Sky’s knife-edge poll shows people want a reformed EU but repatriation of powers still remains impossible

Labour Party

Fifty-one per cent would vote to leave the European Union while 49 per cent prefer the status quo. Today’s poll broadcast by Sky News must give us all pause for thought.

 That being said, the results of the survey come with a significant health warning from Survation, the company who carried out the work, who state:

“A great deal of this opinion, however, is subject to change. 61% of ‘OUT’ voters would reconsider if certain key policy areas were renegotiated for the UK. Meanwhile 80% of current ‘IN’ voters would consider leaving if certain aspects of potential future EU integration were forced on the UK, being made to join the Euro chief among them.”

“Part of the uncertainty almost certainly stems from a lack of awareness of the EU and what exactly it means for the UK. Only 17% and 13% of respondents recognised a picture of the European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy respectively, compared to 71% who recognised German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Clearly awareness of the EU’s institutions is very low in the UK, when compared with awareness of the politics of other prominent European countries.”

“Similarly only 37% of respondents correctly guessed from 6 options that there were 27 countries in the EU, which suggests only around 25%, actually knew the correct response rather than guessing. 12% of respondents thought that there were as many as 36 countries in the EU. Meanwhile, of people who were not sure how they would vote in a referendum, the most common reason given was that they were “not sure what an ‘out’ vote would actually mean for the UK in terms of our new relationship with Europe”.

The EU debate more than almost anything else I have encountered over many years of political activism suffers from lack of clarity and lack of knowledge. For instance, voters do not really know what powers David Cameron seeks to repatriate. Even the debate on the 130 odd justice and home affairs measures which led the headlines not so long ago seems to have now disappeared into the long grass, possibly a deliberate ploy by Home Secretary Theresa May.

David Cameron is tellingly very quiet on other repatriation possibilities, mainly because they are just that – possibilities. As regular readers of this blog will know, I have long believed that unilateral repatriation is a complete non-starter. Why on earth would the 26 other EU member states agree to something demanded by only one of their number? 26:1 seems to me improbably long odds.

However, we should not rule out meaningful reform of the EU and its institutions. Reform from the inside is the only way Britain can go, though I concede that progress is often painfully slow. However, change does happen. The Common Fisheries Policy has been amended to do away with the ludicrous demand that certain fish be discarded and thrown back into the sea. As far as the European Parliament is concerned, we now have powers to co-legislate along with the EU member states. There is a long list of treaties from Maastrich to Lisbon which have amended the way the EU operates. This is how reform will happen, not by David Cameron having a hissy fit and taking his bat home, and we need to be there to protect our national interest.

The Labour Party is committed to a hard headed and patriotic case for EU reform. First out of the starting blocks will be a call for restraint and reform of the EU budget together with measures to stimulate growth and jobs across the continent. To this end Labour will look for agreement to appoint an EU Commissioner for Growth.

Since immigration is the number one public concern regarding the European Union, Labour will put in train talks to reform the transitional arrangements setting the terms for immigration from the new member states while at the same time seeking to reform the payment of family related benefits to EU migrants. There will also be a demand that the EU collect data on EU migration flows.

And Labour will also work to abolish the Strasbourg circus, whereby MEPs traipse to the Alsatian capital twelve times a year amid much expense and disruption.

The Survation survey shows an extremely low level of knowledge about the EU across the population of the United Kingdom. I passionately believe we as a nation need to address this. Ignorance is never blissful and, whatever your point of view on the EU, I do not believe anyone can defend the current situation whereby people don’t have the tools to actually know what is happening in an institution this country has belonged to for 40 years.

An Examination of the Working Time Directive is not Repatriation of Powers

Labour Party

The ‘Angie-Dave’ saga is becoming ever more surreal. The Guardian reported earlier in the week that the UK will sign a proposed revision of the Lisbon Treaty aimed at underpinning tough new fiscal rules for the Eurozone in exchange for an undertaking from Berlin that it will allow for an examination of the impact of the Working Time Directive.

This is a bizarre move. Either David Cameron is topsy-turvy in his knowledge of EU legislation or he is perpetuating one of the greatest political con-tricks in recent history.

His antics are fast turning into a veritable ‘pea-souper’ reflected in a large glacial lake. His smoke and mirror plan is no more than that – he is simply seeking to allay the forceful Eurosceptic arm of his Party.

It is a huge stretch to interpret any revision of the Working Time Directive as repatriating powers from the EU to the UK.

Furthermore it is incomprehensible that it would be possible to revise the Working Time Directive.

Cameron also misses the point that he UK currently has an opt out from the Working Time Directive and individual workers can say whether or not they wish to come under its provisions.

David Cameron has, in effect, agreed to sign up for a revision of the Lisbon Treaty in return for… absolutely nothing. He is not repatriating any powers as he suggests, he is not distancing himself from Europe. He is however, making him and the rest of us look like fools just by showing a huge lack of knowledge and understanding of how EU legislation works.

If – and it’s an extremely big if – the European Commission as the proposer of EU legislation were to agree that the Working Time Directive should be revised, any changes to the Directive would have to go through the whole legislative process.

In reality this means they would have to be agreed by both the Council of Ministers (the member state governments) and the European Parliament.

To spell it out, that’s the governments of the 27 EU countries plus 736 elected MEPs.

Revision of an existing Directive is therefore not something one European leader, Angela Merkel in this case, can either promise or deliver.

Cameron is busy selling the British people a very small pup.

The sad fact is that the Tories have always been exorcised by the Working Time Directive and remain unreconciled to the idea that the EU can legislate on employment and social issues. This refusal to face the facts is, of course, at the root of Cameron’s tactics.

And he is undoubtedly playing a tactical game. David Cameron seemingly still believes he can have his cake and eat it, that he can pacify the Tory backwoodsmen with a few clever words and a few ultimately meaningless actions.

The Prime Minister is either trying to fool us or is fooling himself. Whatever your particular take, it doesn’t look good for him or for the office he holds.”

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.

FIFA: Bringing Sport into Disrepute

Labour Party

Sepp Blatter

It’s difficult to read about the current crisis in FIFA without a slight sense of schadenfreude.  Since England lost the chance to host the World Cup 2018 with an embarrassing two votes going to our bid, there has been a general mood of antipathy towards world football’s governing body.  The fact that the World Cup went to Russia, who have a rather questionable human rights record, limited press freedom and what some have described as a ‘mafia state’, made the loss all the more painful.  But that day FIFA managed the double whammy of bad decisions and awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, a country where there are many problems, one of the worst being homosexuality is illegal.  There was a sense that something ‘wasn’t right’ and it’s hard not to feel slightly vindicated by the current crop of accusations and recriminations carrying on in Zurich.

Self-regulation have always been the watch words when it comes to governance in sport, but perhaps the current situations shows that there is a space for legislators.  I’m not suggesting that the EU or any other supra-national governing body get involved in the allocation of World Cups, that sounds like too much of a headache, but there may be a need a for more scrutiny and more legislation.

The Lisbon Treaty means that the EU now has greater competence in sport and the Commission has handed down its first communication on the subject.  This communication looks at, among other things, doping, sports betting and player transfers.  These are areas where the sports organisations have little ability or willingness to intervene.  Sport affects the lives of so many across the EU, it is only right that we ensure that it’s held to the highest standards.  Otherwise organisations such as FIFA, with their huge amounts of money and power, can end up bringing sport into disrepute.

Cameron supports changes to the Lisbon Treaty, but where is the promised referendum?

Labour Party

It seems David Cameron is prepared to renege on his election promise to put all changes to EU treaties to a referendum in the UK.

In a speech to the House of Commons following his first meeting of the European Council,  made up of the prime ministers and presidents of the 27 EU Member States, Mr Cameron was full of bravado about not letting any agreement ‘alter member state competences’ .  However, despite quoting Margaret Thatcher,  in reality Cameron is supporting Germany’s desire to make changes to the Lisbon Treaty in the wake of the financial crisis and the problems caused by the situation in Greece.  If these treaty changes are to go forward, where, Mr Cameron, is your treasured referendum? 

David Cameron also supported the EU 2020 Strategy and Millennium Development Goals in his speech to MPs.  I found this a little strange since, as Harriet Harman rightly pointed out in her response, Conservative MEPs have either abstained or voted against these measures in the European Parliament.  Cameron didn’t even have a response, deciding instead, rather pathetically, to say that he would be keeping an eye on the Labour and Lib Dem MEPs.  I wonder what the Tories’ coalition partners made of this.

Following George Osborne’s deeply damaging budget, David Cameron’s antics in Europe add depth and context to the picture of the Coalition Government which is beginning to emerge, an image of a Conservative Party that really does not know what it is doing over some of the most important issues currently facing us.

Part of me almost feels sorry for David Cameron.  He must have been a lonely figure in Brussels last week.  Seeing the leaders of centre right parties from across Europe meeting before the European Council summit in order to discuss strategy, whilst he was left to ‘strategise’ with one far right Polish MEP.  That is price you pay for isolating yourself from the biggest political grouping in European politics (the European Peoples’ Party) and allying yourself with the far-right, eurosceptic fringe.  Sarkozy and Merkel gave an impressive press conference afterwards, detailing the decsions reached in the summit.  Not too long ago, the British Prime Minister would have been standing right beside them.  Not now.

There was a telling moment in the debate in the House of Commons where one of Cameron’s own MPs (William Cash) asked a question regarding the “30 European directives in the pipeline which will deeply affect our financial regulation and economic governance” and questioned how we might regain and retain control over economic issues.  David Cameron could only rather weakly respond that the European Parliament had made things ‘a lot more burdensome’ and that it was ‘not a satisfactory situation’.  Now I happen to think that these financial regulations are necessary, but perhaps Cameron’s political position would be a good deal more ‘satisfactory’ if they could actually engage and influence European politics.  Cameron needs to realise that euroscepticism may win him the support of the back benches, but in Europe he’ll be left standing on the sidelines with the nutters, looking lonely and confused.

The Beautiful Game

Labour Party

Although I’m by no means football crazy, many of my colleagues on the Culture and Education Committee are.  Football is, in fact, one of the areas where our generally collegial bonhomie can become rather strained.  Since sport has officially become part of the remit of the Culture and Education committee since the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty we will probably have to spend a lot more time discussing football over the next few years, though it might be worth pointing out to some of my colleagues that there are in fact other sports equally deserving of our attention. 

Given all of this, it wasn’t that surprising that one of the most adversarial discussions so far this year was the result of a presentation given by representatives from UEFA (Union of European Football Associations).

UEFA is increasingly concerned about the level of debt some of Europe’s biggest football clubs are finding themselves in, so are introducing new regulations in order to curtail some of the worst excesses.  They provided our committee with some pretty incredible statistics; for instance the aggregate loss across Europe’s top clubs last year was 578 million Euros, with debt reaching 5.5 billion Euros.  Despite this clubs still spend on average 65% of all money they receive on salaries.  This is obviously unsustainable and we have already seen a number of clubs in the UK going in to administration. 

UEFA are introducing rules that will stop clubs being able spend more than they receive year after year and hold them to their financial commitments, to creditors, players and social/tax  authorities.  This all seems sensible enough, but they seemed to have devised rules which disproportionately affect English clubs.  These regulations would label Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, and Tottenham Hotspur as financially unviable. 

I have never really been a follower of football, but even to me it seems absurd that clubs as big and as successful as these would be penalised and even excluded from European competitions.  I asked what exactly these clubs were expected to do about the situation, but did not get much of a response from the UEFA representatives.  Perhaps they are not particularly concerned about knocking the Premier League down a peg or two, and some of my fellow committee members seemed positively happy at the thought.  I think UEFA are right to be concerned with the level of debt in football.  At a time of global financial instability it seems gratuitous that football clubs should be being so profligate.  But it is a bit hard to swallow when they introduce such unforgiving rules that will affect English clubs more so than any others.  

Perhaps the CULT committee’s time would have been better spent focussing on what were only minor features of the discussion; UEFA’s desire to encourage youth development and investment in social and community projects.  Football, whether you love it or hate it, is a massive industry that reaches a lot of people and therefore could be a real force for good.  I found it very encouraging that Europe’s governing body has recognised this and is actively seeking to encourage clubs to develop home grown talent and reach out to the broader community.  These are the sort of areas that I feel the CULT committee can play a more positive role, and where we can reach the consensus that I find so refreshing.

Catherine Ashton maximum points, Charles Tannock none whatsoever

Labour Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tories cannot overcome their problems with Europe

Labour Party

You will remember that on Friday I posted a report on the Tripartite Lords, Commons and European Parliament meeting held the day before.  I deliberately didn’t mention any of the names of those present, but nevertheless tried to give a rounded account of what transpired.

One thing I didn’t mention and decided to leave for later was a very significant comment by one of the Lords present.  He (all except one of the peers present were male) made the obvious and strikingly simple point that were the Tories ever to form a government they would have to engage with the European Union. Britain is, after all, a fully paid up member and has been for over 30 years.

Were there to be a Conservative government, they would have no option other that to take part in the Council of Ministers.  Government Ministers would have to go to the Council Ministerial meetings. If they failed to attend Britain would be left completely out in the cold.  Not going to Council meetings would mean the government could not stand up for Britain’s interests, surely a very grave dereliction of duty.  Again, I am not going to divulge the name of the Lord who put forward this view, except to say he has been a leading Conservative and therefore speaks with some weight.  However, what he said is not rocket science.  The Tories would have no choice but to be present in the EU and do their best for us, the British people.

This again shows the complete madness of Tory policy on Europe.  They are trying to be neither one thing nor the other.  On the one hand, the Tories do not want to withdraw completely from the EU while on the other they think they can change EU agreements to suit their own agenda.  As I have said many times before, renegotiation of the treaties and agreements is a non-starter.  All of these were closely fought before being signed by all the EU member states.  Given this, it seems extremely unlikely that any, let alone a majority, of EU countries would be willing even to contemplate tearing up what already exists just to placate one particular member state. 

The fact that the Tories had huge difficulties setting up the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) Group in the European Parliament shows, I believe, just how marginalised they have become in Europe.  The Tories have, as I understand it, lost support from Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy as well as other centre-right governments in Europe.  In all honesty, I really cannot see any way in which they would be able to get enough agreement from enough of the 27 EU member states to change any of the EU treaties. 

This leaves the option of withdrawing completely from the EU.  This, at least, would be an honest policy and is now achievable as the Lisbon Treaty allows countries to leave the EU.  However, it appears Cameron doesn’t want to go down this route. The Tories are stuck with their impossible promises. In all seriousness, would you put your trust in a political party whose leaders are so obviously muddled on a topic as important as Britain’s role in Europe?

European Liaison Meeting with the House of Lords and the House of Commons

Labour Party

Top of the bill at the Tripartite meeting between the House of Lords, House of Commons and the European Parliament was the ever present climate change talks at Copenhagen.  This is undeniably the most important issue facing the world.  This did not, however, stop the two UKIP MEPs present coming out with what were rather feeble attempts to deny the man-made nature of the climate change we are currently suffering.

Although I don’t often attend these Tripartite meetings which are held two to three times a year, I strongly believe they are a good idea.  The meetings keep us all in touch and prevent the two parliaments occupying completely parallel universes where there is no contact whatsoever.

The debate on climate change was a case in point.  The MEPs were able to tell the Lords and MPs that Commission President Barosso intends to fund climate change to the tune of 30 – 50 billion Euros.  A lively debate followed, focusing on developing alternative energy sources and energy saving measures.  Although the economic downturn is making the former more difficult, it is probably helping the latter in which, incidentally, the UK has a good record.

The meeting moved on from climate change to the hugely problematic regulation of hedge funds.  80% of hedge funds in Europe are in the City of London, making this a substantially British issue.  The general feeling of the meeting was that since hedge funds only risk their own money, they are not a problem in the way the banks have shown themselves to be.

And finally, we looked at what seem to most people outside parliamentary procedures the arcane processes used in the European Parliament.  It is, of course, worth noting that since there is a high turnover of MEPs, over half the European Parliament elected earlier this year are new, and may also be struggling with some of these matters.

European Parliament Committees will, of course, be interviewing Commissioners in the middle of January, and there is no cast-iron guarantee that all Commissioners will be confirmed.  It will be made more complicated in that President Barosso has redrawn Commissioner portfolios to some large extent.

One of the main conclusions of this Tripartite meeting was that the Lisbon Treaty has changed the landscape.  Lisbon gives the European Parliament much greater power.  As one of the members of the House of Lords on the Committee succinctly put it, “The Lisbon Treaty has ended the democratic deficit at a stroke.”

Cameron is still on Planet Zog

Labour Party

It appears that David Cameron still doesn’t get it.  Although he abandoned his “cast iron” pledge to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in his speech earlier today, he is still talking as if negotiations with the EU about Britain getting rid of those EU agreements the Tories don’t like are possible and something the Tories would be able to do.

Let me remind Mr. Cameron that the UK is fully signed up to the three issues he seeks to get rid of (see the relevant extracts from his speech set out below).  Undoing EU agreements once have been concluded by all the member states has no real precedent in the EU and, as Mr Cameron has to admit, his attempts to unpick EU agreements would need the support of all the 26 other EU member states.  Does David Cameron really think this is going to happen?  Why would the EU wish to allow Britain more opt outs than we already have and in the process create a precedent that no Treaty or agreement is sacrosanct and can be modified willy-nilly at the whim of one member state.

Mr. Cameron, I tell you that what you are trying to sell to the British people is a whole lot of smoke and mirrors.  You may wish to base your policy on quicksand to maintain the grace and favour of the Conservative Party.  The people of Britain deserve much more.  

“A Conservative Government will address some of these problems by negotiating three specific guarantees with our European partners guarantees over powers that we believe should reside with Britain, not the EU.

“So we will want to negotiate the return of Britain’s opt-out from social and employment legislation in those areas which have proved most damaging to our economy and public services for example the aspects of the Working Time Directive which are causing real problems in the NHS and the Fire Service.

“The second British guarantee we will negotiate is over the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

“We will want a complete opt-out from the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

“The third area where we will negotiate for a return of powers is criminal justice.

“That will mean limiting the European Court of Justice’s jurisdiction over criminal law to its pre-Lisbon level, and ensuring that only British authorities can initiate criminal investigations in Britain.

“I recognise, of course, that taking back power in these areas, or negotiating arrangements that suit the UK, is not something we can do unilaterally.

“It means changing the rules of an institution of which we are a member – changing rules that Britain has signed up to.