As requested by a fan of the blog, I have completed an interview with a Labour MEP for the North East, Jude Kirton-Darling. I was interested to hear what the EU can offer young people, among other questions.
- How important is it that young people take an interest in politics?
“Extremely important, especially because no group has been hit harder by the UK government’s austerity cuts than they young. From the scrapping of Education Maintenance Allowance to the tripling of university fees; from the slashing of youth services and mental health provision for young people; from the planned cuts to housing benefit for 18-22-year-olds to proposed changes to Disability Living Allowance – young people are patently worse off than in 2010, and are now three times more likely to be unemployed than the rest of the population. The government is able to implement such brutal policies because they know that – unlike pensioners and the wealthier members of society – young people are less likely to turn out to vote, and they will continue to do so as long as this is the case. It’s by turning up on election day and by speaking up when they disagree with the actions of politicians – for example by protesting or writing to their MPs and MEPs – that the young can make their voices heard and influence real political change.”
- Why did you decide to become an MEP rather than an MP?
“With 15 years working in the European trade union movement on employment rights and industrial policies, I thought that my experience and knowledge would best serve my home region as an MEP. I was asked to stand as a candidate and had not really thought about standing for political office before then.”
- Do you think Britain should remain in the EU, and why?
“Britain should absolutely stay in the EU, and this is particularly important for regions such as the North East. First, as the UK’s single biggest trading partner, the EU is crucial to creating jobs and allowing business to grow. The European single market provides access to 500 million European consumers and means that restrictions on trade, competition, services provision and the movement of workers have been removed. 3.5million British jobs are dependent on UK trade with the rest of the EU, with every household in Britain £3,000 better off as a result of our membership. Second, the North East is a net beneficiary of EU funds, receiving more EU funding than any other region in the UK. Third, the EU is responsible for some of the key social gains of the last half a century – thanks to our membership, British workers have the right to paid holiday, parental leave, protection from unfair dismissal and equal pay for men and women. Leaving the EU would leave us vulnerable to a government that is already seeking to withdraw permanently from these protections and which has mooted the idea of repealing the Human Rights Act. Finally, in an ever globalised world, the big challenges and questions facing the UK are the same as those facing our European neighbours – from climate change to the refugee crisis, to the trafficking of human beings and tax evasion by multinational companies. Common problems require common solutions, and this means pooling our collective forces and resources and combatting them as a united Union. The Paris attacks of 13th November show that terrorism is a global threat that has no regard for national boundaries: tackling it head-on requires a response that is equally international.”
- What can the EU offer young people?
“The EU offers many exciting opportunities to the young. The free movement of EU citizens, one of the founding principles of the Union, means that young Britons are able to travel, study, live and work in other member states without restriction or visa requirements – this creates boundless opportunities for young people in the UK. British youth can apply to be part of a new 14.7 billion euro program called Erasmus+, which is designed to improve skills and employability for Europe’s young generation, who have been hit hardest by economic recession. Running to 2020, the seven-year programme is designed to provide education, training, volunteering and sport opportunities overseas for 4 million Europeans. But one EU mechanism is particularly crucial for the North East’s young population, who suffer from the highest rates of youth unemployment in the UK, and I’m proud of it because I was part of the campaign to achieve it. The Youth Employment Initiative is a 6.3 billion euro programme for 2014-20 that will support young people not in education, employment or training (NEETs) in EU regions with youth unemployment rates above 25%, and my home region of Tees Valley and County Durham unfortunately qualify as one of five British regions that qualify for a portion of the £17.87 million allocated to the UK. Durham County Council has put forward proposals to help 5,500 young people into work, training or education by providing individual guidance and support, tailored programmes to help vulnerable young people and creating of employment, apprenticeship, traineeship and work experience opportunities. Such an initiative has never been so needed in a county where 8,400 of those aged between 16 and 24 are currently out of work and 2,085 18-24 year olds are claiming Job Seekers’ Allowance.”
- What effect would leaving the EU have on the North East? (Question from Charlie Gray)
“As I said above, the North East benefits considerably from the EU, whose support and targeted funding are crucial to the region’s survival in a time of unprecedented public spending cuts. Pulling out of the EU would make trade in the North East a less lucrative and attractive prospect and it would jeopardise the up to 160,000 local jobs that rely on trade with our European neighbours. Thanks in no small part to our access to the European market several major international businesses, including Nissan and Hitachi, have established their UK headquarters in the North East – if we pull out of the EU they may be compelled to relocate. The North East Chamber of Commerce has found that 58% of North East businesses believe that leaving the EU would be a negative thing. Furthermore, many local projects rely on EU funding in the North East, including the Hartlepool Growth Hub, the Teesside Advanced Manufacturing Park, the Consett Business Park, the Vaux site redevelopment in Sunderland and The Core Building at Science Central in Newcastle. These projects support our communities and culture, encourage enterprise and innovation and are injecting life into a region disproportionately hit by government cuts and with the highest rates of unemployment in the country. Over the next five years the North East will receive £660 million worth of EU funds to support such projects – exiting the EU would strip them of this vital lifeline in the future and leave them struggling to survive.”
- Along with Anna Turley and Tom Blenkinsop, you have been fighting to keep steel production in the EU open. During the mothballing of the SSI plant on Teesside UKIP said that the government couldn’t intervene due to EU legislation. Is this an example of the EU not allowing the UK to act in its own interests? (Question from Charlie Gray)
“Not at all – it’s an example of how a lack of real knowledge about how the EU works can be used to misinform people and excuse our own government’s inaction in relation to the steel industry. Whilst it’s true that EU rules on state aid provision are strict, they are not unbendable: several precedents of state governments intervening in order to rescue key industries from certain collapse show that the European Commission is willing to grant exceptions. In Italy in 2015, for example, the Italian government effectively nationalised the Ilva plant in Taranto, by placing it under “extraordinary administration” after the owners were accused of failing to contain certain toxic emissions. France’s Socialist government in 2012, though it never went through with its warning, threatened “temporary nationalisation” at the Florange blast furnace in order to guarantee 629 jobs at risk. But perhaps the most obvious precedent of all is when EU governments including our own took the unprecedented step of bailing out the banks following the financial crash of 2008, at a cost of trillions of euros. Part of the problem on Teesside is that this government – unlike the Labour government in 2009 – have not properly mothballed the site which means that Redcar’s coke ovens and blast furnace have been irreparably damaged and would cost a fortune to get going again. It is simply not true for Conservative ministers to say they were without options when it comes to saving the SSI plant – the only thing they have lacked throughout is political will.”
- Do you have any funny stories from your time in politics?
“Many and some bizarre ones at that. Politicians are curious creatures in some respects and painfully human in other ways. Most things shouldn’t be repeated but one can – during the European election campaign, we received a cheque from an active supporter in a local business for our campaign funds. On the back of it, he had written “Don’t f*** it up!” This is the motto of our office!”