Baroness Warsi has done much to endear the Conservatives to British Muslims. Photo: Getty
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The bitter truth: the Tories have done more for Muslims than Labour

It won’t be quickly forgotten that the strongest condemnation of the killings in Gaza came from Baroness Warsi, a Tory politician.

I am from the Iraq War generation. I was 13 when 9/11 happened, and watched the War on Terror unfold throughout my teens. The viciousness of the Iraq War became synonymous with Tony Blair, and thus with the Labour Party. I was 17 in 2005, and I remember trying to convince my father, a first generation Bangladeshi migrant, to vote for anyone but Labour. He wouldn’t relent; Labour supported him when he first came to the United Kingdom, and that support won a lifetime of loyalty.

After Gordon Brown took office in 2007, I looked again at the Labour Party. The shadow of Iraq was still there, but I recognised the values Labour stood for at home – a welfare state, support for the poor, and a belief in the power of the collective. These all resonated with me and my personal ideals, shaped as they were by Islam. I voted for Labour in 2010, something I couldn’t imagine myself doing in 2005.

When the Conservative Party, propped up by the Liberal Democrats, took power, I was worried. This was the party of the white elite I had been told, racist to the very core, and bad news for the economy. In retrospect, I’ve had to face up to a bitter truth - the Tories have done more for Muslims than Labour.

David Cameron has played his role as Prime Minister incredibly well, and is visibly more comfortable with religion than Ed Miliband or even Brown and Blair. “While I am Prime Minister of this country, halal is safe in Britain,” he announced to warm applause at the Muslim News Awards dinner. In an act of public relations genius, he popped in for a casual Nando’s in Bristol during the height of the halal hysteria, telling reporters later “I’m happy to eat halal meat”. On the wall of my local mosque is also a letter from the Prime Minister himself, congratulating Muslims on the beginning of Ramadan and highlighting the contribution of Muslim soldiers to the First World War. After the Woolwich murder, Cameron was equally clear in announcing the killings as “a betrayal of Islam”, stronger words than ever used by Blair, whose speeches on Islam while in office often blurred the line between religious conservatism and violent extremism.

On the other hand, Ed Miliband has had little success engaging with British Muslims. He called the Iraq War “wrong”, but has seldom discussed the issue since. His relationship to religion of any sort seems awkward at best – he announced a desire to become Britain’s first Jewish Prime Minister, while also proclaiming himself an atheist, and having images of him biting into a bacon sandwich slathered over the internet. He has made some efforts to connect to a British Muslim demographic however, most recently with an Eid reception on the 31 July that was described by one attendee as “naff”.

What does stand to Miliband’s credit amongst many British Muslims is taking a strong position on Gaza – an issue incredibly close to the heart of many Muslims. Yet even here, he has been outdone by a Conservative. Baroness Warsi’s resignation may have harmed the Tories in the run up to an election, but in the past four years she has done much to endear the Conservatives to British Muslims. She has campaigned against Islamophobia, balanced out Michael Gove’s ideological opposition to Islam, and even publicly challenged the white, Eton-dominated elite of the party. And it won’t be quickly forgotten that the strongest condemnation of the killings in Gaza came from a Tory politician.

It isn’t too late for Labour however. Ultimately, most of Cameron’s success with Muslim voters has been on superficial issues. A powerful antidote to this will be through a commitment to the values that made Labour successful amongst my father’s generation– namely the welfare state, opposing racist anti-immigration rhetoric and supporting ethnic minority candidates. Mayor Luftur Rahman’s success in Tower Hamlets is an example of all three. Yet all this isn’t enough. Iraq is not something which is confined to history but is absolutely contemporary. ISIS’s rise today in cities like Mosul is a result of the Iraq War; George Galloway is still riding a wave of anti-war sentiment as MP in Bradford. If Miliband is to win back the Iraq War generation, and truly free himself from the Blair legacy, he must condemn the War on Terror entirely and make penance for the sins of New Labour.

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.