President Van Rompuy Proves he is a Man of Vision

Labour Party

You may be forgiven for all the misconceptions you probably have about Herman Van Rompuy, the newish President of the European Council.  He didn’t get much coverage in the UK when he was Prime Minister of Belgium, and most of that written and said about him since becoming President has been negative, sometimes even insulting. 

 President Van Rompuy spoke to the Socialist and Democrat Group this morning, and believe me he is far from lightweight.  His knowledge of economics is outstanding.  What is more, he is capable of strategic thinking and has a genuine vision for Europe, a vision much more in line with British views than you may expect.  President Van Rompuy sees the EU as a grouping of sovereign states with certain common objectives.  I’d certainly buy into that, as I’m sure would the vast majority of people in the UK, except perhaps those on the extreme margins of politics.

 The President showed a rare degree of radicalism this morning, all the more surprising as he is from the centre-right EPP family.  It was his support for the tax on financial transactions which finally convinced me that he is a man we could do business with.  When answering a question from fellow Belgian, Marc Tarabella, it became clear that President Van Rompuy not only supports the “Tobin” tax in principle, but as Belgian Prime Minister he implemented it on a national basis.  You may also be interested to know that the G20 is looking at such a tax and the IMF is preparing a report.    

 The economic issues obviouly revolved around the current downturn.  The President was unrepentant about the EU’s policy of protecting the internal market and the euro and the pursuit of inflationary measures.  He was, on the other hand, clear that we all need to return to balanced budgets in order to pursue social goals such as sustainable pensions and improved health care.  While I would not necessarily support his contention that we need balanced budgets to carry out a social programme, the President does, at least, believe in the social dimension of Europe.  He was also clear that the EU needs to ensure that the new EU 20:20 strategy is successful, unlike the previous Lisbon Strategy which did not achieve anything very much.

 Climate change was the other big topic.  Since Copenhagen has not moved anything forward, Europe needs to keep on working at this agenda.  There were several calls, including one from EPLP Leader Glenis Willmott, for green, sustainable jobs which President Van Rompuy supported wholeheartedly.     

Herman Van Rompuy is an engaging speaker, though like many Europeans he lacks some of the rhetorical flourish so beloved by the British. He gave his presentation in English, he then answered questions in French and understood German as well as his native Dutch.  I wonder how many of us are fluent in at least four languages.  He also listens and made a promise that he would take seriously all the points raised at the Group meeting.

 It’s a real tragedy for us that both President Van Rompuy and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs, our own Baroness Ashton, get such a bad press in Britain.  They are both excellent at their jobs.  One socialist MEP said today that Herman Van Rompuy is the right person in the right place.  The same is true of Cathy Ashton, and we would do well to take a leaf out of the books of many other countries in the European Union and support our national appointees.  

 And finally… it was good to see former Labour MEP Richard Corbett sitting at the top table with President Van Rompuy.  Richard is now head of the President’s Cabinet.  Congratulatons Richard.  You deserve your success and we all know you will do exceptional work  for Herman Van Rompuy and, by extension, for all of us involved in the EU.

Majority of Conservative MEPs oppose greater Gender Equality

Labour Party

Every year, at the request of the European Council, a report is produced on the progress towards the achievement of gender equality in the EU. It also presents challenges and priorities for the future. This year my fellow Socialist and Democrat (S&D) member in the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, Marc Tarabella, took the lead on this report in the European Parliament. He went on to produce a very comprehensive and coherent document which was voted on during the plenary session in Strasbourg last week.

In his report, Tarabella tried to highlight  in particular the different ways that the economic and financial crisis has affected women’s circumstances. Women were not initially hardest hit by the crisis, because the sectors that they dominate are mainly the public services, for instance health and education. However, in recent months the public sector has suffered terribly as a result of the crisis, and increasing numbers of women who typically benefit from the services in question, for instance childcare, are finding themselves in a position where they must assume these tasks themselves. Tarabella has acknowledged that the crisis, while having a damaging impact on both women and men, offers an important potential for the EU and national governments to rethink and restructure their approach to policy making.

This report is highly significant for several reasons. It addresses the challenges and the policy responses for removing barriers to women’s and men’s full participation in the labour market. It also addresses the importance of correcting the gender imbalance in decision-making. Amongst other things, it calls on the European Commission to establish a European Day for combating violence against women and children; it calls for a European charter of women’s rights to be established as soon as possible; it asks the Commission and Member States to run awareness-raising campaigns in schools and workplaces to combat persistent sexist stereotyping; and it highlights that women must have control over their sexual and reproductive rights.

While I am pleased to say that the report was successfully adopted during the vote in plenary on 10 February, it is unfortunate that the Tory-led ECR group opted to vote against the report. Only eight members of the ECR group voted in favour of the report, with 24 voting against and 14 abstaining. By contrast, nearly 96% of the S&D group members voted for the report. There can be no doubt that full gender equality will be much more difficult to achieve with groups like the ECR stifling the hard work of those in the Parliament committed to its achievement.

Gender equality: Is it achievable?

Labour Party

Gender inequality can manifest itself in many ways, be it through gender-based violence, unequal pay between men and women, or the application of gender stereotypes. Needless to say the achievement of full gender equality is still a long way off. Last Thursday a hearing was held in the European Parliament, entitled ‘Towards a new strategy for gender equality’, in which experts and MEPs were invited to debate the merits of the current roadmap towards equality between men and women (2006 – 2010), and put forward some new ideas for the next one.

I’m sure it will come as no surprise that most of the speakers who filled the room were women. This alone is a strong indicator of just how much more work there is still to do. I believe that there is a real need to involve men in the debate about women’s rights and gender equality. The stereotypes that trap women also trap men, and there can be no doubt that men need to be allies in the fight against gender inequality. I was very pleased that my fellow S&D Women’s Rights Committee member, Marc Tarabella, attended the event. Tarabella recently put together a report in the Parliament on equality between men and women in the European Union, and his contributions in the Women’s Committee are always thoughtful and constructive.

As we move into a new decade, and make our way onto a new roadmap towards gender equality, I believe that a dual approach towards gender equality is needed, involving collaboration and action by both the EU and national governments. It is not enough to simply focus on policy directly linked to gender inequality, such as violence and unequal pay; the gender aspect must also be considered in policy areas that at first glance are not necessarily linked to gender equality, including migration and asylum. As part of my role in the Committee on Culture Education this parliamentary term, I will be in charge of gender mainstreaming, ensuring that the ‘gender perspective’ is acknowledged in all policy and legislation dealt with by the Committee. The problem of gender inequality will only be solved if gender is considered at all levels and in all policy areas.