A New Deal for Students in the EU

Labour Party

There was an important development this week in the European Parliament.  An agreement on a new proposal for education was passed by the Culture and Education (CULT) Committee after negotiations between the European Parliament and Council. 

The new €14 billion Erasmus+ education programme for 2014-2020 will enable over 5 million young people to go to other countries to study, train and join in voluntary activities including sport. In future, it will fund scholarships for non-university students, and back loan guarantees schemes for master’s degree ones. It should also ensure that grants are paid faster.

It is a more streamlined grouping of hitherto separate programmes, which nonetheless retains the characteristics of each. The parliament have obtained many very useful results in the negotiations and I hope that this programme will be as successful as in the past.

Erasmus+ aims to help young people of 13 to 30 years old to get mobile in order to learn, study and acquire professional skills and aptitudes in a country other than their country of origin. In the field of education, training and youth, it will bring together Comenius, Erasmus, Erasmus Mundus, Leonardo da Vinci (vocational training), Grundtvig and Youth in Action. It also introduces sport, for the first time in a European programme. The existing brand names will be kept, as they are well known to the public.

Erasmus+ funding will also be available for cross-border mobility of young people and volunteers in the field of sport, and in particular for activities that help to combat violence, discrimination or doping. Non-profit sporting events that involve several countries could also get EU funding.

One of the most exciting developments in the new proposal is that, through Erasmus+, the EU will guarantee loans of up to €12,000 (for one year) or €18,000 (for two years) to students who wish to pursue Masters degree in another country. This new system will not replace grant or loan systems that already exist in member states, but will be on top of all existing systems.

The text says that grants should reflect the cost of living in the host country and that member states should exempt them from any taxes or social levies. Unified management of the programme would also help to speed up the payment of grants to beneficiaries.

I want to congratulate my colleagues who worked so hard on negotiating this agreement and getting it through the Committee. In particular Doris Pack, who is the chair of the CULT committee and rapporteur, and Katarína Neveďalová, my S&D colleague who worked closely with Doris.  The proposal is brilliant and I expect it to be passed by the entire parliament very soon.

Busting a new ‘Euromyth’ – the EU is NOT demanding its logo at sporting events

Labour Party

The European Parliament has just voted through a report called ‘The European Dimension in Sport’, which may be featuring in the rightwing press in the coming days.

When the report went through the Culture and Education Committee in November of last year, the Daily Mail ran two stories which you can read here and here.

The problem seemed to be that the report made a suggestion that the flag of the European Union be worn on the kits of sports men and women and flown at major international sporting events held within the EU.

Now the report has gone through the parliament I expect to see some more stories denouncing Brussels as being interfering and trying to force the EU down everyone’s throat.  I thought I’d take this opportunity to pre-emptively rubbish these new ‘Euromyths’.

The first point to make is that the report is not legislative.  It’s called an ‘Own Initiative Report’ and is basically just a long list of suggestions.  It is only since the Lisbon Treaty came in to force that sport policy has been an EU competence.  These initial stages are basically about deciding what direction the EU is going to with its new authority, but as it stands, sport doesn’t even have a budget.

The second important point is one that even the Daily Mail acknowledges; the recommendation would be purely voluntary.  Here is what the paragraph actually says:

100.     Suggests that the European flag should be flown at major international sports events held on the EU territory and suggests to sports federations to consider the idea of having it displayed on the clothing of athletes from Member States, alongside the national flags; underlines that it should be entirely voluntary and up to Member States and sports organisations to decide whether they will use the aforementioned option;

Now I happen to think this is a rather silly suggestion.  There are number of reasons why displaying or wearing an EU flag at sporting events is not a great idea.  Most sports men and women identify with their home country and wear their flag proudly.  There are no European Union sports teams.  The closest we’ve got is the European team in the Ryder cup, but golf fans from Norway or Switzerland might object to seeing them wear an EU flag.  It’s a not very well thought out idea and that is why I and the rest of the European Parliamentary Labour Party (EPLP) voted against that paragraph in today’s vote.

Unfortunately the paragraph had the overwhelming support of almost everyone else, so it remains in the report.  The EPLP voted for the report as a whole because, apart from that one paragraph, we believed it to be a good document.  I believe that the EU can play a crucial role in tackling things like match fixing and corrupt players’ agents.  I didn’t think it was right to vote against a whole report full of good suggestions just because of one duff one.

But if you do hear anyone suggesting that the EU is trying to force their flag on the kit of your favourite football team, you might want to suggest they don’t believe everything they read in the Daily Mail.

Update on my work on Culture and Education Committee

Labour Party

Last  Friday I had one of my regular meetings with the British Culture Trade Unions to discuss developments in Europe.  Sadly it will be the last time I meet with Andy Egan from BECTU the broadcasting union. Andy is retiring and I wish him all the very best for the future. His knowledge and experience have been a great help to me in my work.

 Here is the written report I provided to the Culture Trade Unions,  I think it is a useful summary for anybody interested in the work of the Culture and Education Committee in the European Parliament. Regular readers may be familiar with some of these subjects already!

The Culture and Education Committee in 2011

It has been a very busy year in the committee. Among other things we have had debates on the budget, with a clear signal being sent to the commission that education and culture should be top priorities in the upcoming Multi-annual Financial Framework.  A lot of the focus this year has been on Cultural and Creative industries, with a lot of progress being made in terms of its importance being understood as an important part of our economy.  The Culture Committee is also backing plans to help small independent cinemas make the change over to the digital format.  At the moment it costs a great deal of money to get the new equipment installed, so the commission will be offering grants to help smaller cinemas keep up with the change in technology.

Early School Leaving

My report on Early School Leaving is currently going through the committee.  Early school leaving (ESL) is one of the main challenges faced by Europe:  In 2009, more than six million young people left education and training with only lower secondary education or less, and around 17% of them completed only primary education. Also practically every second “early school leaver” was unemployed or outside the labour market.  In 2003, EU Member States agreed to reduce the EU average rate for early school leaving to less than 10% by 2010. Until now, only 7 Member States have achieved this benchmark.  In June 2010, the European Council reintroduced this target and decided that reducing the share of early school leavers to less than 10% by 2020 would be one of the headline targets of the Europe 2020 strategy. In addition, the Member States agreed to set specific national targets.  In my report I present a more human, less market driven perspective on the problem, looking at the cost to people lives that leaving school without proper qualifications can have, how best to ensure it doesn’t happen, and how to people when it does.

The European Dimension in Sport

Since the Lisbon Treaty came in to force the European Union has had competence in sport policy.  Though, as with education, the main responsibility rests with the Member State, we are now looking for ways that we in the parliament can develop a sports program across the EU.  The commission finally released its communication on sport called the European Dimension in Sport and we in the parliament have read it with interest.  There are a number of very good proposals in the document relating to combating corruption and doping, but also helping to address the gender disparity professional sports.  The only unfortunate thing is that the European Union cannot afford a fully fledged budget at the moment for a proper sports program.  I would like to see more investment and development at the grassroots level as I believe that this is the most important area in any discussion about sports.  Almost a year ago, a number of colleagues and I got a written declaration signed by well over half the parliament urging the commission to increase investment in grassroots sport.  Grassroots sport brings communities together and helps with levels of fitness and general happiness.  I recently saw a very interesting piece of research that stated that for every pound or euro that governments invest into health and fitness initiatives, they save thirteen.  With that sort of return I hope that grassroots sport becomes an important issue in the UK and across the whole of the EU.

Future Work of the Committee

The next six months are likely to be dominated by issues surrounding online copyright and intellectual property.  The internet has changed the way we think about music and film distribution, not to mention journalism.  At the moment the laws surrounding these areas are from a time when the internet was used by a small number of people, now that it’s a global phenomenon, the laws need to change.  The issue of piracy will undoubtably cause the most controversy, but I hope the debates and subsequent legislation will also help facilitate Europe embracing the digital age and all the many benefits that comes with it.

We wil also be looking at the progress of the Bologna process in the Autum.  The Bologna process is crucial to ensuring that qualifications gained at universities throughout the EU are given proper recgonition in other Member States.

Women’s fertility rights to be set back 20 years if Nadine Dorries’ proposals go ahead.

Labour Party

After a lovely, if slightly grey, summer break in the UK I am now back to work. First on the agenda is a visit for the entire Culture Committee to the Olympic and Cultural Olympiad sites which will give us British MEPS the chance to show off the cultural delights of London. In addition, I myself will get the opportunity to see how work is progressing towards the Olympics for 2012 – all very exciting.

However, what would otherwise have been a very enjoyable week has been overshadowed by the incredibly worrying news that ministers are set to back Nadine Dorries’ plans to force women seeking a termination to undergo compulsary counselling provided by organisations that do not themselves provide abortion. This will mean that women will experience greater delays in accessing abortions which may lead some to have to undergo more complicated procedures. What is even more concerning however is that this is a policy expressly designed to curtail the number of abortions that happen in the UK and which has been lobbyed for by pro-life religious organisations who will no doubt be on hand to offer counselling services themselves if the policy is implemented. This can leave us in little doubt as to the nature of the counselling that women may now be forced to undergo.

I have outlined my concerns in a letter to the Guardian published today and can only hope that our government sees sense before it is too late and women in the UK lose some of the rights that they have had to fight so hard for over the years – the right to access abortions and the right to free and unbiased medical advice.

Speech to the UK Higher Education Europe Unit

Labour Party

I had the great pleasure of hosting an event for the UK Higher Education Europe Unit last week.  We had many representatives from UK universities over to Brussels to discuss how best their interests can be represented on the European stage.  I was particularly pleased with the section of the meeting where Doris Pack, Chair of the Culture and Education Committee, and I, were asked some very interesting and challenging questions by the group. 

The video below is the speech I gave to the group. 

In defence of the EU Budget

Labour Party

It doesn’t seem quite right to call something an ‘Austerity Budget’ when it actually increases public spending.  Yet the European Parliament has done exactly that.  It’s no wonder we get bad press on occasion.

Having said that, the draft budget 2012 tries to be in tune with the current austerity climate at the national level. Following all the criticism of the EU budget in the British press, you may be forgiven for not noticing that the European Commission in particular has made an effort to cut back on spending, opting for a freeze of its administrative expenditure for 2012. This has been achieved by significantly reducing expenditure linked to buildings, information and communication technology, studies, publications, missions, conferences and meetings. Furthermore, for the third year in a row, the Commission does not request any additional new posts.

Janusz Lewandowski for the European Commission recently made some pertinent points, including referencing the electric interconnection betweenBritainandIreland, as follows:

Some ask why we would increase the EU budget when Member States face severe austerity measures at home; this is a legitimate question. The main reason for the increase is that we must pay the bills coming from projects from across Europe. Such projects that benefit local communities and businesses would probably never have been launched … without the commitment of EU funding; to stop funding them is unthinkable. We cannot punish our citizens, companies, local and regional authorities who have a right to get their bills paid. Think for instance of the electric interconnection between the United Kingdom and Ireland. The overall EU contribution to this project is over €100 million. Its aim is to give Irish and British citizens greater security of power supply. In 2012, the bills the EU will have to pay for this project will amount to some €24million, more than twice as much as in 2011.”

Today the Culture and Education Committee discussed the Budget as it has been handed down to our particular Committee. Turning the globally agreed figures into programmes specific to a particular Committee is always an interesting exercise. This is when the raw figures actually begin to mean something.

Prioritising is the name of the game when times are hard. We have decided that lifelong learning and sport are our two most important activities for this year. The Lisbon Treaty has given the European Parliament new competencies in sport, especially in sports governance and cross-border transactions. This means the Committee has to carry out additional work. Meanwhile education and lifelong learning are keys areas, benefitting all of us and should therefore continue to be a budget priority.

Meeting with BECTU and the Federation of Entertainment Unions European Working Group

Labour Party

This is an edited version of the report I presented to BECTU and the Federation of Entertainment Unions European Working Group this week.  I have taken out elements that have been covered in the blog recently, such as a section on International Women’s Day, but thought that people interested in the Cultural and Creative Industries may be interested to read it.  Here it is:

The Culture and Education Committee in 2011

One of the big issues that we have been looking at in the first two months of 2011 is the new communication on sport. Since the Lisbon Treaty the EU has new competences in regard to sport and this communication is the beginning of a new European sport policy. It deals with, amongst other things, laws regarding player transfers. Unfortunately, due to the financial crisis, there wasn’t room in the budget for sport to get any money. The EU could be such a positive influence in terms of funding for grassroots sports initiatives but we will have wait until 2013 before we get a budget. Towards the end of last year we had a representation from Wim Wenders and a number of other people involved in cinema. There was a very interesting discussion on the importance of cinema in European culture and there was much discussion of how it should be taught in schools.

Early Years Learning

I have finished writing my report on Early Years Learning in the EU. It has been a very interesting process and I am very much looking forward to the amendments that my colleagues on the Culture and Education committee will put forward. It was very well received in the committee and the discussion was very edifying. The commission will be putting forward their own suggestions in this area soon in the form of a communication. Further more, the Hungarian presidency have taken a huge interest in this issue and I was invited to speak at a conference in Budapest recently on just this subject. I talked about the need to ensure adequate funding for Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) since all the academic theories and exchanges of good practice will not get us anywhere unless there is enough money to improve and expand ECEC services. It is my firm view that ECEC should be universal, and we have a long way to go in Britain to achieve that.

Unlocking the Potential of the Cultural and Creative Industries

The commission has released a green paper recently about the cultural and creative industries which the Culture and Education committee has written a report about. The commission has recognised that in the recent decades the world has been moving at a fast pace. For Europe and other parts of the world, the rapid roll-out of new technologies and increased globalisation has meant a striking shift away from traditional manufacturing towards services and innovation. Factory floors are progressively being replaced by creative communities whose raw material is their ability to imagine, create and innovate. This is a good time for the European Commission’s Green Paper, officially endorsing the economic and social importance of the sector, to prompt discussion on ‘unlocking the potential of the cultural and creative industries’. The growth of cultural and creative industries in the European Union since the 1990s has been exponential in terms of job creation and their contribution to GDP. In London now the creative industries have overtaken banking as the single biggest employer. We will be voting on the 17th March and I think this report will be a useful tool in getting the Cultural and Creative industries the recognition they deserve.

Future Work of the Committee

In the coming months a lot of out agenda will be defined by the commissions recent communication Youth on the Move. From that document we can expect a number of directives that will seek to improve the chances of young people getting a decent education and good job prospects. Apart from that we will also be looking at a report on the future of European cinema in the digital age. The commission has recognised that for small independent cinemas, the conversion over to the digital format is prohibitively expensive and they could be left behind with the advent of 3D and the decline of standard film distribution. Given that these independent cinemas are more likely to show European, independent films, this would be a serious loss for culture and society. Therefore the commission is planning on providing grants for our independent cinemas that wish to make the transfer over to the digital format.

The Hungarian Presidency addresses the Culture and Education Committee

Labour Party

MEPs have during this week listened to the Hungarian Presidency outlining their priorities for the next six months. Yesterday I blogged on the presentation to the Women’s Committee and today I want to look at Culture, Education and Sport.  The practice whereby the presidency in office talks to European Parliament Committees is, I believe, useful providing as it does an opportunity for Committee members to question the national ministers and get a clearer idea of where the Council wants to go.

We were fortunate to have four Hungarian Ministers come to the Culture and Education Committee earlier in the week Attila Czene, Sport;  Rozsa Hoffman, Education; Geza Szocs, Culture and Miklos Soltesz, Social Policy.

The Presidency is organising a number of conferences and events on each of these topics, including one on early years education and care at the end of February at which I am speaking on my report. Early years is one of the Hungarian Presidency’s top priorities which I think is very good news as it’s been neglected for far too long.

At the other end of the age range, I was pleased to see that the Hungarians are promoting sport for senior citizens. Sport Minister Attila Czene is a former Olympic swimming champion so I expect to see more strong sport initiatives.

Moving on to culture, Mr Szocs talked about the Presidency’s support for the European Heritage Label legislation and for our S&D rapporteur Chrysoulou Paliadeli. He also told us how Hungary will continue the work to protect minors online. However, we did not get anything further from him on the new media legislation and the perception that Hungary is stamping out media pluralism.

Last but by no means least we heard from the Minister for Social Policy, Miklos Soltesz. As you nay expect her was particularly interested in the European Year of Volunteering and hoped that active participation in society may help to bring down youth unemployment.

I would like to thank the Hungarian Ministers for their presentations. They were all well-informed and took the concerns raised by the Committee seriously. However, I fear the media question will dominate unless the concerns of the European Parliament are taken on board by the Hungarian Parliament. I can only hope this will happen so we will be able to work together n a reasonable and constructive way.

Sport for all across Europe

Labour Party

Yesterday Culture Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou presented excellent new proposals to promote sport across the European Union. The main aim is to encourage sport at grassroots level, and athletes, sport organisations and the general public are expected to benefit from the plans.

Commissioner Vassiliou told a special press conference, “Sport is important for Europe’s economy….. The measures we have adopted today highlight sport’s contribution to our society and will help improve the way sport is run.”

The Commission’s paper “Developing the European Dimension in Sport”, covers three main areas: the role of sport in everyday life, its economic dimension, and the organisation of sport.

The main proposals will:

  • Consider EU accession to the Anti-Doping Convention of the Council of Europe
  • Develop European guidelines on combined sports training and general education
  • Develop and implement security arrangements and safety requirements for international sport events
  • Continue progress toward national guidelines
  • Develop standards for accessibility of sport organisations, activities, events and venues
  • Promote women’s access to leadership positions in sport.
  • Support sporting associations to establish mechanisms for the collective selling of media rights to ensure adequate redistribution of revenues;
  • Find ways of exchanging good practices for transparent and sustainable sport financing          
  • Look at how sport can be better funded from the Structural Funds
  • Work towards comparable statistical data on sport for all Member States
  • Promote good governance in sport while taking into account its specific nature
  • Launch a study on transfer rules and provide guidance on that basis
  • Issue guidance on how to reconcile EU rules on the free movement of citizens with the organisation of competitions in individual sports on a national basis
  • Consider further action regarding the activities of sports agents
  • Support social partners and sport organisations to create an EU-level social dialogue for the sport and leisure sector

 I am very much looking forward to debating the Commission’s plans in the Culture and Education Committee. This is a strong initiative on sport and will benefit very many people across Europe. Since the proposals cover grassroots sport while also looking at ways at ending some of the problematic behaviour associated with some games at the professional level, the Commission document is both timely and comprehensive.  The Culture Committee will, I am sure, look at all aspects of sport with a view to improving on the current situation.

Concern over State Control of the Media in Hungary

Labour Party

The newish right-wing government in Hungary is proving a real headache. Clearly not content with gaining two thirds of the vote (enough to guarantee constitutional change) in last April’s general election, the ruling Hungarian Civic Alliance or Fidesz Party now appears to be severely overreaching itself.

Like eastern European governments before, the current Hungarian administration under Viktor Orban is casting a distrustful eye over the country’s media and as a result the Hungarian Parliament has recently passed new media legislation.

However, this legislation appears far from benign. MEPs and other European organisations such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe have made representations along the following lines:

The new legislation undermines media pluralism in that the Hungarian Media Authority and Media Council, which are essentially part of the state apparatus, can sanction the content of all media

The Media Authority and Media Council are politically homogenous, led exclusively by members supported by the current governing party and the members were elected for a term of nine years

The legislation abolishes the political and financial independence of public service media as all heads of public service media were recently replaced by new directors all of whom were nominated by the governing party

These media laws can only be modified by a two-thirds majority on the Hungarian Parliament. In other words the media legislation could be on the statute books for a very long time.

The EU, which has competence over aspects of media policy through the Culture and Education Committee and Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes is rightly concerned about what is going on in relation to the media in Hungary. 

A joint meeting of the Culture and Education and Civil Liberties Committees yesterday debated Hungary’s new media law after hearing presentations from Mrs. Kroes and Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Justice Tibor Navracsics, who was questioned closely on the aspects of the legislation which require all media to register as such and provide “balanced” coverage of national and EU events.

Mrs. Kroes rightly chose a conciliatory approach saying, “We are looking very carefully at the provisions and will make a legal assessment of the law. We have been in contact with the Hungarian government in order to raise specific concerns”.  She added that the Commission is assessing the new law’s compatibility with the EU Audiovisual and Media Services (AVMS) Directive, and that preliminary examination had already indicated some problems, such as its apparent application to media firms established in other EU countries, the rules on media registration, unclear definitions and political control over the media authority.

Following a press conference this morning led by S&D Group President Martin Schulz, the Socialist and Democrat Group in the European Parliament has decided to wait for the Commission’s legal assessment before taking any further substantive action.

Although I believe both the Commission and the S&D Group are doing the right thing, there are clearly serious concerns about the way the Hungarian Government appears to be going after the media and seeking to diminish press and media freedom. If there is a case to answer the European Union must not shirk its responsibilities.