Could you tell us about yourself and how you got into politics?
I got into politics through local government; I became a councillor in 1999 over a very local issue that then escalated. In 2002 I became leader of the Council then moved on to the County Council and became leader of that too. I then went on to European politics because so much of what you do at the local level is related to the European level. Things like waste, framework directive – these are directly affected.
What has been your strategy for this election campaign, and do you think it has been affected by Euroscepticism across the United Kingdom?
I don’t think it’s changed our strategy. We believe that you elect MEPs to do the work in parliament; there is a job to do here. We legislate, we regulate. You need people who have both the intelligence and commitment to do that. And that is what our campaign is about; you elect the right people to stand up for Britain. The rise of Euroscepticism has meant that message has not been listened to because people can respond to a simple message that the Eurosceptics preach like 'a plague on all our houses'. That’s a tricky one. It’s very difficult strategically to counter that, but I believe the best way to do that is to continue with our message that we are a good and responsible group of people to represent and stand up for our constituents.
The European elections are not a referendum on whether we should be in or out or Europe, that’s a separate domestic and political issue. They are about electing people to do the right thing in parliament.
You have one of the largest constituencies in the United Kingdom, but uniquely you also represent Gibraltar which isn’t located in the mainland but rather on the Iberian Peninsula. What are differences in issues that you deal with your Gibraltarian constituents?
The issues are the same with the exception that Gibraltar has its own particular position. There are also problems from the Spanish government since the change of government to the PP. The border problems are massive. Most Gibraltarians are being held up for two hours to leave and then to come back to the island. There are also constant efforts from the Spanish government to block Gibraltar from EU legislation. The latest one where they were successful was in excluding Gibraltar from the European Single Sky legislation. So now we have every airport in the European Union – minus one – that is part of this legislation, it’s outrageous.
There is no massive Euroscepticism, they see the benefits of being a part of the EU and having a neighbouring country as a member too. But they are beginning to lose patience with the fact that the European Commission are unable to do anything about the Spanish blocking their border. This is a big diplomatic and foreign affairs issue that I don’t normally deal with.
Can you describe the work of the European Conservative Reformists?
Our goals are to reform Europe in line with the Prague declaration. Effectively that’s saying that we should have national sovereignty whenever possible. Sovereignty is the default position, EU legislation is the exception. It doesn’t mean we are anti-Europe, we could be described as Eurosceptic but there are lots of people within the EPP and the Socialists that don’t want to continue down this path towards federalism. We see ourselves as holding up that position. People talk about the rise of Euroscepticism but it tends to go round other issues such as being far-right wing and being intolerant, but I don’t think the ECR is anything like that. We are a centre right party who want to protect the sovereignty of member-states.
What do you think is the next stage for European expansion? Should Turkey continue to be considered? Should we reach out to Ukraine given the recent developments?
Now this is the my personal view and not necessarily the one my group takes but I do not think that Turkey should continue to be an applicant and I don’t think they very much have any intention of ever actually joining. They are rather enjoying the status which gives them some financial privileges and free access to our markets. With all of the issues around free movement, the idea that Turkey with its large population is just going to seamlessly fit into the EU is a bit fanciful and needs more consideration. Turkey has been an applicant for a number of decades now and I think that needs to be reviewed.
David Cameron has gone on record being in favour of Turkey joining the European Union. It’s quite a confusing position to take given The Conservative Party’s stance on immigration, and considering that you would be opening up borders to Turkey.
Well yes. A lot of that will be dependent on the free movement debate and whether you can reform that or not and personally I don’t think you can. We might get reform around movement for work and access to benefits and healthcare. So, on that basis where does that leave Turkey’s application? We certainly shouldn’t ignore this Elephant-in-the-room and actually begin discussing the issue.
How about Ukraine?
I’m no expert on Ukraine. It’ a sorry situation there but I don’t think we should ignore other political considerations regarding membership such as civil rights legislation. The current situation should not overrule that, we can’t give preference to Ukraine’s possible membership unless they are able to meet the demands of the EU and the basic rules of membership such as civil rights and where your economy should be.
It has been a mistake in the past and will continue to be one going forward.
A mistake in the past, can you clarify what you mean by this?
Well I think Bulgaria and Romania were not really ready, I understand the reasons why they were fast tracked but it’s partly some of those reasons that have caused the imbalances we are seeing today. If things are rushed we get bad decisions and bad outcomes. We must be careful we don’t do that with Ukraine. It doesn’t mean the EU can’t help them, but that shouldn’t involve fast tracking them into the union.
What do you think Britain’s future role with the EU should be?
The problem with leaving and forming a new relationship is that you become the junior partner in that situation. I’m not sure that we will get a quick resolution to it and I’m not comfortable with us being a Switzerland or a Norway on the basis that we would still have to follow the regulations but we wouldn’t be able to sit on committees and make amendments. In some ways I think we would have to go into a bilateral free trade agreement such as Canada, Japan, or South Korea and proceed on that basis rather than have all of the other provisions associated with it such as free movement. We would be bound by all those rules which as far as I can tell from the political dialogue in the UK is the issue that annoys people. So why would we leave but still have an arrangement that meant that we had to follow their laws? If we leave we leave, and negotiate a single trade agreement with the EU and that’s it.
What advice can you give to the interns reading this in how to go about establishing a successful career in European politics?
My advices for an intern –assuming they’re a new graduate – if you’re interested in Europe go and do something outside of that field. If you want to be an elected European politician then you should have some experience outside of politics. I don’t think people should be working in the parliament or the commission then go straight into election. You should have a career outside. I wouldn’t use the phrase ‘experience the real world’ because this is the real world of politics but it is important for your own credibility to have done something else. Don’t just go through one institution, you could make a good career out of it, but I’m not sure you could be as good as you could be using that route. If you want excellence you should seek a broader experience.
Julie Girling is the Conservative British Member of European Parliament for the South West of England and Gibraltar.
Andrew Brown is a trainee for DG Comunications in the European Parliament and the Communications Manager of the European Parliament Stagiaires Association.