Tag Archives: European Union

International child abduction

Last night at the European Parliament plenary session in Strasbourg I spoke about the accession of 8 countries to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.

The Labour Party will vote along with our colleagues in the Socialists and Democrats and across the chamber in accepting the accession of these countries; however I felt it was important to make a few pertinent points about this accession.

I’m worried that without further EU assessment into the infrastructure and procedures in these countries, both proposed and in place, we risk sending children who have already suffered a huge ordeal back into danger.

When the application of the Hague Convention was a Member State issue, the assessments undertaken allowed us to assess acceding countries in order to ascertain the level of child protection which would be provided. We worry that these vulnerable children will not be adequately protected.  What is a fairly legalistic attitude towards the recognition of other systems will have an effect on the lives of young people who have been abducted.

While the argument has been made by other groups that it is important to have a maximum level of participation in the Hague Convention to ensure that children who have been abducted in cross-border situations are given the maximum care and possibility of being reunited with their families, we wish to underline that the EU also has obligations. It is not sufficient that we simply accept the principle that we return children who have already suffered an ordeal to their state of habitual residence, then simply forget about them. We need to maintain pressure on acceding states to ensure their compliance with the terms of the Convention.

It is also helpful that there is virtual unanimity across the European Parliament on this. We need to ensure that child protection in these situations remains at the forefront, and that we don’t risk running before we can walk.

You can see the full speech here:

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We are witnessing the most significant decline in British influence in Europe for a generation

Today, our Shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, will tell the Parti Socialiste, our sister party in France, that over the period of this Conservative-Liberal Democrat government, we have witnessed “the most significant decline in British influence in Europe for a generation”.

He stressed that “no country that seeks to play a leading part in the modern world could contemplate walking away from the world’s largest single market, or to cut itself off from some of its closest allies”. He will also say that “our place at Europe’s top table has made the UK stronger, more secure, and more prosperous”, and that “Labour believes that the UK will stand taller in Washington, Beijing, Moscow and Delhi – when we stand firmly at the heart of the EU”.

This is exactly the kind of engagement the UK really needs in Brussels, not the kind of intransigence that has caused grumblings of discontent from our European partners. Continued opt-outs from cross-border criminal prosecutions and investigations, opposing capping banker’s bonuses, failing to condemn rape in marriage, have made even the normally stoic Angela Merkel despair of David Cameron. We need instead a government with a policy to be an integral part of the European Union, to represent the UK’s best interests not by simply throwing the toys out of the pram when a proposal is made and refusing to play, but constructively negotiating to find a better solution for everyone.

The Labour Party has a clear plan to review, repair and reset our relations with our neighbours. We must take our advice from those in the field; the ambassadors, experts and civil servants, and not be held hostage by the irrational ideologies of a Eurosceptic fringe in the Conservative Party and UKIP.



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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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