Honeyball’s Weekly Round-up

Labour Party

The Commissioner hearings began in earnest last week. It was a new format and each Commissioner designate was grilled by MEPs about their intentions for their respective portfolios before being ratified. It is the first time such hearings have taken place in this way and MEPs really did have the opportunity to tackle the Commissioner designates’ about their plans, test their depth of knowledge and commitment to the role.

I blogged about two of the hearings, that of Vera Jourovà who will have responsibility for justice, consumers and gender equality and Kristalina Georgieva, Vice-President for Budget and Human Resources,  both of which I saw last week. You can read my reviews here and here.

In total five of the Commissioner designates, have been told to provide further written evidence before any decision is made about their confirmation. Vera Jourovà from the Czech Republic, Tibor Navracsics from Hungary, Miguel Arias Cañete from Spain and Pierre Moscovici from France, were given until Sunday night to respond to new written questions.

In addition, the UK’s Jonathan Hill will appear tomorrow 7 October at 1pm for a second hearing. European Voice has excellent coverage of the hearings which you can read here.

Last week the Conservatives set out new rules which threatened to take the UK out of the European Human Rights Convention. The plans, outlined in an eight page dossier are largely ‘fanciful’, as the Guardian put it, because the UK can’t be granted special treatment.

Essentially people in Britain would lose the right to take the British government to the human rights court in Strasbourg. Rather than enforcing any adverse rulings from the Court, the Tories want them to be merely advisory and they would only become binding if Parliament agreed it on a case-by-case basis.

Joshua Rozenberg grasped the significance this would have and wrote in the Guardian last week: “Nobody at the human rights court or the Council of Europe can grant the ‘recognition’ that the Conservatives seek.”

He added: “they [the Conservative plans] would take the UK back half a century to the days before the convention became enforceable by individuals.”

You can read Rozenberg’s article in full here.

Review of Commissioner designate Věra Jourová’s hearing

Labour Party

In her opening statement at the Commission hearings yesterday afternoon (01 October), Věra Jourová, Commissioner designate for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, spoke passionately about her enthusiasm and the sense of responsibility she has for the role.

She said her commitment was to deliver on the European values and fundamental rights described by Vaclav Havel and quoted his address to the European Parliament in 2000, in Strasbourg.

Her mandate will be characterised by focussing her efforts on three areas: the need for citizens to have choice, the protection of citizens’ rights and the need to build trust across the judicial systems within the EU.

On women she asserted that vulnerable women who suffer violence “need our voice”, adding: “Whether its women who suffer domestic violence or the inhumane practice of female genital mutilation. These are incompatible with everything the European Union stands for.”

Later on during questions Jourová, she said she would ensure all member states ratify the Istanbul Convention (about preventing violence against women which will be signed in 2015). Until now only eight member states have signed it.

The Commissioner designate, if ratified, will have responsibility for a new portfolio and she said she hoped that she would be able to build bridges between national legal systems and build a fairer single market. She said: “It will help to build economic growth because a sound and predictable justice system is a prerequisite for economic growth and a business friendly environment in which cross-border trade can flourish.”

Jourová also promised to tackle the ‘glass ceiling and assured us that she will defend the Women on Boards proposal.

Jourová, spoke passionately about being the victim of injustice and the lengths she went to clear her name. “It was this”, she said, “That pushed me to study law”.

During questions she was asked if she will support the European Parliament’s roadmap against discrimination of LGBTI in Europe. She responded: “We are dependent on the member states that need to fight against this, but I will use awareness campaigns.”

Following this she was asked if action against specific member states will be taken but Jourová’s response was vague and she said it is something to discuss with individual countries to see if such barriers exist.

Her answers on gender equality were a bit more promising, albeit rather general and she said women must have equal access to services that men have at their disposal.

She was also asked about female representation in the European Commission and if she is willing to start a campaign for more female commissioners. She said she would “be presenting proposals to increase gender equality in the Commission.”

In her closing comments she admitted she was a little general with her responses. It is true that her answers lacked detailed. However, her portfolio is new, extremely complex and covers a very large area; in addition she was questioned for three hours.

Although a member of the ALDE group (Liberal group) I found her remarks on women, in particular, very encouraging.

Lord Hill’s hearing was also yesterday running at the same time as Věra Jourová, so I was unable to see it but you can read more on that here.

Women are more likely to vote Labour than Conservative

Labour Party

With the Scottish referendum successfully out of the way and Labour Party Conference concluded, it’s time to start reporting again on women, Brussels, London and related matters. I should, of course, also add that the European Parliament went back on 1 September and that we’re now beginning the hearings for the Commissioners designate. But more on that later. In the meantime, I was very interested in this opinion survey.

The excellent Mumsnet, the UK’s biggest network for parents which aims to make their lives easier by pooling knowledge, advice and support, has teamed up with Ipsos MORI to find out how women are intending to vote next year.

It’s very good news to hear from this survey that women are still more likely to vote Labour than Conservative

Thirty-nine per cent of women back Labour while the Tories have thirty per cent

Howver, the survey also found that the female vote is still up for grabs, and six out of 10 women (58%) say they may change their minds between now and next May

Mums Net Graphis

The lesson for Labour surely is that we need to be vigilant about women voters and always take women’s views on board. Women could make the difference between winning and losing.

Although Labour has done better among women than the Tories for several years, this has not always been the case. I well remember the Conservatives being well ahead during the 1980s. There is nothing automatic about women voting Labour. We need to earn this support which could mean forming a government or spending another five years in opposition.

Godfrey Bloom is at it again

Labour Party

Now that the Commissioner-Designate Hearings are over, we can look back on the choicest moments.  Not that there are very many as MEPs, on the whole, take their duties at these Hearings very seriously.

None more so perhaps than the appalling Godfrey Bloom (UKIP Yorkshire and Humberside).

While attending the hearing of Michel Barnier, French EPP Commissioner-Designate for the Internal Market, Mr Bloom claimed that he represented the City of London.  As London MEP  I take great exception to Mr Bloom’s claim.  I’m sure the same goes for the rest of my London colleagues, including presumably UKIP’s very own Gerard Batten.

However, good triumphed in the end.

Mr Barnier, an experienced politician who doesn’t miss a trick, replied to Mr Bloom with the immortal words: “I (Barnier) thought you represented your constituents.”

 Michel Barnier maximum points, Godfrey Bloom absolutely none and a well deserved kick in the teeth.

Neelie Kroes hearing less than adequate

Labour Party

Commissioner-Designate Neelie Kroes is facing difficulties following her Hearing last Thursday.  Competition Commissioner throughout the last European Parliament mandate, Ms Kroes, a member of the Liberal Group from Holland, has been given the digital agenda portfolio by Commission President, Jose Manuel Barosso. 

Ms Kroes had a reputation as a strong Commissioner when she held the Competition brief.  I therefore expected her to breeze through her Hearing this time.  She is, after all, the woman who stood up to new technology giant Microsoft.  For many years, Microsoft tied its ‘Internet Explorer’ web browser to its ‘Windows’ computer operating system. Concerned that – given Microsoft’s dominance of the PC operating system market – this deprived consumers of choice and resulted in fewer innovative products, Ms Kroes set about opening up the market.

 The initiative proved successful and in October 2009, Microsoft offered commitments to remove this barrier to competition.  No mean achievement for the EU in general and Ms Kroes in particular.

 After such a feat you would have thought a Hearing before MEPs, albeit on a different portfolio, would have presented no problems at all.  But this was not the case.

 I went to the part of the Hearing which concerned the Culture and Education Committee dealing with cultural diversity and media pluralism.  I did, in fact, ask Ms Kroes how she would go about securing futher pluralism in the media and lessening the concentration of media outlets in the hands of certain individuals and corporations.  I have to say, she didn’t seem to understand the question and gave a less than adequate reply.

 Mine was not the only question mishandled.  Ms Kroes, in addition, did not appear interested in the UNESCO Convention on the protection and promotion of cultural diversity, which the EU is signed up to. 

 We have not, so far, rejected Ms Kroes, but she is to be re-interviewed tomorrow.  I will be bringing you an update as soon as I possibly can.

Bulgarian Commissioner-Designate Jeleva not right for the Job

Labour Party

The European Parliament may be about to ask Barroso to reconsider one of the Commissioners-Designate.  The Designate in question is the Bulgarian nominee, an EPP candidate from Bulgaria called Rumiana Jeleva.  Her portfolio was to be International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response.  Mrs. Jeleva went in front of the Development Committee yesterday and was asked a series of very difficult questions about her declaration of interests.  The accusation levelled at her was that in her previous work as a Member of the European Parliament she had failed to declare that she was registered as the manager of a trading company called Global Consult.  Mrs. Jeleva flatly denied these claims, stating “…I have declared everything… any accusations towards me… are unfounded.”  Although the accusations weren’t unfounded, they were perhaps not quite as bad as they first appeared.  It transpired that, though it was true that she was registered as manager for Global Consult, the company was entirely inactive during her time as an MEP. 

But it turned out that this was anyway rather a moot point because once the discussion of Mrs. Jeleva’s financial interests was put to rest, she then failed to give satisfactory answers when questioned about her new portfolio.  With a remit like International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response, you expect a detailed understanding of the situation in places like the Congo and Afghanistan, but all Ms. Jeleva could do when questioned on these areas was give vague answers, using phrases like “work with the local players” and “call for people to do better”.  The portfolio she has been given has such obvious potential for good, you really want someone you can trust will be able deploy the resources of the European Union in the most effective and beneficial way.  Unfortunately Romania Jeleva did not instil that trust in me, or many of my colleagues.

The European Parliament has an oversight role for just this reason.  We want to make sure that all Commissioners do their job well.  Now the question becomes; what do we do about Rumiana Jeleva?  The Parliament doesn’t have the right to reject one Designate, we would have to reject Barroso’s entire Commission.  Barroso could give Mrs. Jeleva another portfolio, but perhaps she should consider stepping aside and allowing Bulgaria to nominate another Commissioner.

Catherine Ashton maximum points, Charles Tannock none whatsoever

Labour Party

I have just finished listening to Baroness Ashton at her Commissioner Hearing before the Foreign Affairs, Development, Budgetary Control, Trade and Constitutional Affairs Committees.  I have to say she did extremely well.  Cathy dealt ably with questions on everything from what to do with Iran to relations with the United States, and how she will set up and organise the new EU diplomatic service.

 The only disappointment to me was the juvenile questions put by Conservative MEP Charles Tannock, whose views on Cathy I have already blogged about.  In such an important forum, I would have hoped that the Tories could put to one side their petty campaign against Cathy, a campaign waged simply because she is from the Labour Party.  While other MEPs asked questions of real foreign policy substance, Charles Tannock was able only to sling mud by asking about Cathy’s membership CND nearly 30 years ago. 

 I have previously blogged on the Parliament’s approval of the President of the Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, for a second term.  The 26 Commissioners-Designate (one from each Member State, with the exception of Portugal, President Barroso’s home country), each of whom will be in charge of a particular portfolio in the Commission, are now subject to approval of the Parliament.

 The Hearings, due to take place this week and next, are by no means a mere formality.  As briefly mentioned in my previous post, during the course of the 2004 Hearings the Civil Liberties Committee brought about the resignation of Rocco Buttiglione, the original choice as Italian Commissioner, after in-depth questioning about his views on homosexuality.  The Parliament’s role this time round has even more significance given the enhanced powers of the Parliament under the Lisbon Treaty.

 These Hearings are a real opportunity for the Parliament to exercise scrutiny over the Commissioners-Designate, and in my opinion should not be used for mere political point scoring.  Over the next few days, I will be attending and putting questions at several of the Hearings relevant to the Culture Committee.  I will also be regularly tweeting and blogging on the progress of the Hearings.  Each Commissioner will have an important and influential position and while Parliament takes its scrutinising role seriously, it is also important that we as MEPs communicate the progress of these hearings to keep you informed on the democratic appointment process taking place within the EU.

 So please keep checking my blog and tweets.  You never know, this year’s Hearings may provide more high level political drama!  It’s happened before and could happen again.

Same old Cameron, same old Tories

Labour Party

As I returned to Brussels with the worst of the snow seemingly clearing, the 11.04 Eurostar was, somewhat remarkably, on time leaving though slightly late arriving in Brussels.  It was, however, crowded; I suppose only to be expected in the circumstances.

There will be a lot more EU news this week as the European Parliament Committees are interviewing prospective Commissioners, a serious business which, as in the case of Rocco Buttiglione, has led to the withdrawal of a candidature.

As of now, I am still mulling over David Cameron’s interview with Andrew Marr yesterday.  Before going further, I have to admit, Mr Cameron on television bores me witless.  He drones on about really very little in his really well modulated tones to really negligible effect.  Speaking personally, I have no doubt that Gordon Brown would beat David Cameron hands down in a TV debate.

Cameron is also continuing his Euro nonsense.  Speaking to Andrew Marr, Cameron again told the British people he would renegotiate parts of the treaties Britain has already agreed with the EU.  As I have said many times before, this is rather more than a hollow promise – it’s a downright lie.  It will simply not be possible to renegotiate anything without the agreement of a majority of EU member states and that majority is simply not there.

In addition to his blatant misleading of the people of this country, Cameron reiterated his old chestnut that the Tories would withdraw from the European Social Chapter.  Even if this were possible, the fact that Cameron puts this forward as a flagship policy tells us a lot about him and his Conservative Party.  If it were to happen, withdrawal from the Social Chapter would mean fewer rights at work, less job security and higher levels of poverty.  Cameron is in some ways being quite clever by clothing his agenda in EU speak.  But make no mistake as to what he and his Conservatives are about – cuts in public spending are only one aspect of a programme designed to further the interests of the rich at the expense of the poor.

There are, and always have been, clear dividing lines between Labour and the Conservatives.  I joined the Labour Party over 30 years ago to campaign for the many, not the few, to make Britain a fairer and more equal place, to encourage aspiration while at the same time allowing everyone to lead fulfilling lives.  This is absolutely not what the Tories are about.  They haven’t changed since Margaret Thatcher, and please don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.