It looked unstoppable. In 2004, the draft EU Constitution contained a little noticed provision for a citizen's petition where a million signatures would force the EU commission to take action.
My colleague Gisela Stuart, MP for Edgbaston, and I were excited by the potential for the first such petition to have great symbolic importance and generate significant political momentum.
We couldn't think of a better target for Europe's first citizen's petition than to tackle the devastation caused by HIV/ AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa which has created over ten million orphans already. Tackling this terrible pandemic is one of the most urgent moral imperatives facing the world. Five billion euros a year would fund generic anti-retroviral drugs and support for the millions of people in Africa living with AIDS. The funding would help end a human catastrophe -- what the World Bank has called a development crisis.
We thought that this money could be found most easily and fairly by reforming one of the key reasons for public scepticism about the EU. Of all the idiocies I came across as a government minister, the most glaringly unforgivable was the Common Agricultural Policy. This European boondoggle puts Â£8 a week on the food bill of the average family of four in Britain, but because poorer families spend a higher proportion of their budgets on food, it costs them proportionately more. And the World Bank estimates such agricultural protection costs poor countries around Â£40 billion a year by shutting them out of rich country markets, when food is often the only thing they can produce competitively to sell! And it doesn't even help the European farmers most in need of help. Although it gobbles up nearly half of the EU budget, around a quarter of it goes to the 2% richest farmers.
(That's right. You read that correctly. 2% OF EUROPE'S RICHEST FARMERS GET OVER 10 BILLION EUROS A YEAR IN HAND-OUTS FROM TAXPAYERS.)
It would be easy for the EU to provide a further â‚¬5 billion a year to tackle HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa by cutting half the aid it gives to such prosperous agribusinesses. Why should millionaires such as the Duke of Westminster or agribusinesses such as Tate&Lyle, get taxpayers' hand-outs they don't need when people are dying who could be kept alive if the money was available? And over 98% of EU farmers - many of whom do need support - would not have had any subsidy removed under this initiative.
Everything seemed clear. Not fair. Time for a change.
So off we went and launched the petition to divert half the subsidy given to the 2% of the EU's richest farmers to tackling HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. 130 MPs signed up to support it and gathered nearly 40,000 signatures. Oxfam eventually put it on their website and another 7500 signatures were added in a week.
But then it stalled. The General Election diverted MPs' attention. Then French voters rejected the EU constitution, which then went into a special purgatory in Brussels and removed the mechanism for driving the reform.
So where are we now?
Nothing significant has changed. HIV/AIDS still devastates sub-Saharan Africa. The CAP still wastes billions of euros of the public money that could save millions of lives. But the momentum behind the petition has dwindled away. I've tried to get MPs interested again but only found a handful of takers. I've tried to get the national press interested again -- but having taken a couple of articles from me they now feel it's a tired story. A million signatures would reawaken their interest but it looks like only their interest could generate that number of signatures.
What's going on ? These issues still matter. People still care about them. But to translate that into practical effective action needs sustained pressure over years. Adam Hochshild's extraordinary history of the antislavery movement shows just how many decades of unremitting work were required to end that moral outrage. I'm keeping going but I'd welcome ideas on how to shorten that timeframe for HIV/AIDs in sub-Saharan Africa and the CAP.
Anyone have any ideas out there?
To sign the help Africa petition -- to be useful, it has to be a signature from within the European Union -- go to helpafricapetition.com.)