AS AN unashamedly pro-EU Conservative, you might forgive retiring Oxfordshire MEP James Elles for feeling a little down in the dumps with euro-scepticism growing and anti-EU party UKIP on a roll after the May elections.
But the 64-year-old, who has this month stood down after representing Oxfordshire on the European Parliament for 30 years, is taking a much more pragmatic view.
He says he’s been in politics for long enough to know that these things come and go, and says he fully expects the “pendulum” to swing back in his direction eventually – and, despite what you might think, he’s all in favour of a referendum.
South East MEP Mr Elles said: “The pendulum never stays in one way for very long and it will come back again. It will come back to a more rational environment where it is less emotional. The mistake Britain made was that we introduced the principle of a referendum in 1975 but we didn’t continue with that like they do in Ireland. In Ireland people are more normalised towards the EU.
“We should have had referendums for each treaty. If you make decisions behind closed doors inevitably you will get people protesting. The question of a referendum is now an urgent one.
“While this idea of a referendum is a live issue, people will keep asking whether we are in or out. That’s why I want a referendum because after that we can discuss how we can make the EU competitive.
“It might seem that everyone in the Conservative Party wants to leave the EU but that is not the case.
“There are people who are pragmatic and who want to be there where our country will be best represented.
“Being pro-EU is still part of the Conservative mix. The voice is still there but it is not being expressed by people close to the Prime Minister.”
And Mr Elles is not shy at expressing concerns about some of David Cameron’s decisions when it comes to his relationship with the EU – particularly his decision to remove the Conservative Party from the centre-right, pro-EU, European People’s Party (EPP) group and set up his own Euro-sceptic group The European Conservatives and Reformists instead.
He said: “The decision to remove the Conservative Party from the European People’s Party was a tactical one because it was about keeping different arms of the party together, but I told the Prime Minister at the time that it wouldn’t be a wise one.
“If we had not left the EPP we could have vetoed Jean-Claude Juncker’s appointment (as president-elect of the EU Commission).
“If David Cameron had the right people advising him they would have known that he would never have been able to change the decision and he was never going to be able to get rid of Jean-Claude Juncker.
“There has been a decline in British representation in the European Parliament and we have to engage with the EPP.
POWERHOUSE: The European Parliament in Strasbourg
“I am in favour of reform to make the EU more outward looking but how do you do that unless you build up friends among our people on the centre-right?
“They have been saying to me that the ECR group has got people in it who are not really our friends, so how do we work with them?”
In the time that Mr Elles has been an MEP the European Union – which was called the European Economic Community when he took up the post – has taken on 18 new member nations and, for better or worse, a whole host of new powers.
He said: “When I was first elected I couldn’t have thought that I would be working in a European Union that has 27 members including a reunified Germany.
“The European Union I went into, the Parliament would give an opinion and they would forget about it but they cannot do that now because the treaties have changed.
“When I was first elected I didn’t have a computer, I didn’t have a fax and I didn’t have email. You had no means of connecting with your electorate. I got huge numbers of letters from my constituents and my poor secretary had to type them up in triplicate.
“It is extraordinary what is happening today in the Parliament and that it works.”
He added: “After 30 years you have got to stop somewhere. I have been immensely privileged to serve as an MEP but 18 months ago I thought the time was right and I decided not to stand again.”
Along with his work on budgetary matters, Mr Elles says one of his proudest achievements is his work with the European Trans-Atlantic Network which he helped set up 20 years ago and has culminated in the creation of the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
Expected to be finalised by the end of the year, TTIP is a free trade agreement between the European Union and the USA which supporters say will result in growth on both sides of the Atlantic. Critics say it will lead to less regulated markets.
Mr Elles said: “Forty per cent of our trade goes across the Atlantic. It is a huge relationship and the EU is not an anti-American body.
“You can now see a strong emerging trans-Atlantic partnership based on economics and politics and not security like NATO.
“By 2030 the world’s major power bases will be the USA, China and the EU. This agreement means that instead of pivoting towards China, the EU and the USA will pivot together.”
Profile of a politician
BORN in London in September 1949, James Elles was educated at Eton College and Edinburgh University.
He was first elected as a Member of the European Parliament in 1984 after an eight-year career as a civil servant with the European Commission.
Mr Elles has held his seat for 30 years.
When he stood down he was the longest-serving member of the European Parliament’s powerful budget committee which scrutinises the European Union’s budget.
He was appointed as “rapporteur” for two budgets – 1996 and 2007 – which meant he had to steer these through parliament.
Mr Elles, a father of two, founded the Trans-Atlantic Policy Network in 1992 to encourage stronger ties between the EU and the USA, and the European Union Baroque Orchestra, based near Woodstock, which is part funded by the EU.
Representing millions across a vast continent
TOGETHER with the Council of the European Union and the European Commission, the European Parliament is responsible for deciding legislation and policy of the European Union.
Talking shop: Inside the European Parliament
However, it is the only one of these three bodies which is directly elected by the people of the EU.
It is made up of 766 members who represent the second largest democratic electorate in the world after India.
The parliament cannot initiate legislation itself but can amend, reject or approve proposals brought forward by the Commission and can ask for new laws to be proposed.
It also approves all development grants and has a non-binding vote on new EU treaties as well as having an important role in the approval of a budget for the EU.
Elections have been held every five years since the parliament was born in 1979.
Once elected, the national parties from across Europe group themselves together in coalitions of broadly similar ideologies.
This means that the Labour Party sits with the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats and the Liberal Democrats sit with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. The Conservative Party used to sit with the centre-right European People’s Party – the largest group in the Parliament – but David Cameron removed the party from that group because he considered it too pro-EU.
His party now sits with the smaller Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists.
Standing up against planned budget
THE European Parliament’s budget committee is responsible for making a recommendation to the Parliament itself on whether the European Union’s budget should be discharged – or approved – each year.
Despite concerns about the budget of 1996 and financial mismanagement in the commission, the committee voted to discharge it.
But when the issue was brought before Parliament Mr Elles – the budget’s rapporteur – publically spoke against the budget and urged his fellow MEPs not to approve it.
The issue came to a head when the then-President of the Commission, Jacques Santer, said that the issue of the budget should be treated as one of confidence. A vote was taken in 1998 and discharge was denied. In 1999 all 20 commission members resigned. It was the first – and so far only – time this has happened.
Mr Elles said: “The Santer crisis showed the powers of the European Parliament.
“It was obvious from the information we had available that some of the projects were not being run correctly.
“It is nice to have been campaigning on reform and to see that I did have some impact.
“I think it was correct that we did what we did because it gave a real shot in the arm for transparency.”