Tag Archives: european commission

Plenary Debate on the Withdrawal of the Maternity Leave Directive

I wrote last week about the Commission’s plan to scrap the maternity leave directive.  This week in the plenary chamber of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, I spoke in a debate with Commission about their proposal.

Most of the speakers, including myself, are appalled at that the Commission could so meekly give up on this very important directive. It has been clear from the beginning that this issue is difficult and controversial, but that is no reason to abandon it. We have already wasted four years doing nothing. Now the Commission and the council have a chance to correct that in this new mandate.

I hope the listen to the pleas of myself and my colleagues in the European Parliament. You can watch my interjection in the video above and you can watch the whole debate by following the link here.

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European Commission want to axe the Pregnant Workers Directive

Four years ago the European Parliament passed the Pregnant Workers Directive. It was a difficult and not without some controversy, but we passed it and the normal process of negotiation between the three EU institutions should have begun in earnest. Since then, nothing has happened. It has been sitting in a drawer; the European Council seemingly having little appetite to tackle the issue.

Now we have a new mandate and the European Commission is going through the bits of legislation left over from the last term and deciding what to do; it has suggested that we simply scrap the Pregnant Workers Directive.

The European Commission has basically given up the fight and now wants to kill the draft law under its REFIT programme aimed at simplifying EU law.

In a communication dated 18 June, the EU executive wrote, “The Commission considers it good legislative management to withdraw proposals that do not advance in the legislative process […]. These include proposals on […] pregnant workers […].”

This is a very troubling development. The fact is that the European Parliament adopted its position and never received a follow-up official response from the Council, despite the co-decision procedure. Therefore, no further discussions on the Maternity Leave Directive took place to enable a second reading and subsequent decision. I could perhaps understand the decision if the report had been mired in the back and forth between the three institutions with no progress being made, but given that there has been nothing done for four years, surely the solution is not to bin it, but to actually start the discussion.

The European Women’s Lobby have written to Jean-Claude Juncker asking to reconsider, saying “The decision to withdraw this Directive is scandalous as potential and pregnant women workers are being taken hostage but so too are men as the proposed directive also includes provisions on paternity leave.”

I completely agree. There will be a debate in Strasbourg next week, where I can only hope that the European Parliament can persuade the Commission to change its mind. It’s a terrible shame that we haven’t managed to pass this important directive in the four years since the European Parliament first adopted its position. Let’s not compound that shame now by simply giving up.

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Channel 4 Blog

I was interviewed for Channel 4 news following the election of Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission.

 

You can watch my interview here.

 

 

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David Cameron is no John Major. Britain’s reputation is not safe in his hands

It has come to my attention that the European Council of Ministers has decided to support Jean-Claude Junker as President of the European Commission.

David Cameron has therefore comprehensively failed in his attempts to stop Junker. While I accept that overturning the Junker bandwagon was never going to be easy, we shouldn’t gloss over just how instrumental Cameron was in creating the pro-Junker momentum in the first place.

Frightened out of his wits by UKIP’s strong showing in the European elections, not to mention his obstreperous back-benchers, Cameron came to the view that the arch-federalist Junker was not a good person to head up one of the three European institutions.

Given that under the Lisbon treaty, the European Parliament was to have a say in who would be President of the European Commission, campaigning against Jean-Claude Junker, the candidate of the centre-right European People’s Party Group (EPP), was never going to be easy.

Two things made Cameron’s self-proclaimed crusade even more difficult. As the largest political group in the European Parliament, the EPP has taken upon itself to claim that it, as the largest Group, makes the nomination for Commission President on behalf of the European Parliament. Secondly, and perhaps of more significance in Cameron’s world, is the fact that the Tories in the European Parliament withdrew from the EPP five years ago.

Now that the British Conservatives are not in the mainstream centre-right group, not only has their influence diminished, but they have also alienated European leaders whose support they may have needed to stop Junker. Chief among these is Angela Merkel who was very unhappy when the Tories formed the European Conservative and Reformist (ECR) Group in 2009. She is now even more angry because the Conservatives in the European Parliament have, within the last few days, allied with the Alternative for Deutschland, who are more or less the German equivalent of UKIP. The Tories went down that route because, needing to reconstitute the ECR for this parliamentary mandate, they were obliged to meet the European Parliament rules which state that to form a political group there must be 25 MEPs from seven countries.

Clearly it is rather foolish to upset Mrs Merkel, who in reasonable circumstances would be a Cameron ally. Cameron himself then went on to alienate almost the whole European Council when he threatened that the UK would leave the EU if a federalist became the head of the Commission. Subsequent Cameron interventions proved no more subtle or adept.

Responding to reports that Mr Cameron had warned Britain could leave the EU over Mr Juncker’s appointment, Mrs Merkel is quoted in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph as stating: “I made myself clear by saying that I am for Jean-Claude Juncker. But when I made that statement in Germany I also made the point that we act in a European spirit. We always do that. Otherwise we can’t arrive at a compromise. We cannot just consign to the back-burner the question of European spirit. Threats are not part and parcel of that spirit, that’s not how we usually proceed.”

Given that Mrs Merkel started the discussions on the European Commission by not being particularly pro-Junker, David Cameron has scored a spectacular own-goal. Step forward the Prime Minister who snatched defeat from the jaws of what could possibly have been a victory.

I, and most of my Labour MEP colleagues, share the concerns that the EU is remote. Many of us would not call ourselves federalists and would not support the federalist, integrated concept of Europe against the looser idea of nation states working together as analysed by Daniel Finkelstein in the Times today. But we all recognise that if you want your view to prevail in Europe you have to negotiate skillfully, taking account of the sensibilities of those who have power.

David Cameron is obviously no John Major who successfully negotiated Britain’s opt out from the Euro in the teeth of huge opposition. Cameron instead seems to be trying to ape Margaret Thatcher’s famous hand bagging strategy. Thatcher won the British rebate over 30 years ago. The EU and the zeitgeist are very different now. All David Cameron has managed to do is let the side down.

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MEPs pass important resolution on LGBT rights

Yesterday the European Parliament passed a resolution strongly regretting that the fundamental rights of LGBT people are not always fully upheld in the EU. Authored by Austrian Green MEP Ulrike Lunacek, the resolution calls on the European Commission, EU member states and EU agencies to work jointly on a roadmap to protect LGBT fundamental rights, similar to existing EU strategies against discrimination based on sex, disability or ethnicity.

MEPs put forward several themes and objectives that should be addressed in the EU roadmap, in areas such as employment, education, health, goods and services, families and freedom of movement, freedom of expression, hate crime, asylum, foreign relations etc. The resolution clearly states that this comprehensive policy must respect member states’ competences.

The current EU framework decision on combating certain forms and expressions of racism and xenophobia by means of criminal law should be revised to include bias crime and incitement to hatred on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. Furthermore the European Commission should produce guidelines to ensure that the directives on the right of EU citizens and their family members to move and reside freely within the territory of the member states and on the right to family reunification are implemented so as to ensure respect for all forms of families legally recognised under member states’ national laws.

In the field of education, the Commission should promote equality and non-discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity throughout its youth and education programmes, says the text. It should also facilitate the sharing of good practice in formal education among member states, including teaching materials, anti-bullying and anti-discrimination policies, in a non-binding way.

MEPs also say that member states should introduce or review legal gender recognition procedures so they fully respect transgender people’s right to dignity and bodily integrity, e.g. to preclude any requirement for them to undergo sterilization. They add that the Commission should continue to work with the World Health Organization to stop considering transgender individuals mentally ill.

I am proud to have voted in favour of this resolution. It marks another step in the fight against discrimination towards LGBT people. The European Parliament also deserves credit for taking the lead on this very important issue.

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Independent Article with Commissioner Reding on Women on Boards

This article was published in the Independent on Thursday 21st November 2013.  It was co-authored by myself and Commissioner Viviane Reding, who is the person in the European Commission responsible for the proposed ‘Women on Boards’ directive.  If you would like to read the Independents further coverage of the story, you can do so by following the link here.  

Today’s overwhelming European Parliament backing for a 40% quota for women in the boardroom was a landmark for gender equality in Europe.

It has sent a clear signal that boardrooms can no longer be boys’ clubs.

The European Commission put the proposal on the table in November 2012. At its heart lies a reasonable requirement – 40% female representation among non-executive directors in publicly listed companies by 2020. This is accompanied by guidelines about how to achieve this in a clear and transparent way.

This will not mean anyone getting a job just because they are a woman. Nor is it about breathing down the neck of businesses. It is about stopping people being crowded out of boardrooms because they are female.

We want recruitment based on clear criteria and a comparison of the candidates’ skills and qualifications. This is fair both for the business world and for women – who have the same right to pursue careers as men.

Some say this should be left to voluntary action. They argue that, given time, businesses will tackle this issue on their own. But increases in female representation have happened at a snail’s pace in many EU countries.

At the current rate of progress, it would take until 2050 to get even close to gender balance in Europe’s boardrooms (that is to say, at least 40% of each gender). Company boards remain dominated by one gender. 83% of board members and 97% of boardroom chairs are male.

There is clear evidence that proportionate legislation is the best way of accelerating progress. The most rapid advances have been in countries such as France, Italy and Denmark, which have introduced legislative measures.

Germany’s prospective coalition partners announced earlier this week a 30% quota by 2016 for the proportion of women non-executive directors.

These countries are the motor of change. They have understood that if they want to remain competitive in a globalised economy they cannot disregard women. More and more companies are competing to attract the best female talent.

Yet representation for women at the top level remains the exception rather than the rule in Europe. This is all the more shocking given that 60% of graduates in the EU are female, and the proportion of women in work has risen steadily to 62% – up from 55% in 1997.

Since 2000, women have taken three-quarters of the new jobs generated in Europe. But this is not being reflected in the top positions.

We believe today’s vote is good news for the UK, where women occupy 18.5% of board places. That is slightly above the EU average. But it is hardly equality of opportunity. Yes, the glass ceiling in many companies has been raised, but it is still there, nearly as tough to crack as ever.

Our economies carry the burden of this. Gender equality at work is not just a women’s issue, but an economic imperative.

While there are signs of tentative economic recovery in the UK and some other countries, the challenges of an ageing population, falling birth rates and increasing skills shortages will not go away.

Europe – Britain included – will not meet these challenges without capitalising on the talent and skills that women offer.

The European Union has been a pioneer for gender equality. From equal pay to workplace rights, we can be proud of progress over the last few decades.

Today’s vote was another major step.

But for the proposal to become EU law, we will also need national ministers in the EU Council to back the 40% “quota”.

Will those ministers support MEPs, directly elected by European citizens, in helping advance gender equality in Europe?

Or will they drag their feet on the false basis that equality in multinational businesses can be tackled at national level, in isolation?

Will they send a strong message that 21st century boardrooms are no longer the realm of ‘old school tie’ networks? Or will some still argue that so-called ‘cultural changes’ will happen by themselves?

Today’s vote means decision time for national governments is approaching fast.

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European Parliament calls for a humanitarian conference on the Syrian refugee crisis

The EU should convene a humanitarian conference aimed at helping Syria’s neighbouring countries to cope with the still-growing influx of refugees. The European Parliament passed a resolution yesterday urging the EU to continue providing humanitarian aid and support to refugees and to guarantee them safe entry and access to fair asylum procedures in the EU.

The humanitarian conference on the Syrian refugee crisis should explore ways to help refugee host countries in the region (in particular Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq) to cope with still-growing refugee populations and to keep their borders open to all Syrian refugees. Thousands of Syrians flee to neighbouring countries every day and the UN forecasts that 3.5 million refugees will have left Syria by the end of 2013. Besides humanitarian aid, the conference should also focus on strengthening the EU’s role and involvement in diplomatic efforts to help end the conflict in Syria.

Speaking for the European Commission in the debate, Commissioner Barnier agreed to the organisation of such a conference. With the European Parliament and the European Commission in agreement, the proposed action should become a reality. 

The European Parliament called on the EU, as the largest humanitarian aid donor in the Syrian crisis, to “continue its generous funding” to meet the needs of the Syrian people, including safe entry for refugees and solidarity with EU countries under pressure. Member states should explore all existing EU laws and procedures to provide a safe entry into the EU to temporarily admit Syrians fleeing their country. MEPs welcomed the general consensus among EU member states that Syrian nationals should not be returned.

The Parliament maintained that refugees should have “access to fair and efficient asylum procedures” in the EU, and reiterated the need for more solidarity among member states with those facing particular pressure to receive refugees.

Parliament, however, pointed out that “member states are required to come to the assistance of migrants at sea”, and called on those which have failed to abide by their international obligations to stop turning back boats with migrants on board.

EU countries are encouraged to make full use of money to be made available from the Asylum and Migration Fund and the Preparatory Action to “Enable the resettlement of refugees during emergency situations”.

The resolution encouraged EU countries “to address acute needs through resettlement”, in addition to existing national quotas and through humanitarian admission.

MEPs also made it clear that the possible influx of refugees into EU member states required “responsible measures“, say MEPs and called on the EU Commission together with member states to work on contingency planning, including the possibility of applying the Temporary Protection Directive, “if and when conditions demand it”. Under this 2001 directive, which so far has never been triggered, refugees would be granted a residence permit for the entire duration of the protection period, as well as access to employment and accommodation.

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Copyright in the Digital Age

Last week I took part in a very interesting discussion on copyright in the digital age.

The event was organised by Confrontations Europe and the French Permanent Representation to the EU. I was part of a panel that included Maria Martin-Prat, Chief of unit at DG MARKT in the European Commission, Jean-Philippe Mochon, Ministry of Culture, France, Marielle Gallo, MEP and Françoise Castex MEP.

Numerous reports have been adopted by the European Parliament underlining the need to modernize copyright rules and adapt them to the new conditions that the internet has created.  With that in mind, the European Commission has launched an important consultation among stakeholders, entitled “Licences for Europe”, in order to identify contractual or technological solutions likely to enhance the availability of content protected by copyright within the internal market.

A number of interesting points were raised at the meeting, in particular Marielle Gallo pointed out that copyright had been an important part of law throughout Europe for centuries and she believes that it does not hinder fundamental freedoms (e.g. free press, data protection). However, Marielle added, the internet changed everything; modifying the status of cultural works with online access making it cheap or even free. Marielle believes that this is detrimental to copyright and that exclusive rights are not exceptions.

Marielle also raised the very important issue of VAT online.  The European Parliament has voted (500 votes in favour) for aligning VAT for the off and online worlds. However she regretted that no-one in the EU Commission is proposing a way forward on this matter. She said that she looked forward to a time when it would not be so profitable to locate EU HQs in Ireland and Luxembourg when VAT will be paid where goods and services are offered.

Françoise Castex also had some interesting points to make, highlighting especially the importance of cultural exception.  She also spoke of her current report on the private copy levy.  You may not know what this is as we don’t have it in the UK.  It is a tax on all devices that can record and store data, with the money generated being distributed among artists and performers to compensate them for potential money lost through private copying.  Francoise is proposing in her report that consumers be informed if they pay a private copy levy. She also believes that private copy remuneration is a virtuous circle of financing as it comes backs to the society through cultural events.

In my contributions I pointed out that nobody has come up with a fully workable system for dealing with the exploitation of copyrighted materials online, or how policy-makers should regulate it. I believe the internet will always be constantly developing and changing, and as legislators we must be aware that legislation written today could be obsolete by tomorrow.  But the question is how to protect creators is incredibly important in Europe. It comes down to the fact that copyright creates jobs. For instance, in London the cultural and creative industry is 2nd biggest after the financial sector.

Europe needs to strengthen copyright and make it workable. The UK music industry suffered in the past through weak regulation. Europe also needs to ensure a fair environment, and stop piracy; paying particular attention to companies like Google, who have little regard for copyright.

Discussions like this are so important and I hope that, in the coming months, the European Commission’s consultation on ‘Licences for Europe’ will come up with innovative and forward-thinking ideas.  I very much look forward to reading the results.

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EU Commission landmark legislation on mobile roaming charges comes into force

New European Union rules have just come into effect which will cut the cost of calls abroad. Making a call abroad will fall by at least 17% and downloading data will be 36% cheaper following EU legislation.

This is a significant development for those travelling across Europe. The European Commission has been working relentlessly to achieve this since 2007. Rates were first cut in 2012 and additional cuts will be made in July 2014.

In addition the Commission said mobile phone operators must notify users when they reach 80% of their data roaming limit and cut the mobile internet before they exceed this unless the user opts out of this option.

This is an important breakthrough for consumers. Research by iPass, the Wi-Fi roaming provider, found that 43% of remote workers had experienced an expensive data roaming bill in the last year in excess of £715. This legislation will protect consumers in the future and avoid those who unwittingly create such a high bill and are forced to shell hundreds of pounds in data charges they may never have intended to use.

Commenting on the lower charges, European Commission Vice-President, Neelie Kroes, said: “The EU has to be relevant to people’s lives.

“The latest price cuts put more money in your pocket for summer, and are a critical step towards getting rid of these premiums once and for all.

“This is good for both consumers and companies, because it takes fear out of the market, and it grows the market.”

The new price caps now operational across the European Union, excluding VAT are:

45 cents (38p) a megabyte to download data or browse the internet

24 cents (20p) a minute to make a call

7 cents (6p) a minute to receive a call

8 cents (7p) to send a text message

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Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Sadly the European Commission and Council have always been resistant to giving better and wider access to EU legislative documents for EU Citizens.  That is why in Strasbourg last week, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on the other two EU institutions to lift their opposition and resume the negotiations with the Parliament on a revision of the Regulation on Public Access to Documents.

The report was about empowering citizens to hold “Brussels” to account; not only the European Parliament, but also the Commission and the Council of Ministers.  Meetings of the Council of Ministers currently take place behind closed doors. If we knew how our Ministers voted in their secret meetings, we would be able to hold them to account, in all national parliaments across the EU.  Hopefully this will make the Commission and the Council stop their backstage collusion on this dossier and will actively follow up on this resolution to kick-start negotiations again as soon as possible.

You would think that UKIP, given their constant criticism of the functioning of the EU, would have welcomed this move.  However, UKIP refused to support transparent EU decision making on Thursday, by abstaining on the resolution.

In the same week, UKIP MEPs refused to support encouragement for all member states to establish a lobbying register, in a report on corruption, money laundering and organised crime. UKIP abstained on the paragraph which “encourages governments and public administrations to make registration in a lobby register a precondition for a meeting with a business-, interest-, or lobby-organisation”. On 3rd June, Nigel Farage wrote in the Guardian that UKIP would ‘clean up politics’ by demanding that all lobbying and donations to politicians be clearly registered.  UKIP are proving once again that they are more about grandstanding than actually trying to make a difference.

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