After being elected as an MEP, I've found myself learning many new things. For example, I didn't know about taxpayers' money (through the EU) being spent subsidising bullfighting in Spain. The League Against Cruel Sports pointed it out to me privately at UKIP's annual Conference in September. They reckon that British taxpayers alone spend more than £13.5 million a year on Spanish bullfighting, which shocked me.
At the age of 14, whilst studying A level Spanish at my comprehensive school sixth form (I'd done my GCSEs early) I went on a school exchange visit to the Basque region of Spain. That trip helped develop my love of Spanish culture, but part of the trip included a visit to a bullfight. I still remember the overpowering stench of the blood mixed with sand on a hot summer's day before we even got into the arena, the crowd cheering at the death of an animal, and the utter futility of it all.
I remember thinking that I didn't want to go in, but I didn't refuse to go in (some did) either. The tickets were prepaid, so going in wouldn't be supporting the spectacle. I went in because I wanted to be better informed, to witness for myself what I would oppose.
So I was shocked to learn just a few weeks ago that our taxes (through the EU Common Agricultural Policy) go to farmers breeding fighting bulls. Since then, I've been inundated with emails from people urging me to vote for an end to the subsidies. Of course, I agreed that I would vote as they requested and I was sure that other UKIP MEPs would vote the same way. When I spoke to our Agriculture spokesman, Stuart Agnew MEP, he explained that farmers would use some land for farming, and other land for breeding fighting bulls. They might claim just 1% of the land was used for bulls, with the 99% being used for legitimate farming. They would then claim the subsidy for (say) 99% of the farm.
The matter came to the vote in Strasbourg this week. Those of us who dislike the ways of the EU regularly point out that the European Parliament lacks the power of a truly democratic Parliament, relegated to the status of a rubber-stamping chamber. But once a year, the Parliament wields some real power: it has genuine influence over the EU budget for the next year. I prepared the voting lists myself (I'm on the budget committee) as we were short-staffed that week, and urged my colleagues to support an end to the subsidies. The motion to end bullfighting subsidies 'carried' by 323 votes to 309, the vote being 'won' because of the UKIP MEPs' votes.
Does this mean that your taxes will no longer be paying to subsidise bullfights? The answer sadly is no. Although the Parliament voted for an end, the majority didn't achieve the 376-vote threshold and our taxes will continue to prop up the Spanish bullfighting industry. A second vote, which doesn't actually make any difference to the funds, passed by a wider margin. Some MEPs clearly voted to criticise the EU for funding bullfighting, but also voted to continue the payments for it! This is the madness that is democracy, EU-style.
Together with the Italian Five Star Movement (a political party standing for direct democracy UKIP works closely with on certain issues), I'd put in a series of 46 amendments to the European Union budget. These would have saved almost a billion pounds for taxpayers if they'd gone through. We'd proposed cutting money for European Political Parties, MEPs' salaries and allowances, the funding for the EU's Special Representatives, money for public opinion analysis and many more. Another Group (which has no British MEPs) suggested chopping funding to the 'House of History', which is a museum at taxpayers' expense glorifying the European Union, already well over budget and overdue, which I suppose is ironic - and to the European Parliament's TV company. We enthusiastically supported these proposals - at a time of economic crisis, they certainly shouldn't be paying for more propaganda!
I watched as every single one of these amendments was voted down. As far as I could tell in a packed chamber, the Labour MEPs voted against almost every one of them - and abstained on the rest. I have lost count of the number of times that I've heard the Labour Party say "Of course the EU needs reform..." but when they have the chance to vote for even the mildest of reforms, they do the opposite.