Tag Archives: European Union

Mobile phone data caps introduced

Some good news to report as a cap on mobile phone roaming charges has been introduced as the first week of the European Parliament begins.

Roaming charges will be halved across the EU allowing users to surf the internet while traveling across Europe safe in the knowledge that their bill won’t be astronomical.

The caps include cuts for the cost of sending text messages, making phone calls and downloading data.

For too long the cost of making phone calls abroad has been astronomical. For some of us it’s a problem every time we go abroad a few times a year, and for many others who are regular travelers around the continent the sky-high costs can be a costly problem.

Mobile phone companies have been allowed to set unreasonably high charges and this has not been challenged until now. As a result the European Union has successfully capped these to make it more affordable.

In addition many businesses whose employees are required to travel regularly will benefit from the introduction of a cap on roaming charges.

From July operators can charge a maximum of €0.20 (16p) a megabyte, plus VAT for mobile downloads and internet surfing. This is down from 70c in 2012 and 45c in 2013. The cost of sending a text is now only 6c (down from 8c) and to receive a text is capped at 5c. Meanwhile making a call has been capped at 15p a minute.

The commission published this table with a full breakdown of costs for roaming, downloading data, making ad receiving calls and text messages.


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Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Europe dominated this week, with Euroscepticism grabbing headlines not just in the UK but across the continent. On Thursday European Commission vice president Viviane Reding accused British leaders of bowing to populism on the European issue, describing many of the supposed threats the EU brings as “the invention of politicians who like to have populist movements in order to win in elections”. She suggested that by succumbing to short-term electoral temptations politicians were potentially “destroying the futures” of their people.

Reding was joined by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, who described Eurosceptics in his own country as “brainless people”. And throughout the week there was criticism of the UK in many quarters, with a journalist writing in the widely read Spanish daily El Pais that “How Great Britain Turned Into Little England could easily be 2014’s bestselling essay”.

None of this dissuaded Eurosceptics, and the week ended with a large bloc of Conservative MPs writing to David Cameron calling for a national veto of EU Laws. Tory MP Bernard Jenkin, who led the 95-strong group behind the letter, described the EU’s effect on lawmaking as “acidic and corrosive” and said it undermined British democracy.

While senior Tories were quick to slap down the issue – William Hague called the requirements set out in the letter “unworkable” – they are largely responsible for the increasingly forceful and unrealistic demands made by Eurosceptics. David Cameron’s policy of appeasement has seen he and other frontbenchers deliberately conflate the Europe question with ‘dog whistle’ issues like immigration, in order to try and convince those on the right that he is on their side.

What Cameron underestimates is the inexorable nature of Euroscepticism – the ‘ever greater’ isolation that UKIP and Conservative diehards want from Europe and the rest of the world. Being anti-EU is in essence an irrational position, which ignores economic and industrial arguments in favour of a hazy and parochial utopia. It does not allow for compromise. The more ground the Government concedes to its own party’s ultras, the more they will ask for – and the more unpleasant, distorted and short-term the debate will become.

This week also saw a major victory in the battle against homophobia in sport, with former Everton, Aston Villa and West Ham footballer Thomas Hitzlsperger becoming The Premier League’s first openly gay player. Hitzlsperger, who recently retired, told a German newspaper “I was never ashamed of being who I am,” but admitted that homosexuality is heavily stigmatised in professional football.

The former German international played at centre-back for most of his career, and was renowned for his no nonsense style – comprehensively putting paid to stereotypes about gay sportsmen. There are hopes that, with many of supporters’ prejudices against homosexuality retreating, there will be more openly gay players in future.

Social attitudes have come a long way since 1990, when Justin Fashanu became British football’s first openly gay player. Fashanu’s coming out resulted in abuse and ostracism – he tragically committed suicide in 1998 – but a lot has changed since then. I am delighted that Hitzlsperger has taken such a bold position, and would like to congratulate him on his courage. Hopefully more gay players will follow suit, and we will finally be able to overcome the beautiful game’s biggest taboo.

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We must fight hard to contest myths about the EU

The Daily Express provoked anger at the start of this week by wrongly claiming that the EU are attempting to bring in compulsory quotas for female Roma MPs at Westminster. The article quoted Ukip’s London MEP Gerard Batten, who called the supposed plans “politically incorrect nonsense”.

Batten is right – at least in his description of the story as ‘nonsense’. There is no truth whatsoever in the claims. I wrote a letter to the paper explaining this, and suggesting that the story was poorly researched and ideologically motivated.

The paper replied with their ‘evidence’ for the article. This turned out to consist of a single recommendation in a 98 page study by an academic. To portray a bullet-point in an academic piece as an impending edict from Brussels is misleading at best. A disclaimer in the report made it clear that the opinions it expressed did not “represent the official position of the European Parliament”, but this was overlooked.

Moreover, as the European Commission’s Mark English pointed out, the EU’s remit “does not include the power to intervene in how candidates for national elections are nominated.” So even if the EU had wanted traveller quotas for domestic governments, it has absolutely no power to legally enforce them.

In a week which has seen Ed Miliband and his father subjected to savage attacks by The Daily Mail, it was sad to see first hand the way the right-wing and Euro-sceptic press are able to bolster myths about the EU. It makes it all the more important, in the run up to the European Elections in May, that we contest these falsehoods and make a clear, positive argument for Europe.

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Recognising the Benefit to Britain of European Union membership

First it was Tory Grandee and former Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe. He was  closely followed by leading business figures including Richard Branson and Martin Sorrell. The voice of reason on the European Union is at last being heard, emerging from the muffled clouds where it has hidden for so long while the sceptics gained ground.

The EU question is far bigger than David Cameron, and it’s unfortunate if predictable that our hapless Prime Minister David Cameron has become the centre of the story. Lord Howe was, of course, preceded by Nigel Lawson, another grandee from a past age, whose comments were, of course, diametrically opposed to Lord Howe. Meanwhile Cabinet Ministers Michael Gove and Philip Hammond pursue their own ambition. The Tories are indeed aping the Labour Party of the 1980s; we have even seen similar insults, swivel- eyed loons being the most public, being thrown around in 1980s Labour fashion.

Labour too was anti-Europe, opposing the Common Market as it was known during the 80s. It is certainly convenient to centre discontent on the EU, an often opaque organisation whose many good points are obscured by certain rabidly Eurosceptic British newspapers.

 The tragedy of reducing the European Union to a political party squabble, admittedly a large one, is that is obscures what is really at stake. Geoffrey Howe was absolutely right to draw attention to the fact that the UK is unlikely to hold anything like the position of power to which it aspires without the vehicle of the EU, unless the country was to join the United States, stating, “Leaving the union would, by contrast in my view, be a tragic expression of our shrinking influence and role in the world – and the humbling of our ambitions, already sorely tested by the current crisis, to remain a serious political or economic player on the global stage.”

Most of us in the UK do not take easily to the idea that Britain can no longer go it alone. I, along with millions of others, attended primary school in the late 1950s and early 1960s when much of the world map was still pink, a constant reminder of the empire on which the sun never sets. I too love England’s green and pleasant land, often spending time with my family in the Gloucestershire countryside. And to add icing to the cake, I also truly believe London is the greatest city in the world (and I’ve seen a few others in my time).

We must not let such sentimentality cloud our judgement. Britain is no longer the world leader. The inevitable shifts in global power to the United States of America and now China, India and possibly Brazil and other South American countries have ended British dominance. Though still near the top, we are no longer “it”. Britain therefore has to make painful adjustments.

Many of us thought such adjustments were well under way when we joined the EU in 1973, 40 years ago. Yet this appears not to be the case. Certain backwards-looking elements particularly in the Conservative Party have continued the anti-EU fight, gaining ground as the benefits of EU membership have been progressively downplayed.

Yet those benefits are essential for our very well being. The seat at the top table is hugely important. As a nation used to international influence and respect, Britain has much to offer in terms of long experience and extensive knowledge of defence and diplomacy. To be cut ourselves off from a meaningful role on the international stage would be sheer folly. To remain at the top table Britain must accept that the only realistic choice is to do this as a member of the European Union. We should also remember that neither Norway nor Switzerland, those two countries held up as examples of survival outside the European Union, has any real power in the world.

There are also massive economic benefits from European Union membership. The EU is the UK’s biggest trading partner. Everyone, most Eurosceptics included, agree that the EU internal market matters to the UK as the majority of our exports go to the single market. Leaving the EU would mean throwing away this trading advantage, which is obviously the main reason prominent business leaders want to stay in the EU. Make no mistake, if we left the EU we would not be able to stay in the single market. It really is all or nothing. The kind of cherry-picking talked about by some Eurosceptics is quite simply not on the table.

The reality is that Britain is in the EU. We have been there for 40 years and it’s our only viable future. The British people have no choice but to move forward and embrace the European Union. There is quite simply no alternative.

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Today is Europe Day

With the European Union the subject of political debate at the moment it is good to be reminded of how and why it was created.

Today is Europe Day, held every year to mark a speech that Robert Schuman made on 9 May 1950, the Schuman Declaration. This invited all European countries to manage their coal and steel industries jointly and democratically in Europe’s first supranational community. A year later six founder members signed the treaty that set up the European Coal and Steel Community, the forerunner to the European Union.

Robert Schuman was a man of many cultures. Born in Luxembourg, he obtained his law degree in Germany, fought for the French Resistance in the Second World War, and rose in 1947 to become Prime Minister and later Foreign Minister of France. He was also instrumental in creating NATO.

A deeply religious man, he trained in law, economics, political philosophy, theology and statistics. He was a strongly independent thinker, and having experienced at first hand the atrocities of war, his vision was to create “an organisation putting an end to war and guaranteeing an eternal peace”, drawing on the “ingenious and generous” thinkings of “audacious minds” such as Dante, Erasmus, Abbé de St Pierre, Rousseau, Kant and Proudhon, and avoiding impractical systems as outlined by Thomas More in Utopia, “itself a work of genius”. “The European spirit signifies being conscious of belonging to a cultural family and to have a willingness to serve that community in the spirit of total mutuality, without any hidden motives of hegemony or the selfish exploitation of others”. (Quotes from a speech he made on 16 May 1949)

To mark the day the European Parliament opened its doors to the public on Saturday 4 May. Over 20,000 visitors were able to experience the Parliament’s electronic voting system, see an exhibition about the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought and a debate between MEPs about a citizens’ Europe.

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40 years of Britain in the EU – UK Parliament lecture

Yesterday I spoke at an Open Lecture event organised by the Houses of Parliament. My speech was entitled “40 years of the EU of Britain in the European Union”. Here are some extracts from it.

“As a Labour MEP I am not only pro-European but positive about the EU. It is a unique and in many ways amazing institution comprising 27 member states speaking 23 languages stretching from Finland in the north to Cyprus in the south.

Cyprus reminds us of the current problems in the Eurozone, the sovereign debt crisis and the bailouts of Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain. The Eurozone crisis is serious, though there is recession across the globe – Britain is not exempt.

The fact remains that EU membership after 40 years is very much a part of our life in the UK. The EU is not the precursor to a super state – it has clear competences and clear delineation of subsidiarity. It is also flexible, with new institutions continually evolving

Those who call for a referendum do not truly understand the enormity of unpicking governmental, economic and legislative arrangements which have been in place for more than a generation.”

I then went on to speak about why and how the EU was set up, what it stands for, milestones in its history, how the institutions work, what it has achieved/its benefits, some current issues and what the future might be. 

You can watch the lecture on the BBC Parliament channel on Saturday, 23rd March at 22.00 hours.

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Osborne Embarrassed Again Over Bonuses

Bankers’ bonuses for some time seem to have attracted broad consensus.  Almost everyone, on the left and the right, thinks that the bonus culture in big banks spiralled out of control and was a contributing factor to the world wide financial collapse.

So it is perhaps a little surprising to see George Osborne opposing further measures to help curb bonuses as happened last week in a meeting of Finance Ministers from across the European Union where Mr Osborne found himself the only dissenting voice in the room. He was predictably roundly ignored.  You could almost feel sorry for him if it weren’t for the fact it was another example of the Tories ‘not getting it’ when it comes to EU negotiations.  My colleague, Arlene McCarthy, put it well in the Guardian:

“Yet again, we have an example of the government’s failure to proactively engage in and influence EU policy in Britain’s national interest. Why has the UK government failed in the last 18 months to put an alternative proposal on the table, and waited until the last minute to raise objections?”

This doesn’t exactly bode well for any attempt the the Tories may make to renegotiate powers.

So we have the Chancellor fighting a losing battle on the wrong side of the argument.  And it is the wrong side, as the measures proposed are very sensible. The failure of banks to self regulate on bonuses or to exercise restraint means that we are now introducing a bonus cap with a 1:1 salary to bonus ratio.  This should help put an end to the excessive risk culture which led to taxpayer bail-outs and bank collapses.

These rules are designed to make banks safer, more accountable and ensure they focus on lending to the real economy. It will put an end an unsustainable banking model where a bail-out bank with £5.2 billion losses, £1.1 billion fines for mis-selling, £390 million fines for libor-fixing, in 2012 continued to pay out over £600 million in bonuses.

This is neither ethnical nor sustainable. The industry has had two years to sort this out and their failure to tackle the culture has resulted in these tough rules.

It’s ridiculous that Osborne sought to defend this broken bonus culture. This government says they want reform of the banking sector yet they are the only member state to defend the status quo by maintaining the current rules around bonuses.

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Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

The French President, Francois Hollande gave a highly anticipated speech last week to the European Parliament in Strasbourg. He argued that the European Union should be more vocal in world conflicts and defended France’s decision to intervene in the Mali conflict calling it “a European fight for democracy.”

Without referring to the UK specifically he made it clear that he totally rejected any idea that any national Government could cherry pick EU policies. He said: “National governments should stop calling into question EU competencies at every step.”

He warned against it being a body which looks out only for self-interest and said the EU was in danger of becoming “a sum of nations where each looks for what is good for itself and only itself.”

He did agree however, that it was necessary to look at the European Unions ‘architecture.’ You can read a full report from European Voice here.

A deal was reached over the European Union’s budget last week and responding to the deal Douglas Alexander MP, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, said: “We welcome news that a deal has been reached. Failing to agree one could have seen next year’s budget go up automatically.

“Labour voted in November to give David Cameron a clear mandate to negotiate for a real terms cut, and so we welcome the reports indicating the policy we advocated has been agreed.

“It seemed at times that David Cameron was ready to throw in the towel and aim for a freeze, but today’s deal proves that a cut was worth voting for in Westminster and worth negotiating for in Brussels”.

You can read his quote in full here.

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Boris Johnson’s bid to lead the Conservative Party gathers momentum

You have to feel sorry for the beleaguered David Cameron. Caught between a rampant Boris Johnson on one flank and his Eurosceptic wing on the other, Cameron clearly doesn’t know which way to turn.

Today’s Times reports that Cameron may urge the public in a referendum to support the looser relationship with Brussels he hopes to negotiate. However, Cameron is prepared apparently to give the country the chance to say no to such a deal. Such a result would effectively be seen as a vote to leave the European Union.

Although David Cameron has not, as yet, made his well trailed speech on EU membership, he is obviously going in only one direction – a referendum which may well signal Britain’s exit from the EU.

Yet before we get there, the Prime Minister will have to negotiate with the EU this much hyped change in Britain’s status. He seeks to take us from the heart to the periphery getting rid of what he and the Tory Party see as troublesome regulations on the way.

There is one extremely serious flaw in this approach which is obvious yet almost virtually ignored, namely that the EU may well not play ball. The idea that powers can be “repatriated” from Brussels to London is at present purely a Conservative Party construct. Although Germany may be making some helpful noises, there are those who would be glad to see the back of Britain.

While it is true that we are a contributor country to the EU budget that does not necessarily mean there will be unanimous agreement to go along with the Tory demands and negotiate in the way David Cameron envisages. There are, as we all know, very many ways to conduct EU negotiations and since it will be 26 member states against Britain, I would hazard a guess that David Cameron is not in a very strong position.

Enter both Christian Noyer and Boris Johnson. Mr Noyer, Governor of the Bank of France, makes it clear in today’s Telegraph that he wants London stripped of its status as Europe’s financial hub, saying, “Most of the euro business should be done inside the euro area. It’s linked to the capacity of the central bank to provide liquidity and ensure oversight of its own currency.” 

“We’re not against some business being done in London, but the bulk of the business should be under our control. That’s the consequence of the choice by the UK to remain outside the euro area.”

Meanwhile Boris Johnson, according to the Times, would prefer a minimalist EU stripped down to the single market. What this really means is that the social and employment legislation associated with the single market – health and safety at work, maternity rights and much more, will go. This is what the Tories really want. Rights for people at work are, as we know, anathema to many Tories.

Withdrawing from one side of the single market while keeping the part the Conservatives see as good for the British economy may just not be a runner. It’s difficult to see how and why the rest of the EU would allow the UK such power without responsibility.

David Cameron has a long way to go to realise his dream of the EU allowing the UK to become semi-detached on its own terms rather than those of the EU as a whole. What is more, the CBI, Britain’s foremost business organisation, want Britain to stay in the EU. Cameron is, indeed, between a rock and a hard place, digging an ever deeper hole for himself.

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The EU budget explained

We are hearing a lot at the moment about the EU Budget and the wrangling surrounding it.  I thought it would be a good time to write a blog about what the EU Budget actually is and what could happen if no agreement is reached.

There are two different budgets in the European Union; one is the annual budget which sets spending levels each year.  The next, and the one causing the current controversy, is the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), which is a seven year spending plan for the EU. It defines the maximum amounts for each major category of spending (e.g. structural funds, agriculture, research and innovation and development spending).  The current MFF (2007-2013) is due to expire and an agreement must be reached on the new MFF by the end of the year. 

Though the negotiations are ongoing, the final budget, if it is agreed, will be in the region 0.8-1trillion euros for the entire seven year period.

That is a lot of money, but still only amounts to around 1% of the EU’s GDP; this is especially low when you consider that, at the national level, budgets in the EU average 50% of GDP.  Also, something worth pointing out is that none of this money is borrowed and contributes in no way to any national debt.

The budget is proposed by the European Commission and is then amended and approved by the European Council and European Parliament.  The European Council must pass the budget unanimously for it to go through.

At the moment the Commission is proposing what they call a “freeze” in the next MFF, using the 2013 maximum expenditure level plus 2% inflation. The Commission have also placed some items, for instance the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES), “off budget”, which will have to be paid for by the member states. 

The Council is split on the issue with the many of the net recipients wanting to go along with the Commission proposal (or higher) and the net contributors who want a smaller budget. Two groups emerged in the Council – “Friends of better spending” and “Friends of Cohesion”. The current Council proposal is for a EUR 79 billion cut compared to the Commission’s draft budget. The consequence of that would be to reduce the amount for structural funds (used to address inequalities between member states) from EUR 354 billion (2007-2013) to EUR 309 billion (2014-2020). CAP would also be reduced.

The European Parliament, which must approve the budget for it to pass, has made its position on the MFF clear. It believes that the level proposed by the Commission is not sufficient. The EP calls for an increase of at least 5% above the 2013 ceilings. The EP also voted in favour of scrapping rebates and correction mechanisms and reform of the own resources system (e.g. linking the EU budget to a financial transaction tax and new VAT tax).  The Labour members of the European Parliament, myself included, voted against the proposed 5% increase , preferring to support a real terms freeze.

As things stand now, if a compromise cannot be found, the maximum expenditure level, plus inflation, for the 2013 budget rolls over until an agreement can be reached.  This would result in a budget far exceeding the proposed real terms freeze.

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