Jim Nicholson interview: the fiscal risk

Jim Nicholson Jim Nicholson warns that the euro crisis will impact on sterling and influence the UK’s economic recovery. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s representatives must join up as they lobby the EU. Peter Cheney reports.

A weakened euro will bring the pound’s value down too, Jim Nicholson has warned as the Conservatives prepare to cut the UK’s deficit. The problem has real relevance to Northern Ireland on the fringe of the euro zone. In the light of Greece’s troubles, the financial crisis is the big issue facing Europe over the next year. That country’s difficulties throw up questions about the future of the euro, including whether it has a future at all. “I know a lot of people say ‘I’m glad we are not in the euro’, but if the euro weakens, it will drag the pound with it,” he states. “This is a very worrying aspect for us, which will be there over the next 12 monthsas we [the Conservatives] try to rebuild enough work for people, and [make sure] the whole of society doesn’t fall apart.

“The measures required will be austere and painful but everyone knows that. As long as they are taken and, at the end of the day we can see light at the end of the tunnel, then I think most people realise things couldn’t go on the way they were.”

As for the euro itself, he claims that the EU is “reaping what it sowed itself” when the entry criteria were changed to let in Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland.

Representation

The European agenda has moved slowly after last year’s election, with the Parliament only “treading water” until now. MEPs had to wait for the second Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and then for the new Commission to be appointed. Its workload was therefore limited with members putting forward some ‘own initiative reports’ which are not binding.

Constituency cases, of course, keep coming and his office has never been busier.

Agriculture naturally takes up the bulk of this work. He has been working closely with Scottish Lib Dem MEP George Lyon, who has been appointed to draw up the Agriculture Committee’s report on CAP reform.

Sitting on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee for the first time has opened a new area of work for Nicholson, which has included scrutinising the Organ Donation Directive and an action plan on cancer.

Funding for victims of the Troubles will be an especially live issue over the next year as it is not clear where this money will come from after 2014. A victim today will be four years older then, with more needs and wants. “Those are people who have suffered so much but have asked for so little,” he comments.

However, his largest single caseload is not one not traditionally associated with MEPs: property. Constituents who have been ripped off when buying property abroad have been bringing complaints in their hundreds.

In Spain, foreigners who bought properties found out that they did not actually own them as the land had been re-zoned. Turkish and Bulgarian builders took money from people and never constructed anything.

Several other MEPs have picked up similar cases and this led to embarrassing questions being asked of the Spanish EU presidency in the Petitions Committee.

Asked whether it was possible to be an MEP for the whole province, given its divisions, he replies: “As an MEP, I have a responsibility to represent everyone in Northern Ireland, even those who did not vote for me.” The three MEPs often work together and he finds that most constituents are prepared to approach all three with their problems and issues.

Co-ordination

Nicholson has been critical of the loose connections between the Executive, Assembly and MEPs since devolution was restored – a problem which still remains. At the time of interview (2 June), he had been told that the Agriculture and OFMDFM Committees were to visit Brussels in the next week but had heard nothing further.

“I think they have still to get their act together in Belfast,” he continues. “There seems to be this thing where they [OFMDFM and the Executive] think they are maybe slightly better than the rest of us or they feel vulnerable to us.”

There was no point in the Agriculture Committee coming to Brussels if they did not meet their counterpart committee in the European Parliament for a briefing. However, he has seen year-on-year improvements in the relationship and does praise the Executive’s office in Brussels.

As well as the traditional departments with a European interest, such as DARD, he would like to see the others coming over as well.

Reg Empey’s Department for Employment and Learning is good at following European policy, he finds. Health Minister Michael McGimpsey could benefit from such a visit. In particular, Northern Ireland could benefit from the large amount of funding available for research and development.

Sceptics

While seeing the difficulties with the euro, he emphasises that there are “some good things” in Europe too. The Lisbon Treaty gives the Parliament ‘co-decision’ on agriculture so it is now equal to the Council when laws are made.

Conservatives are normally seen as Eurosceptics. Like any other party, “they come with a wealth of different points of view” but most see themselves as “here to do a job” and represent their UK region.

“There’s a job of work to be done; we are working harder and harder. If you don’t do all those things, then it’s Northern Ireland that is going to lose. It’s better to be constructive and try and get the best deal you can.”

The ‘right’ move

David Cameron took the Tories out of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) group and formed a new anti-federalist group, the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), in June 2009.

Nicholson readily admits that leaving the EPP “would not have been a priority of mine” but is a full frontbench member of the ECR, sitting as its co-ordinator on the Agriculture Committee, whose profile is rising with CAP reform. Every group appoints a co-ordinator, who helps to decide the committee business; his Liberal counterpart in agriculture is the Scottish MEP George Lyon.

There’s no animosity between him and EPP members, he adds. He now has more free time, having given up the role of ‘quaestor’ – a post which is effectively a trade unionist for MEPs.

“I am enjoying it much more now than I have ever enjoyed being a member of this Parliament, in my 21st year. I think it’s because of that flexibility that it has given me.”

Some Czech and Polish members of the group have been accused of homophobia and anti-Semitism. However, he finds his colleagues “perfectly normal, sensible people” and puts those claims to left-wing newspaper coverage in the UK.

He was also pleased to see the Czech Civic Democrat party do well in its general election, and predicted it will go into government there as part of a coalition.

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