UK consumers could miss out on EU digital reforms

Labour Party

European citizens will, from 1 April be able to access digital content they subscribe to anywhere in the European Union, The European Commission, Council and Parliament confirmed.

Those who use platforms such as Netflix will be able to access the content they have paid for when travelling abroad or staying in another EU country.

However, the benefit for the UK is in jeopardy following Theresa May’s, her Mansion House address in which she ruled out participation in the EU digital single market if Britain leaves the EU.

In a statement released by the European Parliamentary Labour Party (EPLP) yesterday I said: “Step-by-step the EU digital single market nears completion, bringing ever greater benefits to consumers, from the ban on mobile phone roaming charges to the freedom to access your online digital subscriptions like Netflix while abroad – benefits that British citizens could lose out on in just over a year under the disastrous Tory Brexit we are heading towards.

“In saying the UK will leave the single market, Theresa May has put British people’s future access to a swath of consumer benefits at risk and is causing untold damage to business. The government must ensure British travellers and businesses continue to enjoy benefits like online portability and free roaming if the UK leaves the EU.”

You can read the statement in full and comments from my EPLP colleagues here.

Brussels launch of Parliamentary Pioneers

Labour Party

Thank you to all my EPLP colleagues and staff for attending the Brussels launch of my book Parliamentary Pioneers.

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It was fantastic to finally share with them my work and I hope they enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

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Many of you who follow my blog may know that Parliamentary Pioneers charts the rise of the first Labour women elected to Parliament. Feisty as they were, it was still not easy for them to create change.

However, they were true pioneers and made it possible for women like me to stand for elected office so it’s important we recognise their achievement and the invaluable contribution they made to the Labour Party.

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Thank you again to my colleagues for their support in this.


Hitler-defenders and misogynists – UKIP’s new allies

Labour Party

Nigel Farage has struck a deal with a far right MEP in order to save his political group the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) in European Parliament.

The Polish MEP, which Farage has invited into his political grouping to save it from collapsing, belongs to the Congress of the New Right and its leader, also an MEP but who is not joining the EFDD, Janusz Korwin-Mikke, has questioned the Holocaust and made offensive remarks about the right to vote being taken away from women.

He has also made some terrible remarks about the difference between rape and consensual sex, claiming that “the difference is very subtle”. On the issue of the Holocaust he claimed that Adolf Hitler was “probably not aware that Jews were being exterminated”.

Korwin-Mikke even made remarks about the British national minimum wage claiming it should be abolished. And when he refused to withdraw and apologise for racist remarks he made he was fined 10 days allowance by The President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz.

President Schulz said of the incident, in a statement: “As Members of the European Parliament, we are particularly obliged to respect and protect the fundamental values of the European Union. This includes the principle of non-discrimination and respect for human dignity.”

The EFDD would have disintegrated had Farage not invited the Polish MEP, this is because any group wishing to form must have a minimum of 25 MEPs across seven different countries in order to be considered. Farage lost the support of Latvia MEP, Iveta Grigule, who quit the group meaning Farage lost the minimum number of people required to form the group.

The EPLP referred to the party as: “Hitler-defenders and misogynists” and called them “UKIP’s sickening new allies”. Glenis Willmott MEP, Labour’s Leader in Europe, said: “Nigel Farage’s desperate attempt to resurrect his group has seen him sink to an all-time low. The views expressed by his new allies are sickening even by UKIP standards.

Farage was clearly so desperate not to lose the kudos, power, prestige, extra funding and speaking rights that he has taken this drastic and very worrying step of aligning with a far-right party whose leader has made these dreadful remarks.

Even Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s Front National, refused to form an alliance which included Korwin-Mikke on the basis that his political views are “contrary to our values.” It says rather a lot about Farage and his morals if he is willing to align with a member of a party who has such disturbing views, and which even other far- right politicians refuse to have anything to do with.

Labour MEPs call for an end to the conflict in Syria

Labour Party

The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Baroness Ashton, told the European Parliament earlier today that Europe should be working towards a political solution to the conflict in Syria. During a key debate on the situation there, she advocated getting rid of the chemical weapons and ending the terrible conflict. 

Although acknowledging that the threat of military intervention had achieved some results, Cathy Ashton made it quite clear that this was not the path to walk down now.

Richard Howitt MEP, Labour’s Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs in the European Parliament joined the debate saying, “The events of the last 24 hours mean we are not debating the provenance of chemical weapons but the provenance of their disposal.

“The credibility of the Russian offer will now depend on the validity of the decommissioning process. For me that means it being undertaken within a United Nations framework and in the context of a UN resolution which enables the international community to coalesce towards ending all crimes against humanity and war crimes in Syria.”

Readers of this blog will recall the Labour Party concluded that David Cameron had failed to make the case for military action. Yes, of course, lessons had to be learnt from Iraq. However, this week’s events in Syria demonstrate the foolishness of prematurely ending the work of the weapons inspectors.

Richard has also made it clear that decommissioning must happen and happen properly.  All crimes against humanity must end and the work of the weapons inspectors must continue. The prospect of military action stopped necessary humanitarian assistance but Baroness Ashton has now made it clear that she regards it as very important to continue with EU aid.

Our ambition must remain to prevent chemical attacks but at one and the same time to secure peace. I fully support this and hope that the conflict in Syria will be resolved quickly and judiciously.  

We Must Reform the Common Agricultural Policy

Labour Party

Many of my constituents have been writing to me recently regarding the vote on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) that took place last Wednesday in Strasbourg. What people have been saying is that they believe that CAP funds should support farming that protects and restores the natural environment and supports rural communities.  This is something that I entirely agree with, which is why my colleagues in the European Parliamentary Labour Party (EPLP) and I voted in line with those recommendations.

Making the whole CAP greener is one of top priorities of the EPLP. This is not only to ensure that during these difficult economic times taxpayers’ money is effectively spent, but crucially to create the environmental conditions to sustain long-term agricultural production through the protection of ecosystems.

CAP consists of two financial pillars – Pillar I, which provides income support to farmers in the form of direct payments and Pillar II, which drives competitiveness and sustainability in rural areas, with particularly focus on the environment.

We believe that Pillar II has proven its worth and remains the best mechanism for the delivery of environmental benefits through measures such as agri-environmental schemes, High Nature Value farming and organic farming. We therefore want to see a shift in funding from Pillar I to Pillar II, to ensure sufficient resources for these conservation measures. We also want these measures to be strengthened. We were pleased to see that the Parliament supported mandatory ring-fencing of Rural Development funds for agri-environment schemes and organic farming. It is our view that High Nature Value Farming must also be recognized for its value. We would therefore like to see a thematic sub-program established to ensure coherent support and protection for these extensive and environmentally-focused farming systems, common in Scotland and Wales and that is what we voted for.

Greener CAP also means in our opinion strengthened cross compliance rules. To receive direct payments under the Common Agricultural Policy farmers are required to respect certain rules. This requirement is known as cross-compliance and its main aim is to help enforce compliance with existing regulations concerning food safety, animal and plant health, the environment and animal welfare. Sadly however a large number of the requirements did not find a majority in the Agriculture Committee vote in January and were removed, significantly weakening the measure. Our Group in the Parliament, the Socialists and Democrats, tabled amendments to bring them back and we were happy to learn that most of them were supported and reintroduced by the Parliament.

We also welcome the Commission’s proposal to make direct payments conditional on the farmer making an actual effort for the environment (the so-called ‘greening’). We believe however that it does not go far enough. We are afraid that instead of a ‘green ambition’ we might see a ‘green wash’ of the CAP. The proposal needs to be therefore improved to make sure it delivers meaningful and significant environmental benefits across the whole EU, and that is what we have been pushing for. We also firmly believe every farmer in receipt of direct payments must be obliged to apply the greening measures. Protection of biodiversity should not be an option that farmers can choose or prefer to ignore when receiving taxpayers’ money. We therefore co-signed and voted for amendments calling for a compulsory and more ambitious ‘greening’.

I share the concern of many of my constituents over double funding (i.e. paying farmers twice for the same practice). I therefore voted against it, as it goes against basic rules of sound financial management and an efficient use of taxpayers’ money. I am pleased to say that this policy was rejected by the Parliament.

The CAP reform process has not finished yet. The EPLP will continue calling for an ambitious green reform of the CAP. Ambitious CAP reform is the EPLP’s priority in order to deliver good value for farmers, taxpayers, consumers and the environment. Future expenditure must be well targeted, delivering measurable outputs that offer real value for money and societal benefits that the market place cannot provide.

Homophobic Nick Griffin may face European Parliament sanctions

Labour Party

Labour Members of the European Parliament have formally reported Nick Griffin’s controversial tweets to the President of the European Parliament. The BNP leader faces possible sanctions under Parliament rules.

On Thursday last week, British National Party Leader Nick Griffin, MEP for the North West of England, tweeted the private address of a gay couple, inviting his supporters to ‘give them a bit of drama.’.

Griffin disagreed with a county court ruling that refusing the couple to enjoy their B&B reservation because they were gay was discrimination.

The couple’s house was placed under police protection, and Griffin’s aggressive tweets are now investigated by the police.

Michael Cashman, Labour MEP for the West Midlands, who represents Labour on LGBT issues commented: “I brought this to the attention of the President of the European Parliament, who should act swiftly and officially.

“Under European Parliament rules, MEPs’ conduct ‘shall be characterised by mutual respect, and be based on the values and principles laid down’ in EU treaties, including respect for minorities’ dignity. Nick Griffin certainly failed those values when he incited his followers to give a gay couple ‘a bit of drama’.”

Michael, and all Labour MEPs, hope the European Parliament will take serious action. Griffin’s appalling behaviour is a sad reminder of the homophobia and violence LGBT people still face.

The Tory-led Coalition goes against Tory MEPs on food labelling

Labour Party

 The British government today went against their own Tory MEPs and decided to recommend the ‘traffic light’ system for food labelling to retailers and manufacturers in the UK.

It is tragic and to our great shame that obesity rates are higher in Britain than anywhere else in Europe. One of the ways to help tackle this very serious problem is to make sure that consumers have clear and honest nutritional labelling which enables them to make healthier choices when they do their shopping.

The ‘traffic light’ labelling system colour codes the information making it easier for consumers to assess and compare products at a glance. This should help all of us make more informed decisions about what we eat.

Labour Leader in the European Parliament, Glenis Willmott, who introduced the new system, commented, “It’s just a shame that the Tory MEPs weren’t so constructive when food labelling laws were being discussed in the European Parliament. I put forward proposals for traffic light labelling to be used on all processed foods, but these were vociferously opposed by Tory MEPs.”

Glenis also made a commitment to continue to push for red, amber and green ‘traffic lights’ on all processed foods sold in the EU.  Glenis is absolutely right in believing that some of the big multi-national food companies will only change their ways when they are told that in order to sell their food in the world’s biggest trading bloc, they have to be honest about what is in it.

Although it is the case that Glenis Willmott was unsuccessful in getting mandatory traffic light labelling for all processed foods agreed by the European Parliament, I understand that the European Commission made a commitment to revisiting the idea in the near future.

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:

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:

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.

Labour MEPs lambast European Parliament funding for the BNP

Labour Party

To their utter shame, the committee which oversees European Parliament business recently agreed that an alliance of seven European extreme right wing political parties (including the British BNP, the French Front National and Hungary’s Jobbik) would qualify for €289,266 of EU money.

The Bureau of the European Parliament took this decision on what they considered to be the appropriate interpretation of the Parliament’s Rules of Procedure, specifically the activities and legal situation of the political groups. The relevant paragraph states that European Parliament political groups shall carry out their duties as part of the activities of the Union. The political groups shall be provided with a secretariat on the basis of the establishment plan of the Secretariat, with administrative facilities and with the appropriations entered for that purpose in Parliament’s budget.

In what was a very narrow and quite disgraceful reading of the European Parliament rules, the Bureau took the view that the newly formed extreme right group, the Alliance of European Nationalist Movements, qualified for funding in the same way as the other mainstream political groups.

However, the Bureau completely failed to take on board the very essence of the European Union, the values on which the EU is founded. Just to recap, these are respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. These values are common to the Member States and the societies of the Member States are characterised by pluralism, tolerance, justice, solidarity and non-discrimination.

When the possibility that the European Parliament may fund extreme parties such as the BNP is given just a short moment’s thought, it becomes clear that such funding is a non-starter. The BNP and other extreme parties quite clearly contravene the EU’s fundamental values. Indeed the BNP’s political programme and campaigning is against equality and respect for human rights, to name but two of the values mentioned above while there is no way they respect pluralism, tolerance and non-discrimination.

Labour MEPs never accepted the inevitability of BNP funding. The European Parliamentary Labour Party (EPLP) went into action forming alliances with like-minded MEPs to halt the current payment and stop any payments in the future if this was democratically possible.

After a passionate appeal to Martin Schulz, the President of the European Parliament (equivalent of the Speaker), he assured EPLP Leader, Glenis Willmott, last Wednesday that he would check whether any initial payment to this ultra-right alliance could be reimbursed on legal grounds.

Furthermore, agreement has now been reached across the political spectrum of European Parliament political groupings (the Greens, the Liberals, the Centre Right as well as the Socialist and Democrat Group where Labour sits) that a “committee of wise persons from outside the European Parliament” will be set up under the European Parliament’s rules to see whether this new pan-European alliance conforms to European values.

I am sure we all agree with Glenis Willmott when she said, “The BNP cause violence and hatred wherever they go. The tolerant don’t always have to tolerate the intolerant. We’ve worked together so this is not just a socialist alliance against the far right, all parties across the spectrum are agreeing with us. The budgets committee of the European Parliament are not happy for this money to go through either. We’re happy to debate and fight our corner with anyone who disagrees with us, but we can only argue with democrats.”

Margaret Thatcher, David Cameron certainly is not!

Labour Party

Following much hot air from David Cameron he has revealed just what an empty vessel he really is.

Conceding defeat the prime minister told fellow European leaders ahead of today’s summit in Brussels that he accepts the £107bn EU budget will have to increase by a minimum of 2.9%, the figure already accepted by the European Council, reports the Guardian.

Cameron’s much vaunted telephone offensive which included Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, and Herman van Rompuy, the president of the European council about the budget obviously got nowhere.

David Cameron is revealing that he is no Margaret Thatcher and has failed to stand his ground.  The Iron Lady famously stood up to the EU and negotiated a rebate for Britain which has endured to this day. Cameron, on the other hand, has thrown in the towel with undue haste.   

It’s hardly surprising that the Tory Eurosceptics, who have been urging Cameron to fight for a freeze or a cut in the EU budget, are angry. They supported David Cameron because they thought he was one of them.  Yes, Cameron did make sure the Tories in the European Parliament left the centre right European People’s Party to join up with a group of right-wingers whom Nick Clegg famously called a “bunch of nutters”.

However, Cameron is not delivering for the Eurosceptics now and they are not holding back in putting forward their point of view. Bill Cash, Peter Lilley and a host of others were very much in evidence in the Commons Chamber yesterday.

All this goes to show that when a politician does something for short term gain, such as Cameron promising anti-EU measures to get himself elected as Tory Leader, this will come back to bite him very hard when the day of reckoning comes and he cannot deliver his promises. While Margaret Thatcher did deliver hers, David Cameron is proving unable to do so.

Perhaps David Cameron’s assertion that Labour MEPs voted for the 5.9% increase in the EU budget which came before the European Parliament in Strasbourg last week was part of his plan to assuage his Eurosceptic wing.  Who knows?

But what David Cameron said was incorrect. Labour MEPs voted against the final vote to adopt the EU budget. We were very sure that it was wrong at the present time to ask for such an increase in EU spending.

Fortunately Chris Leslie MP, one of Labour’s Treasury Spokespersons, was able to put this right in the Commons debate.

I wonder why Cameron got it so wrong. He does, after all, have an army of researchers at Number 10 and in Whitehall and the EU votes are published a few hours after the votes are taken. He also has several Conservative MEPs who would have known the score.

It could, perhaps be that he wished to discredit the Labour Party by putting out deliberate misinformation. If this is anywhere near the truth, Cameron and his Tory cohorts will brings politics further into disrepute and should be ashamed of themselves.

The European Parliament vote is important in the EU final decision making process on the budget.  As a result of various decisions over the past few years, both the European Parliament and the European Council (the EU member state governments) have equal weight in coming to an agreement on the budget. 

This means that although Cameron has accepted the 2.9% increase, this may not be the final outcome as negotiations between the European Parliament and the Council are currently underway to come to a compromise.

Despite all the brouhaha, the EU budget is not on the formal agenda of today’s European summit but will only be discussed in the margins. If the 2.9% increase is agreed, Britain will contribute an extra £435.2m. If a higher percentage is negotiated, Cameron’s coalition government may get even more than they were bargaining for.