The EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights comes with the Lisbon Treaty, that Brussels plans to bludgeon through in the teeth public resistance and an Irish NO vote. It includes the following items:
Article 11, Freedom of expression and information. Para 1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.
Article 41, Right to good administration. Para 2. This right includes: the right of every person to be heard, before any individual measure which would affect him or her adversely is taken.
All persons, that is, except the tobacco industry, which is uniquely evil and entitled to no rights at all, according to a hearing I just attended in the European parliament in Brussels, sponsored by Smokefree Partnership. A series of anti-smoking campaigners vied with each other to vilify the tobacco industry, accusing it of dreadful things like lobbying, and seeking to influence legislation, and promoting the interests of its shareholders, and doing other cynical things like awarding prizes for Corporate Social Responsibility and contributing to anti-AIDS programmes. The sort of things that just about all major industries do, in fact.
I was struck by a remark of Dr. Anna Gilmore, of the University of Bath, who said that the tobacco industry was working for the interests of “a few rich shareholders”. But with most shares held by unit trusts and pension funds, there are probably more shareholders in the industry (albeit indirectly) than there are smokers.
What excuse do they have for singling out one industry? Well, they reply, it’s the only industry whose products, used as intended, kill the users. They seem to have missed the Whisky business, where I used to work. Used as intended, for drinking, alcoholic beverages cause thousands of deaths every year, and a good deal of crime and disorder.
The World Health Organisation has initiated the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which the EU and 26 member-states have signed up to (The Czech Republic, God bless it, has declined to sign). They are now producing “guidelines for implementation”. Anti-smoking lobbyists are proposing that the guidelines should preclude legislators from speaking to the industry. Yep. You read that right. They want to ban MEPs from speaking to tobacco companies.
Frankly, I was hopping mad when I heard this proposal. It is absolutely fundamental to any kind of good governance that legislators should discuss proposed legislation with those affected, and that parliamentarians should talk to businesses in areas they represent. I represent the East Midlands, home to Imperial Tobacco. Hundreds of their employees are my constituents, and a quarter of my constituents smoke. I personally hate smoking, but I respect the right of my constituents to make grown-up choices. Imperial has already been hammered by the EU’s Tobacco Directive, which like so much EU regulation had the primary effect of moving jobs, production and investment out of the EU altogether.
The WHO proposal is an assault on democracy. Listening to constituents, and to businesses, is a key part of what I am paid for, and I shall continue to do so without let or hindrance from the WHO.
If we start with tobacco, where do we stop? Many of my colleagues would like to start restricting the drinks industry. They believe that “Big Oil” is frustrating their attempts to curb global warming. Packaged food companies contribute to obesity. Cars cause accidents and pollute the atmosphere. They have problems with the pharmaceutical industry. This could grow into a full-scale assault on business and capitalism — which of course is exactly what many in the green lobby want.
It is a bitter irony that right here in Brussels, in the European parliament, supposedly the home of European democracy and free speech, we had a debate where only one side was represented, only one side was heard, and the main thrust of that debate was to deny the other side any voice at all.
But I can think of a greater irony. This was the parliament of the EU, which has voted year after year to give massive subsidies to ….. you guessed it ….. tobacco farmers. It’s enough to make the angels weep.