Commemorating Passchendaele 100 Years On

Commemorating Passchendaele 100 Years On

Posted July 30, 2017

Today's commemoration on the centenary of the Third Battle of Ypres, Passchendaele, are highly personal for me. During this Autumn I intend to visit the area because I believe the commemoration of the sacrifices of the ordinary working people who fought that war are understood and never forgotten.

If having seen action at the Somme in 1916 and Arras earlier in 1917 wasn’t enough, Battalion 18 of the Northumberland Fusiliers found their way to Belgium for what many historians regard as the decisive battle of the Great War.

The 18th – the 1st Tyneside Pioneers - was a ‘pals’ battalion, where friends and workmates answered the call together, fought together and died together. The photograph of Platoon 5 was taken at Rothbury, Northumberland in December 1914 – nearly three years before Passchendaele. My Grandfather Joe Robinson is third from the left in the front row. How many of the pals survived, till then, I wonder? Somehow Joe had. Before Ypres, as an experienced miner, he had been sent to work with the Royal Engineers Tunnelling companies at Messines and learned the explosives skills he would use for the rest of his working life underground. At Passchendaele, he would be among the 300,000 estimate allied casualties, wounded by shrapnel – at what stage within the 102 day campaign I don’t know.

Sent back to England to convalesce, Passchendaele was not the end of Joe’s war, he would return to France in the spring of 1918.

Passchendaele involved human sacrifice on a horrific scale. The strategy, tactics and moral judgements involved, given the knowledge of the slaughter that had gone before, were highly questionable. The battle was indecisive in terms of territory gained but, because of the unsustainable casualties inflicted, effectively ended the ability of Imperial Germany to win the war.

100 years on Europeans go to Belgium to talk about and settle the affairs of our continent peacefully. In doing so we honour the memory of those who fought in the mud of Flanders.

Posted by John Howarth
The Week in Brussels – 14 June 2017

The Week in Brussels – 14 June 2017

Posted July 16, 2017

Above: with new North West MEP, Wajid Khan, and Julie Ward MEP

 

I’ve just returned from my first week in Brussels. Taking over as MEP mid-term means that you have to run around setting everything up again almost from scratch - but we are getting there.

As well as getting my new office up and running, I was able to attend my first parliamentary meeting - of the Committee on Regional Development. This is the committee which looks at how best to support the various regions of the EU, from the South East of England to the North East of Romania and everywhere in between. In particular, this is done through “cohesion funding”, with EU money being spent on targeted projects to help deliver economic growth and jobs in those areas of the Union that need it most. The Regional Development Committee oversees this funding and holds the European Commission to account for how it is spent.

On Wednesday of this week, the Committee held a hearing with the Estonian Minister for Public Administration. Estonia will hold the rotating presidency of the European Council for the next six months, and the Minister was in Parliament to set out Estonia’s four priorities for the second half of 2017: an open and innovative European economy; a safe and secure Europe; a more digitally connected Europe; and an inclusive and sustainable Europe. The UK gave up its turn at the presidency after the 'leave' vote the EU last year. 

As the Minister ran through these priorities, and the thinking behind each of them, it struck home yet again just how much the UK is going to suffer by walking away from the EU. The Minister rightly said, with real pride, that the single market of the EU - the means by which European companies can tap into a marketplace of 500 million consumers - is one of its greatest achievements. The Single Market was also, very largely, a British achievement. It is what allows small businesses, like the one I used to run, to sell their products and services all over the continent, to grow and take on new staff. Membership of that market means more jobs for any country which takes part.

Yet the Tory government back home, now with no parliamentary majority or mandate for their policies, is determined to yank us out not just of the single market but also the customs union and all the benefits that come with it. Such an act of economic self-harm, which will make us poorer as a country, was nowhere on the ballot paper last June. To opt for the hardest of hard Brexits is not enacting “the will of the people” - it is a purely political decision, and an idiotic one at that.

In the committee meeting, I was struck by something the Minister said about the benefits of the Single Market. He said that it gives businesses an environment which is “simple, predictable and supportive”. As a businessman myself, I can vouch for how important that is. What on earth is simple, predictable or supportive about the disastrous path Theresa May is intent on walking us down?

I have always thought leaving the EU is a terrible idea. Having spent my first couple of weeks in the European Parliament - meeting my colleagues from 27 other countries, hearing their hopes and ambitions for the future of the EU and listening to them reiterate the many benefits that their countries gain from being members - I am more convinced than ever that we are making a terrible mistake as a country. It is heartbreaking to see the extent to which our national future is being dictated by a group of bitter, out-of-touch Tory backbenchers.

With the time that I have as an MEP, I am determined to use the platform that it gives me to do some good - for the UK as a whole, and for my constituents in the South East in particular. To me, that means engaging fully and properly with my counterparts from the other 27 member states, and doing everything in my power to limit the damage that Theresa May and her team risk inflicting on our country.

Posted by John Howarth
Strasbourg Session –  6 June 2017

Strasbourg Session – 6 June 2017

Posted July 7, 2017

Above: My view of the Strasbourg Chamber, ready for the first set of votes

 

Getting to Strasbourg is notoriously difficult and is best planned well in advance.

To take my seat as soon as practical I didn’t have that luxury and the logistics meant that I arrived at the Parliament after EU Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker’s, outburst describing the Parliament as ‘ridiculous’ as only a handful of MEPs had turned up to hear his wise words.

Like most national Parliaments there is a lot going on while the European Parliament is in session and Members go into the Chamber to speak on particular debates, listen to reports and raise questions but are often occupied with meetings, groups and various committees elsewhere in the building. Also, because the Parliament’s votes take place in blocks, there is no running around to walk through doors when bells ring. Mr Juncker knows this very well – he had a seat in the Parliament he never took up while he was Prime Minister of Luxembourg. There are those who say that his outburst was intended to deflect attention from a later report focussing on tax avoidance. Surely not - but there certainly wasn’t much coverage of that item.

Ironically, had I been able to get there I would have liked to listen to Mr Juncker, but I expect this won’t be my only chance. It does amaze me however that he has the front to still be around. On his watch the EU lost one of its largest member states. At least David Cameron had the decency to resign.

Votes, votes and votes and votes

As things worked out my first vote in the Parliament was on a highly technical matter placing further limits on substances that deplete the ozone layer. Just the sort of thing that can only be effectively done by a trans-national body like the EU and just the sort of rule that British companies will have to comply with if they want to sell their stuff into the EU and over which, should Britain leave as currently planned, we will have no influence.

Back to the Drawing Board

Later in the session the Parliament threw out the Commission’s proposed work programme for 2018. The detail isn’t important, though I find the argument that this was some kind of petty revenge prompted by Mr Juncker’s earlier outburst a little fanciful. The political groups in the Parliament just don’t work like that. The fact is that the Commission just hadn’t been able to put together a programme that commanded a consensus – but they have got plenty of time to take note of the view of the Parliament and think again.

E-Stonia

Estonia, a small state of 1.3 million people, is taking over the Presidency of the Council on Ministers – the rotating ‘chair’ of the 28 EU Governments. Estonia has an impressive record as a county, particularly in science, technology and in educating its citizens to a high standard. They have interesting ideas and things to say about technology, how the internet should serves society and a whole lot of other things. They also have intriguing ideas around a concept of e-citizenship – about which I want to find out more. Estonia, like many small countries, seems to see the EU as a protector of rights and freedoms. They have, perhaps, a better perception of these things having not so long ago been rather less than free.

Turkey – not joining any time soon

Speaking of not so free, some readers will remember the disgraceful adverts peddled by the Leave campaigners stating that Turkey would be joining the European Union and that meant umpteen million Turks would be coming to the UK. This was just another lie put about to deceive people worried about migration into thinking that getting out of the EU was the answer. Well whatever Boris Johnson says, Turkey won’t be joining the EU any time soon – if ever. The Parliament sent a very clear message making it clear that the restrictions on democratic freedoms and the retreat from the values to which member states of the EU must subscribe that President Erdogan has implemented are incompatible with EU membership. The situation in Turkey should be of great concern to the democratic world.

Posted by John Howarth
An unexpected turn of events

An unexpected turn of events

Posted June 30, 2017

Above: Celebrating my becoming an MEP with friends in the Pakistani community who I represented as a councillor.

 

Becoming an MEP was the last thing I expected

Since I stood for election to the European Parliament in 2014 and, again, missed out narrowly, I have taken a relatively low profile in political life. While I always knew it was a possibility, were Anneliese Dodds to become unable to continue as an MEP I would be asked to step into the role. I considered it a highly unlikely possibility and got on with earning a living.

My political ‘career’ (though I never considered it a job as such) had borne fruit for the town that I served and for the wards I represented and I was content with that. After a gruelling campaign across the vast constituency that is South East England, I needed a break from front line politics.

Of course I continued to advise my colleagues and provide services to elected Labour representatives of all hues through the business I ran, but I was happy to find new challenges for my political abilities in the public affairs world and was lucky to do so.

Nobody could have predicted the things that would happen in the three years that followed. Early in 2015, at a chance of many millions to one, I found myself standing in the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. My step daughter was on life support after a bleed in her brain and we were told she had a less than 50% chance of making it through the night. As life-changing experiences go that comes pretty high up the list and the months that followed were tough. Luckily for Alex she is 98% recovered – a massively strong and determined young woman to tackles issues head on (as she like to have it). She’s off to university in September.

That experience tells you to live your one and only life to the full and take the opportunities on offer – not that I needed any encouragement to accept Labour’s nomination and take up my seat in Europe. What politician in their right mind would say no to being involved at the centre of the great issue of the day with some change, however slight, to have influence?

Deep disquiet in the business community

Since the referendum in 2016, in the process of earning a living, I was attending a lot of business networking. The elephant in the room was always the narrow decision to leave the European Union. Most of us, Labour, Conservative, Liberal or none of the above, had the same question that we would have put to the likes of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove if we had the chance: exactly where are these ‘new opportunities’ that are going to arise when we leave? What will enable my business to trade more effectively? How will we continue to sell in Europe as easily and routinely as we have and do right now? Because I, for one, am hearing nothing of any substance, little other than platitudes and repeated assertions.

What we do now know wholly and conclusively was how comprehensively people were lied to: the big fat lie of £350m a week for the NHS – even Nigel Farage disclaimed that one; the lie that there was no threat to our membership of the Single Market – many of the Leave campaigners repeated that one and they didn’t even mention the Customs Union; and of course the biggest lie of all, that migration to the UK could be stopped when so many sectors of the UK economy and public services depend upon workers from overseas – whether it is picking fruit or looking after our infirm and elderly and the lie that we could “have our cake and eat it”.

First the absurd idea that there can be a divorce without a financial settlement – something at least a third of the UK population know through their own experience is rarely if ever true. Then finally the biggest deceitful promise – that we will have a ‘deal’ that delivers “exactly the same benefits as we get from the Single Market and the Customs Union”. Their promise, not mine, quite right that the UK Conservative Government be held to account and quite right that Labour should seek to do so.

A year on and no answers from the Conservatives

I’m hearing no answers from the Conservative Government. No vision of life outside the EU beyond the notion of the UK as an offshore tax haven in which the wealthy can prosper and where the rest can sink or swim, maybe. It isn’t good enough and it is a central reason why Mrs May failed in her attempt to sweep aside all opposition to that view.

We owe it to the millions of people who feel they have had their future stolen from them to work hard to continue to expose the lies and do the best we can to protect the future of the UK – not as an abstract notion but in the real measure of the day-to-day lives and welfare of our fellow citizens. Repairing the damage that has already been done will take at least ten years – it is incumbent on those of us with any influence to use it to try to prevent as much damage of possible and hope in the meantime that the nation wakes up to what is happening.

Posted by John Howarth