The European Elections: a conversation with Hadleigh Roberts

Hadleigh Roberts is a candidate to the European Parliament for the South West of England and Gibraltar. A graduate from Bath University and possessing an MA in interpreting and translation, Roberts works as a professional translator (French/Spanish to English) with experience in French, Spanish, UK and European Union (EU) politics.

Q. You’ve just come back from the Party of European Socialists (PES) Congress in Rome. Could you fill us in on the finer points discussed at the event?

PES is the Labour Party’s umbrella organisation in Europe, and was celebrating its biannual Congress. This time around, the point of the Congress was to prepare the PES and the junior parties for the European elections in May 2014 through the election of a common socialist candidate to the Presidency of the European Commission and secondarily to approve and adopt the PES manifesto, the common programme for the socialist, social democratic and Labour parties of Europe.

Q. Could you describe your history campaigning with the European Socialist Party?

What I do through the European Socialist Party is I go to various European countries and help them campaign in their elections. It’s a sort of cultural and political exchange and they’re delighted to have a Brit [on board] because the whole attitude is: “we want you in but it works both ways: you have to want to be in as well”.

We all come together and recently we have helped out the German SPD and the Croatian Social Democrats. We also observed the Bulgarian elections to ensure they were run democratically. It is no secret that there were a number of discrepancies [in the Bulgarian elections] but the fact remains that because there was a European delegation there, people behaved better than they would have done. Democracy was improved because Europe was watching.

We can never forget that European and international cooperation is fundamentally a force for good and something that we should be proud of and something we should always strive to do more of.

Q. In light of the European Day of Languages, you discussed how the myth “everyone knows how to speak English” needs to be abolished. Has there been any improvement since that initial speech in 2011?

I’m not going to say it’s anything to do with my speech but only a few days, maybe a few weeks after that speech was delivered I seem to recall the government announce that a modern language would be an integral part of the English Baccalaureate. But also a lot of my friends in the languages industry are campaigning on this issue. There’s also the APPG (All Party Parliamentary Group) on Modern Foreign Languages, chaired by Baroness Coussins.

Q. You’ve mentioned that meetings have been cancelled because of the lack of a translator being present on the UK’s behalf during EU briefings. Is the issue that problematic?

The fact is, and I speak as a languages professional here rather than a politician, if there’s no English interpretation the chances are the meeting cannot go ahead. When you’re at an important negotiating table and you’re discussing things in high levels of detail you cannot rely on just getting by. On the one hand English is very important, but it is by no means the only language or sufficient.

Q. Looking through your manifesto, you touched on witnessing firsthand the impact of austerity in Spain whilst studying on the Erasmus programme and volunteering for the Spanish socialists. Could you expand on this and how it can be related to the struggles the UK currently faces?

I was trying to highlight that their problems are our problems. In Spain, I was living in a town called Alcalá de Henares. Every day, about 9 o’clock I would see a queue that formed along the street going all along the street to the corner where there was a bank.

I wondered what the Spanish people were doing queuing for the bank at 9am, when they could just come at midday when the queue was gone. One day I followed this queue and it was about 150 people long and this is in a very small town. I realised it turned around the corner and into their equivalent of a job centre. That was a very visual reminder of the impact of the crisis. And now, here in Britain it’s exactly the same – you have people queuing up for food banks.

Q. The current UK government’s response to the victims of austerity has not been sympathetic, whether it's rejecting EU Aid for food banks or stating that people frequent food banks because they want to, not because they have to. Is this position reflected by other parties in Europe?

What is interesting is that our government is cutting entitlements and benefits mainly because they want to, and they always wanted to. They use austerity as an excuse because the people believe there is no alternative.

However, in other countries, you tend to find that they are cutting because they have to. You have a number of socialist governments with conservatives among them and they are forced to make cuts but they are doing so in a less malicious way. While we do have the rise of the far right in a number of countries, you don’t have this situation of strivers versus scroungers. It just doesn’t exist, which suggests that it is absolutely a fabrication on the part of this UKIP-Conservative “tacit pact”.

Q. Following on from the rise of the extreme right in Europe, how far has a Eurosceptic attitude been adopted beyond British borders?

Make no mistake, Britain did not invent euroscepticism and it is not the only country affected by this malaise. It has spread right across European countries. You have eurosceptic extremist parties like UKIP, Jobbik in Hungary and the Front National in France who play down racism and talk about looking out for working people - the dog whistle being working white Christian people.

So there are a number of eurosceptic parties popping up at the expense of the centre. When I was in Berlin campaigning for their national elections, I witnessed the AFD (Alternative für Deutschland) in Germany, but here they were not sceptical of Europe in the same manner UKIP is. It appears to be a slightly tamer scepticism but that fits the debate in Germany as they understand the benefits of the EU better than the British public does.

Q. Do we need to adopt a more unified Socialist or Social Democratic attitude spanning the various member states in the European Union? After all, the issues affecting Europe can influence issues affecting local constituencies in Britain.

What I want to see is the Labour Party playing a much bigger role in PES, but also the Socialist and Democrat Group. If you look at the polls as they are now, it is very likely that not only will the Socialist and Democratic group be the largest group in the European parliament after 2014, but that our delegation – the Labour delegation – will be the largest subgroup within that group. So we will have a lot more responsibility and we need to take a larger leadership role as a result. We can’t do that while standing on the sidelines and hoping that the issue will go away. We have to be very active in our engagement. We can’t just be part of it; we need to be at the heart of it.

The Labour Party has a proud history of cooperating with our sister parties not just across Europe but across the whole world. Denis Healey, before he became an MP, was the International Secretary of the Labour Party. If you’ve read his autobiography, The Time of My Life, then you’ll know what a lot of his time was spent trying to help Eastern European Social Democratic parties fight against the creeping rise of Communism. We come from a real proud history of internationalism. I worry that it has been eroded over the past ten or twenty years because we’ve been focused more on ourselves and the UK has morphed in its attitude to Europe and not for the better.

Q. How difficult will it be to get a unified stance for the Labour Party on the issue of Europe?

The whole point of the EU is that it is “united in diversity” so there is no reason you would need an absolute unified point of view because we are made of socialist, social democratic and Labour parties, each of which is different. There are many people who aren’t particularly interested in Europe because they focus their energies on other important issues such as the NHS, education, or culture and media and that’s absolutely fine. What is important is that Labour members and activists understand that the European Parliament elections are equally important if not more important than both Westminster elections and local council elections.

There seems to be this attitude that it seems to be a bit far away and that it is subservient to the others when this is not the case. There’s no reason a Labour member should not campaign as hard for the Euros as they do for the locals just because they feel a little bit closer or that the institutions are run a bit differently. You still need a Labour victory across the board.

Q. How damaging is it to keep the question of a referendum on the agenda?

I would say that 95% of the party are in favour of Europe because they appreciate a number of issues including greater rights for airline passengers, cheaper roaming tariffs when abroad, being able to get a free European Health Insurance Card, greater safety at work and paid holiday guaranteed by the EU. At its most basic level, Labour is the party of jobs and Europe means jobs. The two go hand in hand.

What I do worry about is the Labour For Referendum Group because it is playing the Tory game. I don’t want to talk about the referendum in any detail because my whole point is that it is a distraction. We need to answer questions such as: do we support a banking union in the EU? Do we support a financial transaction tax across the EU? Do we support increased levies on carbon emissions across the EU? We are getting distracted from all these policy questions by an academic and frankly uninteresting debate about possibly having a referendum sometime in the future.

Q. Is there a threat that Europe’s patience with the UK is just going to run out?

This is really interesting because when you mention my speech in 2011, I remember going at the very end of conference to a dog-end panel meeting of about twelve disparate Euro-geeks and I raised that very point. I said will there come a point when Europe runs out of patience with the UK? And they laughed at me. They said that would never happen, the UK is far too important.

Well, look at comments by Viviane Reding, the current European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship. She was in London giving a speech a matter of weeks ago, and her remarks were, broadly speaking, that the EU can do without the UK. We don’t want to, but we can.

Martin Shultz, former President of the Socialist Group in the European Parliament and the PES candidate for the European Commission has also said: “We absolutely want the UK to stay in the European Union but if it is not going to participate and keep blocking and causing trouble then there’s only so much we can do”.  So the Tories are pushing their luck.

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