Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Labour Party

Sadly the European Commission and Council have always been resistant to giving better and wider access to EU legislative documents for EU Citizens.  That is why in Strasbourg last week, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on the other two EU institutions to lift their opposition and resume the negotiations with the Parliament on a revision of the Regulation on Public Access to Documents.

The report was about empowering citizens to hold “Brussels” to account; not only the European Parliament, but also the Commission and the Council of Ministers.  Meetings of the Council of Ministers currently take place behind closed doors. If we knew how our Ministers voted in their secret meetings, we would be able to hold them to account, in all national parliaments across the EU.  Hopefully this will make the Commission and the Council stop their backstage collusion on this dossier and will actively follow up on this resolution to kick-start negotiations again as soon as possible.

You would think that UKIP, given their constant criticism of the functioning of the EU, would have welcomed this move.  However, UKIP refused to support transparent EU decision making on Thursday, by abstaining on the resolution.

In the same week, UKIP MEPs refused to support encouragement for all member states to establish a lobbying register, in a report on corruption, money laundering and organised crime. UKIP abstained on the paragraph which “encourages governments and public administrations to make registration in a lobby register a precondition for a meeting with a business-, interest-, or lobby-organisation”. On 3rd June, Nigel Farage wrote in the Guardian that UKIP would ‘clean up politics’ by demanding that all lobbying and donations to politicians be clearly registered.  UKIP are proving once again that they are more about grandstanding than actually trying to make a difference.

Marginalised Britain will one day count the cost of the lost Euro opportunity

Labour Party

First things first, amongst all those many others may I wish Prince Philip a speedy recovery. He has been a tower of strength over the last 60 years and has made a contribution beyond compare to the Queen herself and the monarchy as an institution.

Nevertheless, the Diamond Jubilee celebrations can only distance the rest of the world to a limited extent. While we have been enjoying our good fortune, the Eurozone leaders have been slowly forming a reaction to the sovereign debt crisis, specifically the banking crisis in Spain.

According to the Guardian today, the recently elected French socialist government represented in this instance by Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici and the European Commission led by President Jose Manuel Barroso have just given strong backing for a new Eurozone “banking union”. Crucially, the plan could see vast national debt and banking liabilities pooled and then backed by the financial strength of Germany in return for Eurozone governments surrendering sovereignty over their budgets and fiscal policies to a central Eurozone authority.

This is heady stuff indeed, and good news for the European single currency. Finding a way through the crisis in the Eurozone countries is also good news for the UK. Probably the only thing on which I agree with David Cameron is that it is in Britain’s interests to have a stable Euro.

However, it is also very bad news for Britain. Yet again we are outside major European developments. This may not be harmful in the short-term, but will be damaging for the UK in the longer term. 

The European Council president, the President of the European Commission, the President of the European Central Bank and the head of the Eurogroup of 17 finance ministers have apparently been charged with drafting the proposals for a deeper Eurozone fiscal union, to be presented to an EU summit at the end of the month.

The European Commission and France are piling pressure on Germany to line up behind the proposal. Angela Merkel would need to take it to the German parliament for agreement.

The international financier George Soros is on record as saying: “The likelihood is that the euro will survive because a breakup would be devastating not only for the periphery but also forGermany.Germanyis likely to do what is necessary to preserve the Euro…”

Soros continued with these prophetic words, “”That would result in a Eurozone dominated by Germany in which the divergence between the creditor and debtor countries would continue to widen and the periphery would turn into permanently depressed areas in need of constant transfer of payments.”

Everything appears to be coming together -France and the European Commission working together, plus tentative but seemingly real acceptance of their proposals by the European Council, the European Central Bank and the Eurozone countries. Although it’s by no means all set to go, it does look as if the 17 Eurozone countries are coming closer together and accepting the need for a central Eurozone authority look at budgets and fiscal policies.

Britain as ever is not part of what promises to be the most important European project since the formation of the Common Market. Unfortunately 50 years or so later, we still don’t get it. Europe is where the future lies. If Britain has any hope of being more than a bit player outside our own shores, we have to be a leader in the European Union. Today that means being up there with France and Germany in the Euro. Very unfortunately we did not join, and this blog post explains just how serious a missed opportunity this will turn out to be.

To add salt to the wounds, if Britain had joined the Euro, there is little doubt we would have been at the top table with France and Germany. Yes, we would have suffered from the current crisis in the Eurozone countries, but thanks to dogmatic Tory Chancellor George Osborne and Prime Minister Cameron we are suffering a double dip recession anyway, even outside the single currency. The Euro was always a political as well as an economic project and the UK has comprehensively failed to grasp the political opportunity.

The cost of MEP Questions to the European Commission and Council should be quantified

Labour Party

It is inevitable that the most respected parts of revered institutions occasionally get their knickers in a twist.

This has most certainly been the case here in the European Parliament concerning MEPs’ questions to the European Commission and Council.

For some years there have been sessions at the plenary sitting of the European Parliament where MEPs ask oral questions to the President of the European Commission. While nothing like Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, it is a useful way of raising issues and can elicit helpful information. We may also ask written questions to both the Commission and the European Council.

Replying to these questions obviously costs money. European Voice, the respected European newspaper, has taken the cost issue up with a vengeance. The paper is so exercised by the matter of cost that it gave it front page billing last week.

A spokesperson from the European Parliament wrote a letter to the Editor in response, which was less than positive. Incredibly, this set European Voice off again. This week there was an entire leader devoted to this one subject entitled “To ask the price of MEPs’ questions cannot be taboo”.

Indeed it cannot, but European Voice and those who heed their call must understand that these questions are an essential tool in, to use the European Parliament’s own phrase “democratic oversight”. I have made use of questions to both the Commission and the Council on many occasions as have all my Labour colleagues. It enables us to find out more about what is going on and aid our decision making.

It is, however, worrying that, as European Voice point out in their lengthy leader, the actual costs of asking a question are not calculated. We therefore have no way of knowing the price-tag attached to our demands. Compare this to the UK where the average cost of a question is 185 euros. I would certainly support better accounting while at the same time defending MEPs’ right to ask as many questions as they need.

The number of questions asked to the European Commission and Council has, of course, gone up with the enlargement of the European Union. During the 2004 – 2009 term the number asked was 6,000. It is twice that figure so far for the present mandate. This was inevitable as the 12 new member states found their feet. A European Parliament with 27 countries will inevitably ask more questions than one comprising fifteen.

Although I think European Voice has gone completely over the top on this one, they do have a very valid point. I would certainly support the costs of asking questions being calculated and made public. It is quite simply a matter of public accountability. The people who vote for us should know what we do and how much it costs.

The European Parliament and the EU as a whole have for too long operated in an opaque way where it is very difficult to find financial information. I believe we are getting better, as demonstrated by the fact that all Labour MEPs have their office accounts audited and put the audit certificates on their websites. Labour MEPs also publish details of their travel costs.

 The European Parliament as a whole should sharpen up its act. We are a democratic, elected body and the public has a right to know.

Nigel Farage gets too much air time (continued)

Labour Party

There is obviously a risk of giving Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), rather more column inches on this blog than he deserves in the wider scheme of British and European politics. However, it is important to talk about his appalling and gratuitous rudeness since this is often the reason he gets coverage.

Farage has no compunction about tearing into EU and European Parliament figures with no respect for either their or, indeed, Farage’s own, dignity. Jolly old Nige seems to believe it’s perfectly all right to be as offensive as he likes with no thought for either how he comes across to the outside world or whether what he is saying about his targets actually stands up to scrutiny.

The most extreme example of the Farage tendency happened in Wednesday 24 February 2010 when he notoriously told Herman Van Rompuy, the President of the European Council, who was actually sitting near Farage in the European Parliament chamber at the time, that he (Van Rompuy) had “all the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk”. Farage then went on to dismiss Van Rompuy’s home state of Belgium as a “non-country” and criticised the President’s pay packet. Farage further claimed that no-one in Europe had ever heard of Van Rompuy.

This, of course, says more about Nigel Farage than Mr Van Rompuy, who happens to be a former Belgium Prime Minister. He is also a distinguished economist whose first appearance in the European Parliament impressed the vast majority of MEPs.  Please see the post on this blog for further information.

As the clip on Van Rompuy shows, Nigel is ignorant and offensive but never witty. Most of us will relate to a public speaker who performs with a lightness of touch while at the same time showing thoughtfulness. Farage is merely rude – quite a different matter.

Sadly the Farage approach in Europe appeals to the British media and achieves coverage in the UK, coverage which is often sympathetic to the UKIP leader. In a way this surprises me since Farage does not carry on the British parliamentary tradition of robust debate coupled with intellectual depth.

Farage, in fact, has no depth. He does, however, stand out from the European Parliament crowd. There are 27 EU member states all debating in the European Parliament chamber in their own mother tongue. This in itself does not make for the kind of strong discussion the British are used to. Moreover, most MEPs are from countries where the parliamentary system is far less confrontational than our own and do not therefore indulge in the kind of loud and noisy behaviour seen in the House of Commons.

The Van Rompuy story is not the only example of the Farage factor. Former leader of the Socialist and Democrat Group Martin Schulz had to put up with similar treatment on becoming President (Speaker) of the European Parliament. And there are more.

Yes, Nigel Farage does stand out in the European Parliament. He does not, however, do so in a dignified and intellectually rigorous way. Quite honestly, Nigel Farage is an embarrassment for the UK. He is most certainly not an asset. His rude and offensive antics are not by any stretch of the imagination worth the amount of air time he currently receives.

David Cameron’s hypocrisy is utterly shameless as the EU leaders’ letter to Barosso and van Rompuy demonstrates

Labour Party

Along with 11 other European leaders, David Cameron has signed a letter to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barosso and European Council President Herman van Rompuy suggesting priority areas for growth in Europe.

Even taking into account David Cameron’s masterful ability to look both ways on Europe and to call a spade a straight banana, the Prime Minister of Great Britain’s split rhetoric takes some beating. It’s one message at home and quite a different one in the EU. 

Cameron’s policy at home, strongly reinforced by Chancellor Osborne, is unwavering austerity even to the extent of rail-roadng through a deeply unpopular NHS Bill.

However, it’s a different story in Europe. There is one particular paragraph in the letter which truly shows up Mr Cameron’s hypocrisy.

“…we [the EU] must act nationally and, respecting national competences, collectively to promote well functioning labour markets which deliver employment opportunities and, crucially, promote higher levels of labour market participation among young people, women and older workers. Special attention should also be given to vulnerable groups that have been absent from the labour market for long periods.  We should foster labour mobility to create a more integrated and open European labour market, for example by advancing the acquisition and preservation of supplementary pension rights for migrating workers, while respecting the role of the social partners.”

Try doing this at home Mr Cameron before you lecture the European Union.

The other six areas outlined in the letter are:

  • We must bring the single market to its next stage of development, by reinforcing governance and raising standards of implementation. 
  • We must step up our efforts to create a truly digital single market by 2015. 
  • We must deliver on our commitment to establish a genuine, efficient and effective internal market in energy by 2014.
  • We must redouble our commitment to innovation by establishing the European Research Area, creating the best possible environment for entrepreneurs and innovators to commercialise their ideas and create jobs, and putting demand-led innovation at the heart of Europe’s research and development strategy.
  • We need decisive action to deliver open global markets. This year we should conclude free trade agreements with India, Canada, countries of the Eastern neighbourhood and a number of ASEAN partners. 
  • We need to sustain and make more ambitious our programme to reduce the burden of EU regulation.
  • We must take steps to build a robust, dynamic and competitive financial services sector that creates jobs and provides vital support to citizens and businesses

The 11 signatories with David Cameron were Mark Rutte, Mario Monti, Andrus Ansip, Valdis Dombrouskis, Jyrki Kataninen, Enda Kenny, Petr Necas, Iveta Raoilova, Mariano Rajoy, Fredrik Reinfeldt and Donald Tusk.

David Cameron is seeking to appease Tory Eurosceptics rather than doing the Right Thing in Europe

Labour Party

Already threatened with splits at home, the coalition government has now turned its attention to the European Union.

So what, you may think. Isn’t it always the case that the British make waves, not really signing up to the European programme and always demanding red lines?

While this has often been true, there is a qualitative difference the coalition’s utterly intransigent behaviour on the EU budget and previous demands for exemptions by the last Labour government. While Labour ministers did demand opt outs, they more often than not related to security and anti terrorism matters.

This time the Tories, and its appears to be the Tories rather than their Lib Dem allies, are playing a ruthless hand, indulging at best in brinkmanship and at worse in a damaging line of attack which could seriously damage UK:EU relations well into the future. I doubt if I’m the only one who wonders where the supposedly pro EU Liberal Democrat coalition partners are in the EU budget wrangling.

Martin Schulz, European Parliament Socialist and Democrat Group Leader is absolutely convinced Cameron, i.e. the United Kingdom, is set on wrecking the 2011 budget. The reason is simple; Mr Cameron wants to regain credibility and support from his party, a party which moved to the right and became noticeably more Eurosceptic after the 2010 general election.

Mr Cameron is selling the UK down the river for very little. He has already gone much further than Labour MEPs were prepared to go in that he agreed to the 2.9 percent increase the European Council wanted. Labour MEPs have already agreed there should be no increase in the EU and have stated this very publicly.

However, before the budget is agreed, the European Parliament is making three other demands, demands contained in the Lisbon Treaty:

  • the EU has the power to raise its own resources via VAT, levies on the common agricultural policy and a raft of other possibilities
  • the European Parliament has the same status as the Council of Ministers in determining medium term financial planning , the financial perspectives, as the Council of Ministers
  • there should be additional flexibility in the EU budget. The European Parliament is asking for an additional flexibility of 0.03 of the budget to meet contingencies.

It is, in fact, the last of these, the extra flexibility, that Cameron is holding out on with help from the Netherlands, and Sweden and Denmark to some extent.

However, it is Cameron who is the prime mover and the one who is doing all he can to prevent agreement on the EU budget,

Since the three weeks negotiating time between the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, the conciliation process, ended last night, the way forward is less than clear. The European Commission will, we understand, come up with a new budget. In the meantime, a twelfth of the 2010 budget will brought forward each month until a new budget is agreed,

This could have severe consequences on a number of EU programmes such as the funding for the Galileo satellite and possibly the External Action Service.

The problem is that whatever cuts may have to be made because the European Parliament and the European Council have refused to make a budget, they are random and completely unplanned.

Labour MEPs, on the other hand, recognise that since EU member states are making heavy cuts, the EU itself should do the same things. The difference is we believe the reductions in the EU budget should be thought through and implemented with as little harm as possible, unlike David Cameron whose only agenda seems to be placating the Eurosceptics in his own party.

The EU leads the Way on Democracy

Labour Party

Contrary to received wisdom, those of us in Brussels, MEPs as well as EU officials, are very aware of how we are seen.  Even in far less Eurosceptic countries than Britain MEPs are seen as remote and unaccountable.

As the elected politicians it’s our job to do as much as we can to put this right.

I was therefore delighted with to see the European Citizens’ Initiative which is currently going through the European Parliament.

The European Citizens’ Initiative aims to allow anyone living in the EU to refer issues to the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, establishing a direct link between the people of Europe and the European Union.

The Citizens’ Initiative, provided there is enough support, will allow those living in Europe to propose EU legislation.  This is a powerful addition to our democracy, allowing as it does direct participation. It’s real devolution of power from the politicians to the people.

Given the size and reach of the European Union it would be surprising if this we didn’t face issues over democratic accountability.  Those attempting to represent constituents in a democratic international organisation (the only one in the world) with a population of 500 million across 27 member states are going to face problems. Likewise, the people in these 27 countries will almost certainly feel the EU is a long way away.

The Citizens’ Initiative is a way forward allowing people not only a say but a concrete means of bringing about change. It’s good for all of us and a real example to our national parliamentarians.

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.

European Parliament votes for 20 Weeks Maternity Leave at Full Pay

Labour Party

The European Parliament has just voted for 20 weeks maternity leave at full pay.

You will see from my article for the Guardian Comment is Free section yesterday that Labour MEPs did not support this.  We calculated that a woman on the UK national minimum wage of £5.93 would be £650 a year worse off with 20 weeks maternity leave on full pay than under the British system whereby she would receive 6 weeks at 90% of  full pay followed by 33 weeks at £124.88, the statutory rate of pay. 

The proposal adopted by the European Parliament does very little for lower paid women and quite a lot for those who are better off.  This is not how Labour MEPs wish to see EU member states’ scarce resources used.  We want to target the low paid not the better off.

Of course, the Draft Directive on pregnant workers written by Portuguese member of the Socialist and Democrat Group Edite Estrela now has to be agreed by the European Council – the body comprising the national governments from all the EU countries.

There have been strong rumours that the Council will not agree the 20 weeks maternity leave on full pay.

So the European Parliament may just have made an utterly futile gesture. Not at all what we want for our new mothers.

Tories whipped to abstain on HIV/AIDS prevention

Labour Party

Few things are more important to us both as individuals and also collectively than our health.  Who would disagree with that old saying “you’re all right as long as you’ve got your health”?

The British Tories would seem to be the answer to that one.  While the coalition government has ring fenced NHS spending, Conservative Euro MPs are taking quite a different line on the global spread of HIV and AIDS.

Yesterday in Strasbourg we voted  on a comprehensive resolution on HIV and AIDS requesting the European Council and Commission  step up efforts to address HIV/AIDS as a global public health priority.  The resolution talked about access to health care for all, addressing the needs of women and children when it came to HIV and AIDS and called on the international community to provide affordable HIV/AIDS medication.

Specifically, the resolution called on the EU member states and the European Commission to allocate at least 20 percent of all development spending to basic health care and to increase their contribution to the Global Forum to Fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.  It further asked that developing countries prioritise healthcare, and AIDS in particular.

 None of this seems too radical to me.  I would even go as far as saying that I cannot see why any reasonable person would oppose such a resolution.  Surely we all want as many people as possible to be healthy and we support measures to combat disease.

Yet this does not seem to be the point of view of the British Conservatives.  When this resolution was put to the vote, they were whipped to abstain on it.  I’m afraid I don’t have voting figures as the vote was taken by a show of hands.  I did, however, watch the ECR Whip, who clearly indicated that the Group should abstain.

It seems the Tories are back to their old tricks of voting against or abstaining on almost everything which comes to the European Parliament.  We should also never forget that the Tories’ ECR Group contains some strong right wing elements who take a “moral” anti AIDS stance, no matter what the cost may be in human lives.

Fortunately the overwhelming majority of MEPs were not of the Tories persuasion and the resolution was passed with a large majority.