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

Labour Party

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.

The end of the EFD could severely diminish UKIP’s profile

Labour Party

Interesting news as we gather for the start of the new European Parliament mandate.  The Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD) group, of which UKIP are the biggest party, could be finished.

Being the leader of a political group has been important to UKIP over the last five years as it has given them access more funding from the European Parliament and allowed Nigel Farage a good deal of speaking time in the plenary chamber. UKIP is now facing a real challenge in getting enough MEPs to form a political group in the European Parliament. To do this they need to hold on to MEPs who may already support them and attracting new one.

The rules in the European Parliament state that you need at least 25 MEPs from 7 different member states to form a group. As it stands the EFD have enough MEPs but from only four member states. What’s more, the Tories with their European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group voted to last week to accept applications from a handful of  new parties, including the controversial Danish People’s Party and The Finns, both of which sat in the EFD last term.

What’s more, Marine Le Pen is currently assembling a new far-right coalition that will include Lega Norda, also previously in the EFD. Farage has ruled out forming a coaltion with with Le Pen’s Front National, citing the parties anti-semetic past. Perhaps the bigger consideration for him though would be losing his position at the top of the group to Le Pen.

So we could be seeing less of Farage insulting national and European leaders. Since so many MEPs and their national delegateions seem not to want to do business with UKIP,  Farage could also find his support in the European Parliament greatly dimished.

Party of European Socialists Manifesto for the European Elections

Labour Party

The Party of European Socialists recently adopted its manifesto for the European elections to be held in just over two months’ time on 22 May.

Unlike the other pan-European parties fighting the European elections, the Party of European Socialists has a common manifesto with all the national Labour and social democrat parties across Europe, though there will be some room for member state discretion.

The PES will also return MEPs from every EU member state unlike the ECR (European Conservatives and Reformist) Group whose mainstay is the British Tories.

I am posting the PES Manifesto on this blog in three parts.

PES Manifesto
Adopted by the PES Election Congress in Rome on 1 March 2014
Towards a New Europe

We strongly believe that the European Union must change. This May, in the European Parliament elections, your vote will give us the opportunity to deliver the EU that you deserve. A Europe that progresses, a Europe that protects, a Europe that performs. Our political family of parties across 28 countries will dedicate themselves to fighting for a secure future for you. The right wing has created a Europe of fear and austerity. During 5 years of an EU conservative majority, we have fought for a strong, socially just and democratic Europe. But now it is time to lead from the front. To do that we need your support, your help, your vote.

Our programme for the next five years of the European Union will bring back job creation, a productive economy, a sense of community and respect for people. We want to put you as a citizen and as a voter back in charge and bring back hope to Europe’s youth.

This May for the first time you will have a say in who runs Europe. Your vote will decide who the next President of the European Commission is. To change the right-wing majority in the European Union, the only vote that counts is a vote for European Socialists, Social-Democrats, Labour, Democrats and progressives.

I. A Union that progresses

1. It is time to put jobs first

This is our first and main priority: Europeans, women and men, must have a decent job that allows a good quality of life. Yet here is the legacy of the economic policies of the last five years, in stark figures: nearly 27 million Europeans who want to work cannot find a job, including nearly a quarter of our young people. 120 million in Europe are at or under the poverty threshold. Creating jobs for young people is a challenge which will define us, for this generation and the next, and will remain a key priority for us as part of our long-term commitment to full employment. Central to our job strategy is the full implementation of our Youth Guarantee plan. To make it successful, we will substantially increase its budget and extend it to everyone under the age of 30. To create jobs, we will introduce an ambitious European industrial policy and will support our Social Economy and our Small and Medium Enterprises. We will promote innovative green technologies and improve the performance of our economies. We want to put an end to social dumping, by ending the practice of exploiting workers and precarious contracts that harm many Europeans. We want to promote social justice. We will insist on strong rules to guarantee equal pay for equal work, the protection of workers’ rights and quality jobs; on reinforcing trade unions’ rights, social dialogue and anti-discrimination legislation; improving the protection of workers posted in a different country by revising the Posting of Workers Directive; and promoting better cooperation at European level on labour inspections. We will introduce decent minimum wages across Europe, established either by law or through collective bargaining. The jobs we create must allow all our citizens to participate in the economy as proud equals. All trade agreements, including the one currently under negotiation with the United States, must be bound to the protection of people´s human and social rights, decent work, environmental standards, culture as well as corporate social responsibility and fair trade.

From the Archive: Nigel Farage accused of being Stalinist and anti-women

Labour Party

This blog comes from February of this year at a time when Marta Andreasen MEP was thinking about quitting UKIP.  Well for any of you who don’t know, she did quit in the end and is now a member of the Conservative party and is part of the European Conservative and Reformist group.  Seemingly the bullying, sexism and general chauvanism that characterises the UKIP delegation in the European Parliament became too much for her.  I think I probably disagree with Marta on a good many things, but on this I can feel nothing but sympathy for her; having to work with the likes of Farage, Bloom, and Batten can’t have been easy.

Nigel Farage accused of being Stalinist and anti-women

Political aficionadas, not to mention geeks, may remember when UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom told the world way back in 2004 that a woman’s place was cleaning behind the fridge.

Incredibly, UKIP misogyny has just got much worse. Marta Andreasen, their only woman MEP, has launched a searing attack on Nigel Farage. “He (Farage) doesn’t try to involve intelligent professional women in positions of responsibility in the party. He thinks women should be in the kitchen or in the bedroom.” she told the BBC.

Marta Andreasen, who represents South East England in the European Parliament, has said she is unlikely to stand as a UKIP candidate next year. Andreasen, who worked for the European Commission before joining UKIP and being elected in 2009, told the BBC that “if things don’t change” within the party “she can’t imagine a way to continue”.

Andreasen continued by telling the BBC that she had been openly criticised by her party leader and other MEPs, suggesting that this amounted to bullying. “I’ve been bullied, in private situations, for decisions I have made by Nigel. I have been accused of being disloyal, breaching confidence and breaching my contract with the party. There’s an attitude that either you keep silent about everything that’s been going on in the party or suffer the consequences.” Ms Andreasen said she believed Mr Farage – who was re-elected as leader in 2010 after standing down a year earlier to contest a Westminster seat – “did not like women”.

Farage’s views on women are not, apparently, the only problem. Ms Andreasen told LondonlovesBusiness.com: “Under his (Farage’s) leadership – and I have questioned his leadership obviously a number of times – the party (UKIP) has become a dictatorship. This is a Stalinist way of operating and he doesn’t care about the membership or the grassroots.”

Andeasen says she plans to stay in the European Parliament as a UKIP representative until the end of the current Parliament in 2014, to see out her mandate and “look for ways I can continue to represent the membership”. She may consider standing as an independent next year.

It’s worth remembering former UKIP MEP Nikki Sinclaire, a lesbian, who won a sex discrimination case against her former colleagues on a default judgement at Exeter Employment Tribunal after UKIP failed to lodge a defence. Sinclaire claimed UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom had called her “queer”.

ECR Vice-Chair Claims UKIP is Full of “hooligans” and “bar fighters”

Labour Party

This very revealing story comes to this blog via Public Service Europe, who have posted the following on their site:

UKIP is full of “hooligans” and “bar fighters”, alleged a vice president of one of the European Parliament’s political groups on Tuesday. Some of UKIP’s Eurosceptic MEPs “are against everything in the European Union apart from the money and the allowances they get themselves,” according to Derk-Jan Eppink MEP, vice-president of the European Conservatives and Reformists – the group founded when David Cameron’s  Conservative Party MEPs leave the mainstream European People’s Party (EPP).

Talking at a conference organised by the Association of European Journalists, Eppink, a former journalist and one-time European Commission cabinet member, gave UKIP’s Brussels contingent both barrels. It was important for people to know “what they are like”, he claimed. “If they get drunk they get very dangerous,” was one of the allegations he put to a gathering at the Brussels Press Club. “They present themselves as white knights but they are not.” If UKIP MEPs did any work, it was usually “appalling”, he alleged.

British Eurosceptics often did not bother to turn up at committees or parliament plenary sessions. Centre-right parties have on occasion been “one or two votes short of stopping the left” in key votes that were lost because UKIP MEPs were “not there”, it was said. And UKIP was a party of “vox-pop politicians” with “no grassroots support”, Eppink claimed when continuing his diatribe. Eurosceptics took European funding and “funnelled it into their party”, he added, and UKIP’s parliamentary members often flitted between parties or found themselves “investigated”,  he suggested.

Debating Europe with UKIP supporters often turned into an “aggressive” exchange involving “abusive language”, said Eppink. “They are sort of hooligans,” he told the gathering “apart from Nigel Farage” – the UKIP leader. And UKIP supporters and British Eurosceptics in general were “hard to convince with facts and figures”, said Eppink, a Dutchman who has crossed over into Belgian politics. “A positive agenda is very hard to sell,” he said – a problem he predicted would face British Prime Minister David Cameron if and when he campaigns for the UK to remain in the EU ahead of a referendum.

Eppink’s venting of the spleen seemed to have been fuelled in part by what he described as “a very unpleasant dinner” in the UK that descended into a shouting match with a British academic. “I discovered afterwards that he was linked to UKIP,” Eppink said. He often travelled to Britain at the invitation of British Tory MEPs in the ECR group, he said, visiting towns such as Nottingham “where I would never go as a tourist”.

The Tories in the ECR group were almost all in favour of remaining in the 27-member bloc, he claimed; citing both personal contacts and Twitter feeds as evidence. Only Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan was likely to vote for the UK to withdraw, he predicted. Cameron’s Europe speech earlier this month was, in Eppink’s opinion, an attempt to regain ground lost to UKIP.

EU trade relations with Israel

Labour Party

Since I have received a volume of correspondence on the Conformity Assessment and Acceptance of Industrial Products (CAA), specifically on the proposed upgrade to trade relations with Israel, I thought it would be helpful to set out Labour MEPs’ views on this blog.

The Conformity Assessment and Acceptance of Industrial Products (CAA) is a proposed Protocol to the existing Euro-Mediterranean Agreement and not a separate Agreement in itself, although it has also been referred to as ACAA.

The proposed Protocol is intended to eliminate technical barriers to trade in industrial products between the European Union and the State of Israel. It largely applies to pharmaceutical products, and is intended to align certain assessment standards in order to facilitate trade. In effect this means some of the benefits of the EU internal market would be extended to Israel, and would offer Israeli pharmaceutical companies easier access to the EU market.

Negotiations on the Protocol between the European Commission and Israel began in 2008 and concluded in 2009. The European Parliament was then required in 2010 to give its consent before the Protocol could be adopted. The International Trade committee of the Parliament decided to ‘freeze’ the decision-making process, and the item was not discussed again until 2011 when the procedure was re-started after the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) – the parliamentary grouping which includes the UK Liberal Democrats – changed their position on the dossier.

Many parliamentary groupings in the European Parliament including ALDE and the European Conservatives and Reformists, which includes the UK Conservatives, consider CAA a technical upgrade. The European Parliamentary Labour Party (EPLP), and the Socialists and Democrat group (S&D) of which we are a member, do not believe it is a technical agreement but rather a clear upgrade of trade relations with Israel which should not be approved.

The EPLP believes all EU external policy, including trade, must be coherent with our human rights policies. Any upgrade of trade relations with Israel in the context of the Gaza blockade and the illegal settlements is unacceptable and incompatible with recent European Parliament declarations denouncing the abuse of human rights in the occupied territories. Furthermore, the EU – Israel Association Agreement requires relations between the EU and Israel to be based on the respect for human rights, and any upgrade to this Agreement would be inappropriate at this time.

The rapporteur (MEP responsible for the dossier) has proposed a two year delay on the Parliament vote in order to allow more time for compliance with international law by Israel. David Martin MEP, EPLP spokesperson for international trade, has raised our concerns over this Protocol several times during discussions in the trade committee, and supports the delay in the vote. You may be interested to see his intervention: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/ep-live/en/committees/video?event=20120327-1500-COMMITTEE-INTA&category=COMMITTEE&format=wmv

In July the European Parliament formally asked the European Commission for reassurances that goods from the Occupied Territories would not enter the EU under this preferential scheme. David Martin again spoke on behalf of the EPLP to reiterate that although these assurances would be welcome, he is still opposed to the entire Agreement for political reasons. You may be interested in the debate and his intervention here: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/ep-live/en/plenary/video?debate=1341334304140

Socialist and Democrat MEPs voted in favour of the two year delay in a recent vote in the International Trade committee. However the Protocol was unfortunately adopted by a majority of the liberal and conservative groups. The CAA will now be voted on by the whole European Parliament in its upcoming plenary session in Strasbourg next week.

Labour MEPs will continue to raise our objections to this Protocol and I will, of course, vote in line with my EPLP colleagues.

Hungarian Premier Orban Polarises the European Parliament

Labour Party

The European Parliament has just wrapped up a debate on the political situation in Hungary following the European Commission’s commencement of infringement proceedings a few days ago against Hungary’s right-wing Fidesz government. 

The Commission is taking action against three specific violations by Viktor Orban’s administration:

  • Risking the independence of the Hungarian Central Bank
  • Lowering the age at which judges and prosecutors retire
  • Undermining the independence of the data protection ombudsman in Hungary

This action by the European Commission could ultimately lead to loss of Hungary’s voting rights in the EU under Article 7 of EU treaty law. According to the Daily Telegraph, Lars Christensen from Danske Bank has said: “The EU is not bluffing. It will let Hungary go over the edge to make the point the EU countries must play by the rules.”

This is not, however, quite how Mr Orban sees it. Having been invited to speak in the European Parliament debate today – an unusual step which I think demonstrates a high level of fairness on the part of the Parliament – Orban was typically gung ho. An ardent anti-communist, he made sure we all knew that Hungary was the last iron-curtain country to get rid of its Stalinist constitution. The point being that it was Orban who did the deed.

Orban further maintained that the repressive measures brought in by his government were needed to sort out the economic mess he inherited, while claiming the country had also been on the verge of social collapse.

Following Orban, the European Parliament split on Party lines. The Socialist and Democrat, Liberal and Green Groups were passionately against Orban, seeing his government as anti-democratic, restricting fundamental freedoms. It was even suggested that the Parliament send a delegation to Hungary to find out why the homeless, the poor and vulnerable, and those in need of social care, not to mention intellectuals and free thinkers, were so afraid of Orban and his government.

The other side of the House, the European People’s Party (EPP), the European Conservatives and Reformists (the Tories’ group) and the ultra-right Europe for Freedom and Democracy took a diametrically opposite view. The EPP Leader Joseph Daul could hardly have more pro-Orban.

Such a very real political division is rare in the European Parliament. The Parties generally seek consensus, while EU matters quite often raise little controversy. A strong political debate therefore came as a breath of fresh air, one which should happen more often. A Parliament is a political institution and must have the oxygen of political disagreement and debate to be credible and effective.

The Tories and UKIP vote against Children

Labour Party

You would have though that investment in pre-school education and care would be pretty uncontroversial. However, the Tories and UKIP have other ideas, voting against or abstaining on my report looking at how countries across the EU can try to give their children the best possible start in life. 

Just to illustrate how backward looking and out-of-touch the European Conservatives and Reformist Group, which comprises a majority of British Conservatives, and UKIP really are, my report on early years education and care received 506 votes in favour, 27 against and 55 abstentions when it went through the European Parliament today. The abstentions were from the ECR Group while UKIP voted against.

My guess is that the Tories and UKIP do not know about the body of research showing that those who have received a high standard of care and attention plus some education in their earliest years prior to statutory education achieve better at school, are healthier and are more likely to be employed than those who were not so fortunate. Or perhaps they have just chosen to ignore the findings.

Early years learning, which can encompass anything from formal pre-school education through to advice to parents about how to help their children understand the world around them, is crucial in laying the groundwork for success in school and beyond.

As far as the EU is concerned, Europe is made up of a rich and diverse mix of educational traditions, with early education provided in a host of different ways across the continent. And it is important that these services are available for all, in a way that does not stigmatise children by focussing just on people from disadvantaged social or economic backgrounds.

All the more reason to be concerned about the impact of the UK’s Tory-led coalition government’s austerity dogma on children’s services and Labour’s Sure Start legacy. Figures from earlier this year suggested that 250 Sure Start centres could close as a result of funding cuts, while 2,000 will have to provide a reduced service.

 Staff at 1,000 centres have been warned about the threat of redundancy, according to the survey of almost 1,000 centre managers across England.  It has been claimed that the closures and reduced services as a result of government cuts could see 60,000 families lose their local centre.

It is heartbreaking that there is a real danger that the Labour Government’s efforts will have been undermined by short sighted Tory-led coalition cuts that are neglecting children’s long-term needs. But it’s also very clear from our European Parliament experience that the Tories just don’t care.

Tories do not condemn Violence against Women

Labour Party

The Tories in the European Parliament yet again showed that they do not view violence against women in the same way as all reasonable people.

In the European Parliament yesterday we voted on a report on violence against women. The European Conservative and Reformists, dominated by the British Conservatives, asked for recorded votes on a number of issues, presumably to tell the world that they are anti-women and do not condemn domestic violence.

Either whole or the majority of the ECR group voted against the following:

–    a demand that Member States ensure that there is training for officials likely to come into contact with cases of violence against women – including law enforcement, social welfare, child welfare, healthcare and emergency centre staff – in order to detect, identify and properly deal with such cases, with a special focus on the needs and rights of victims

–    the establishment of a European charter setting out a minimum level of assistance services to be offered to victims of violence against women, including: the right to legal aid; the creation of shelters to meet victims’ needs for protection and temporary accommodation; urgent psychological aid services to be provided free of charge by specialists on a decentralised and accessible basis; and financial aid arrangements aimed at promoting victims’ independence and facilitating their return to normal life and the world of work,

–    an increased number of courts specifically handling gender-based violence; more resources and training materials on gender-based violence for judges, public prosecutors and lawyers; and improvements to the specialist units in law enforcement bodies, by increasing their staff numbers and improving their training and equipment

–    a paragraph highlighting that migrant women, including undocumented migrant women, and women asylum-seekers form two subcategories of women that are particularly vulnerable to gender-based violence;

–    a paragraph emphasising that Member States should devote appropriate resources to preventing and combating violence against women, including through recourse to the Structural Funds

–    calling on the EU and its Member States to establish a legal framework that gives immigrant women the right to hold their own passport and residence permit and makes it possible to hold a person criminally responsible for taking these documents away;

–    that the European Union, within the new legal framework established by the Treaty of Lisbon, should become a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and its optional protocol

Tories mealy-mouthed on Sarkozy’s Expulsion of Roma People

Labour Party

French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s expulsion of Roma people from France is utterly appalling. It is discriminatory and in breach of EU law. It also smacks of ethnic cleansing, not to mention reawakening memories of World War II atrocities. I and most other civilised Europeans wholeheartedly condemn Sarkozy’s actions. 

Tellingly, when the European Parliament debated this matter earlier in the week not one of the MEPs from Sarkozy’s own political party, the UMP, took the floor. 

 Equally telling, in the midst of condemnation of Sarkozy from the all the centre-left parties in the European Parliament, Tory MEP Timothy Kirkhope asked MEPs to wait until the Commission made a formal ruling on the legality of the measures. “Then we can make an informed judgement based on all the facts and decide how to focus on better integration of the Roma people, rather than pre-emptively condemn a fellow Member State”. 

I was truly shocked by this mealy-mouthed Conservative point of view.  It therefore came as no surprise when the ECR – European Conservative and Reformists – Group, the majority of whose members are British Tories, abstained on this resolution  which, amongst other things, deeply condemned the measures taken by the French authorities as well as by other Member States’ authorities targeting Roma and Travellers and providing for their expulsion, urging them to immediately suspend all expulsions of Roma while calling the Commission, the Council and Member States to intervene with the same request.

The resolution, voted in the plenary session of the European Parliament earlier today, was, in fact, carried with 337 MEPs in favour, 245 against and 51 (mainly ECR) abstentions.  This shows that , fortunately for everyone living in the European Union, the majority of MEPs are reasonable people with strong humanitarian instincts.