From the BBC
There’s a gift shop for visitors to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, selling tea towels and cufflinks with the gold stars and blue background of the EU. Pride of place is given to the rack of lapel pins with intertwined European and national flags.
Today you could choose the flags of Spain, or Italy - or France, of course - but they didn’t have one for the UK.
“Would you like a pin with the Irish flag?” the assistant asks, in perfect English.
I don’t think they’d sold out. To be honest I didn’t want to buy one at all, given the Euro exchange rate. I was really just confirming the feeling around here that it is often simply not worth bothering to include Britain in things.
There are visitors to the Parliament from Spain, and Poland and places much further away than the South of England. There are groups of Rotarians, and young mums and a huge herd of farmers from Italy laughing loudly and taking photographs of themselves in front of the magnificent parliament buildings.
But the only people I came across from England were the nine MEPs we elected 18 months ago.
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. The majority of votes we cast in the South were for candidates sceptical about the whole European project. From the European constituency of South East England we send five Conservatives, two UKIP, two Lib Dems, one Green, and one Labour MEP.
It’s a larger group than many of the small countries, and they have quite a bit of influence.
The Liberal Democrat MEP Sharon Bowles has fast made her name as a financial expert. Labour’s Peter Skinner and the Green’s Keith Taylor are pursuing their particular interests as is the new girl from Oxford, Catherine Bearder.
This week they’ve been involved in persuading the new fisheries commissioner to stop the throwing back of dead fish, and find other ways to conserve supplies.
They’ve complained about French treatment of the Roma peoples who are Europe’s largest minority. And they’ve got a motion through calling for a nifty £50 device to be fitted to all European lorries warning them when a cyclist is alongside.
But the main point of contention is the 2012 budget. Despite the financial problems of Greece, Ireland and Portugal the European Parliament continues to increase spending.
As one of our Conservative MEP’s Dan Hannan points out, the exchange rate is against us because we pay our bill in Euros. We’ve also lost the rebate of £7bn a year we used to get against the Common Agriculture and Fishery Policies, without the reform of the system we were promised.
Estimates for how much we pay to Europe range from the EU’s £200 each to the Taxpayers’ Alliance of £1,000 plus. It depends whether you include things like the additional cost of European regulation on British business.
And how do you quantify the extra trade? The think tank Civitas reckon about half of our exports go to the European Union, but Switzerland does well with a Free Trade Association rather than full harmonisation.
They’re all things we could debate, if we ever got a referendum on Europe - something Dan Hannan suggests will be much more likely once we’ve held the vote on changing the voting system in May.
As David Miliband pointed out this week, for the first time since the First World War most major European governments come from the centre-right of politics. And yet it struck me just how much the EU institutions continue to expand, and charge us more for our membership.
My first report for the television will be on this Sunday’s Politics Show. I talked to UKIP’s Marta Andreasen, a former Chief Accountant of the EU, and Lib Dem Catherine Bearder - not just about EU money but that decision in the European Court that men and women must be treated equally for car insurance and pensions.
What does that tell us about the direction that we are travelling? Have we given up too much control, or is it right to be part of a joint quest for the better things in life?
It’s not just about the money. This week at the European Court of Human Rights (the ones who want us to allow prisoners to get the vote) there was a moving case of a 31 year old mother from Slovakia who’d been sterilised - she says against her will.
She comes from a Roma background, and under communism in her country there was a policy to use sterilisation to reduce the Roma population. One survey showed 60% of all such operations were carried out on Roma people. This woman was put in a “gypsy-only” ward, forbidden to use toilets available to other women.
It beggars belief that such a policy could be continuing in the modern EU, yet strong criticism of France’s immigration policy towards the Roma people was another hot topic in the Strasbourg parliament this week.
Hungary’s President Pal Schmitt was visiting today. On the Politics Show this week we will be reporting the next stage of Michael Turner’s fight for justice after he was extradited to Hungary under the European Arrest Warrant and held in prison for four months because his business owed money.
Our rights have been won at some cost, and should not be regarded lightly.
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity to you all. We certainly should be paying attention to what they’re doing in Brussels and Strasbourg in our names.
Perhaps a few more visitors to the Parliament from Britain might persuade them to take more notice of British arguments, and then we could have our own pin badge.