The Mail and the Sunday Telegraph are in full cry about the thousands of pounds expended by MEPs on foreign trips, staying in luxury hotels, frequently at or near attractive tourist destinations, where they have a light or non-existent work programme — and a good time eating off the fat of the land. Don’t they know there’s a recession on and that we’re tightening our belts? How can they splurge tax-payers’ money like that? Even my good friends at the TaxPayers’ Alliance are on the case. They’re excellent guys, and do some great work, but I think they’re wrong on this one.
As I am always saying, I’d be happy to save the taxpayer a great deal of money by closing down the European parliament altogether, and I’d vote to do that tomorrow if I could. I’d be even more radical, and close down the EU entirely, and replace it with a simple free trade area. We could call it EFTA.
But I can’t do either of those things (yet — but I haven’t given up!). In the meantime, people ask me what I’m doing in an institution whose very existence I oppose. It’s a reasonable question, and there’s a very reasonable answer. If I thought I was serving the institution, there’d be no justification at all. But I’m elected not to promote the EU, but to serve the interests of 4.2 million people in the East Midlands, and I do my best to fulfil that objective. Only this morning I managed to get four Helmer amendments into some very bad legislation in the Unemployment Committee, making bad proposals a bit less bad. (Little credit to me — mainly good ECR staff-work).
So if I’m going to be here, I’d quite like to get on and do some work, and to use my position in the interests of the East Midlands and the UK. So I make no apology for going with a parliamentary Delegation to Korea next week. It was to have been Beijing/Pyongyang/Seoul, but with the increasingly bellicose threats from the DPRK after the sinking of the Korean frigate, we decided to shorten the trip.
Why should we take an interest in Korea? I have a personal interest, because I spent four years running a business there (1990/94). But there are three more general reasons:
1 War, peace, nuclear weapons and regional stability. The North has a nuclear capability (sort of), and represents a major threat to its neighbours (we also met a Japanese delegation this morning, and today we had lunch with the South Korean Ambassador, by the way). We will be discussing these issues intensively with our Korean interlocutors. Dialogue may help to keep the tenuous peace, and as Churchill put it, Jaw Jaw is better than War War.
2 Trade. We have a major EU/Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in the pipeline, which offers massive trade benefits (on balance) to the British economy. At the same time there are difficult issues in some sectors (notably automobiles) where we will be looking to see how we can mitigate any damage. We will be discussing this at length with our Korean friends.
3 Human Rights: There are very serious human rights abuses in the North — indeed it is not too exaggerated to describe the North as one huge prison camp for 20 million plus people, who are deprived of basic freedoms and rights, short of food and water and power, and subjected to Kim Jong Il’s manic personality cult. Working with the parliament’s Human Rights Committee, our Korea delegation has pressed for a parliamentary report on Human Rights in North Korea. I don’t imagine that this will solve the problem, but it will ramp up the pressure internationally and help keep the issue on the front burner. We will be meeting refugees and NGOs representing North Korean citizens’ interests in Seoul.
And relaxed times by the pool? Judge for yourself. We are scheduled to arrive in Seoul at lunch time on Monday 7th, and fly out again on Friday 11th. During that time we will be meeting the EU Head of Delegation; EU Heads of Mission (including the British Ambassador); Korean Minister for Unification; Minister for Trade; Minister for Foreign Affairs; Chairman of the G20 Summit Presidential Committee; the National Assembly, including the Speaker, and leaders of the two main parties; the Korea-EU parliamentary Council; journalists; refugees and NGOs.
We’re also visiting the truce area at Panmunjom on the North Korean border, and meeting Swedish Officers of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission; finding time to visit Hyundai Motors; Samsung-Bosch; the Gateway Korea Exhibition; and the European Chamber of Commerce. Not much time for the beach — and anyway, there isn’t a beach in Seoul.
And my point is? Simply this. If we’re going to have a European parliament, and if British MEPs are to sit in it, then they’re better using their positions to do something useful, rather than sitting on their backsides in Brussels making bad laws. And it’s no good the Mail getting po-faced about the cost of an airline ticket.