I’ve lost count of the number of times I have heard the term “fake news” bandied about. Popularised by Donald Trump during his presidential election campaign to dismiss many of the attacks made on him, the phrase itself is no guarantor of what is fake or real. Yet as a commentator I had until now only read or viewed fake news reports, never before had I been in the eye of a fake news storm. Until last Thursday that is.
In my responsibility as the Brexit Party Whip in the European Parliament, it is my duty to review the likely votes in any one day and, taking account of the views of my advisers about parliamentary procedures, draw up recommendations on how my colleagues should consider voting.
The votes normally fly through at an extraordinary speed. If the dominant parliamentary groups have agreed the resolutions in advance, the chair of the plenary session often does not even bother to lift his or her head to check enough hands have indeed been raised in support.
What passes for electronic voting is little better, with such votes taking place at the speed of a Gatling Gun – leading to many members having to check the record later to see they voted the way intended. Couple the speed with all the voting on separate clauses, paragraphs and lines and there is a need for some form of guidance for party members.
On Thursday morning there was, among a number of votes, a resolution on Iran that considered that country’s recent domestic and foreign policy and how this was impacting on women and Iranians who have dual citizenship with EU member states. One such example is the treatment of British woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe who remains imprisoned in an Iranian jail.
There was a great deal to condemn about Iran’s treatment of minorities and political detainees and such examples were used to call for strengthening the EU’s foreign affairs role as it seeks to create its own persona; or as former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt said at the recent Liberal Democrat conference, the creation of a “European Empire”.
Thus, when it came to the vote, my colleagues and I could not support the expansionist ambitions of the EU, but nor could we reject the motion outright as that might be read as condoning the behaviour of Iran. In such instances a positive abstention is recorded (as opposed to declining to vote at all). The resolution was of course passed, and thus the EU continues seeking to grow its international involvement while it also develops the capabilities and command infrastructure for the pooled armed forces it is gathering together.
Following other votes, including one of remembrance that failed to include the persecution of Jews through the Holocaust, the session ended and members began to make their way home.
It was then my phone came alive. A Twitter storm was gathering accusing Brexit Party MEPs of voting “against” the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. A Fake News story had begun.
Almost immediately e-mails were received demanding colleagues explain themselves. Twitter was alive with accusations and expressions of disbelief. It was clear none of the authors had taken the trouble to hear the speeches made by Brexit Party MEPs Matthew Patten, Belinda de Lucy and Ben Habib calling for the release of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe and others – and condemning the policies of Iran.
Soon the Daily Mail got in on the act, no doubt picking up the Tweets circulating. It pronounced in its bold splash that Ann Widdecombe and Annunziata Rees-Mogg had failed to support the release of Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Any readers that cared to go beyond the headline would soon find they had been lured by clickbait as Belinda de Lucy’s speech was accurately reported and turned the headline on its head. The Independent and some foreign papers repeated the story but with little attempt at balance.
Some people, arguably those already opposed to the Brexit Party, had fallen for the lie that its MEPs had voted in favour of Iran keeping British and other European prisoners locked up.
The truth was quite different.
There was in fact no specific vote on freeing political detainees that we could have supported. Some people argue the European Parliament can make a difference, that it will be listened to in Iran. Well if that is so there should have been a motion solely on the release of political prisoners, something that all 751 members could have agreed to – but that was not the purpose of the debate, the intention was to support the growth of the EU, not free any prisoners. The resolution we had abstained on was about expanding EU foreign policy that one day could lead to British members of the armed forces being involved in European wars without any say and any accountability.
Indeed as my colleague Matthew Patten pointed out, while Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe and other British citizens languish in Iranian jails, “the EU and our Parliament is complicit in this tragedy” – it is part of the problem, not the solution.
He pulled no punches, explaining, “The EU’s desperation to have the foreign policy trappings of a national state is like watching Pinocchio wanting to be a real boy. It’s too easily led, it’s full of deceit, without any conscience.” Nor did he spare the EU Parliament, revealing that as a member of its delegation for relations with Iran he had called repeatedly on that committee to meet but that more than 70 days had now passed without even so much as a response.
No-one hearing those speeches (or watching the video clips later) could seriously argue the Brexit Party MEPs were taking the side of Iran or abandoning the imprisoned detainees. The story was Fake News on steroids. It is the motives of those misrepresenting the truth need to be questioned.
The EU has been the appeaser of Iran for a long time now, pushing President Obama to compromise and rejecting President Trump’s exposure of the Tehran deal as a capitulation to a terrorist state. Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe and others like her are expendable pawns in the EU’s pursuit of equivalence as a world power. Every moment spent in these parliamentary debates, every day longer I am in Brussels or Strasbourg only convinces me more the British people were right to escape and take back control.
l Brian Monteith MEP is Chief Whip of the Brexit Party in the European Parliament