he was still ITN's political guru, suggests Downing Street will not be too amused to have Robinson fronting BBC television's coverage of politics.

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