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.

Tory MEPs Refuse to Support EU Targets on Aid to Developing Countries

Labour Party

David Cameron is today attending a summit of European leaders which will seek to agree the EU’s approach at a major United Nations summit on the UN Millennium Development Goals due to be held in September.

Meanwhile a large proportion of his Tory MEPs yesterday refused to vote in favour of a report in the European Parliament on the EU’s progress in meeting these very same Millennium Development Goals.  Fortunately the report was adopted by a large majority, which only goes to show just how out of touch the Tories are with mainstream opinion.

In the final vote on the report authored by my Labour colleague Michael Cashman MEP, there were no Tory votes for the report and no outright rejections.  However, the following Tory MEPs abstained: Jacqueline Foster, Ashley Fox, Daniel Hannan, Roger Helmer, Syed Kamall, Sajjad Karim, Emma McClarkin, Kay Swinburne, Charles Tannock and Marina Yannakoudakis.

The refusal of such a large proportion of the Conservative MEPs (10 out of a total of 25) to back the report must call into question the wider support for international development within the Tory party.  It also makes you wonder about David Cameron’s attitude in that most of these MEPs supported Cameron for Tory leader and are clearly close to him.

In yesterday’s vote, the European Parliament specifically expressed its support for policies on voluntary family planning, safe abortion, treatment of sexually transmitted infections and the provision of reproductive health supplies consisting of life-saving drugs and contraceptives, including condoms. Maternal mortality claims over half a million women’s lives a year and progress has been negligible. Teenage pregnancy is still high and contraceptives and family planning have become only slightly more accessible.

Yet the Tories refused to support amendments to the report on these issues.  The first part of amendment 42 dealing with safe abortion and the provision of condoms was rejected by Richard Ashworth, Robert Atkins, Giles Chichester, James Elles, Vicky Ford, Daniel Hannan, Malcolm Harbour, Roger Helmer, Syed Kamall, Timothy Kirkhope, Emma McClarkin, Struan Stephenson and Charles Tannock while Ashley Fox, Sajjad Karim, James Nicholson, Kay Swinburne and Marina Yannakoudakis abstained.

Both these Conservative MEPs and more importantly Prime Minister David Cameron need to explain why they do not wish to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and improve the lives of women in poverty in developing countries.

We know that David Cameron has promised there will be no cuts to overseas development aid.  The big question now is: “Will Cameron make good on this promise or will he renege on all those vulnerable people who so badly need our assistance?”

The Dark Side of Mother’s Day

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Mother’s Day fell this year in Belgium on 9th May.  Dutch MEP Sophia in ‘t Veld, who is the President of the European Parliament working group on reproductive health, HIV/AIDS and development (EPWG), used Mother’s Day as a way of introducing a roundtable discussion entitled ‘The Dark Side of Mothers’ Day: Maternal Mortality’.

Unsafe motherhood, and its disastrous consequences, are wholly preventable. As Nicolas Beger, Director Amnesty EU Office, explained, the situation would be much improved if national governments, development agencies and international actors put safe motherhood and reproductive health initiatives at the top of their agendas. 

Burkina Faso-based representative, Madame Traore, who works for Family Care International, one of several non-governmental organisations seeking to make pregnancy and childbirth safer around the world explained that while improving maternal health is one of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) agreed by the 192 United Nations Member States in 2000, it remains the most off-track of them all. This, in her opinion, says a great deal about the way that the world views women. The issue of maternal mortality is too often deemed as ‘women’s business’, and not something about which everyone, both men and women alike, should be concerned.

The situation as it stands is extremely bleak. In sub-Saharan Africa the chances of dying during pregnancy or childbirth can be as high as one in eight, compared to one in 8000 in Western Europe, and pregnancy and childbirth remain the primary cause of death among women of childbearing age. Women in developing countries make up almost all of the 500,000 mothers who die each year from either being pregnant or giving birth, with many more deaths falling off the medical map given the difficulty of measuring them. Unsafe motherhood is caused by a number of factors, including poor hygiene and care during labour, poor health and nutrition prior to pregnancy, and inaccessible or unaffordable healthcare. Social, economic and cultural issues, including poverty, female genital mutilation and early marriage amplify the risks.

Is time running out to achieve the Millennium Development Goals?

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The deadline for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is only five years away, and while some progress has been made at the international and national levels, it has until now been too slow and partial. Decision-makers have a tendency to think about problems in statistical terms, and this can mean that what is really happening to people on the ground gets lost.

To persuade the powers that be to get a move on, , my colleague in the European Parliamentary Labour party, Michael Cashman, hosted an event in the European Parliament earlier this week  in which six remarkable women from the developing world came to let politicians, lobbyists and media bodies hear first-hand their experiences.

Professor Leonor Magtolis Briones, the convenor of Social Watch Philippines, was the first to speak.  She opened by expressing her deep concern for the so-called ‘lost generation’ in the Philippines; that is those babies born during the period of structural development, who, now in their 20s, are in poor health and lack education.  In one Philippine province of 835,000 people, there are only 14 medical doctors, 16 nurses and one nutritionist.  She observed that specific issues on health and education are more pressing for women and girls, but that at present not enough of them have adequate access to these provisions.  Professor Magtolis Briones is now playing a leading role in the access to health and medicines campaign in the Philippines.  Using her extensive knowledge of public finance, she is helping to put together an alternative budget on the government – one in which more money is spent on essential services.

Nicaragua-born campaigner, Elba Rivera Urbina, was the second speaker.  She remarked that Nicaragua currently has the worst education standards in South America, with the most poorly-paid teachers in the region.  According to the World Bank, people typically need at least the equivalent of a baccalaureate to get out of poverty; yet, in a country like Nicaragua, only a small minority of children leave school with such a qualification.  Since a literacy campaign brought Elba out of illiteracy at the age of 18, transforming her life, she has been working tirelessly on the Nicaragua campaign for better education.  Her aim is to put pressure on the Nicaraguan government to recognise the importance of education, as she believes that this is the only way to get her mainly agricultural country out of poverty.

The final personal account was given by Kadiatou Baby Maiga, who is President of the Malian coalition for Education for all.  She reiterated the claim of the previous two speakers that education is the basis for everything.  She explained that in her year at high school, only two out of the 80 pupils in her school were girls.  She saw that education for girls was not the norm, and has therefore been striving ever since to ensure that greater numbers of girls have the opportunity to go to school.  If the status of women is to be lifted then it is vital that this goal is achieved.

The testimonies of these three women gave a fresh and welcome perspective to the widely-discussed issue of poverty in the developing world.  While it is important that politicians keep pushing for changes in the law, it is also essential that those affected are involved at every stage in this process.  Aid works, as these three women highlighted, and it is a vital component on the fight against global poverty.  Between now and 2015, the European Union must focus on increasing its aid to the world’s poorest countries, on improving the quality of its aid, and on supporting free public services at both the technical and political level.

International Women’s Day Event on Violence against Women

Labour Party

This year International Women’s Day was celebrated a week later than usual in the European Parliament, with most of the major events taking place on 16th March rather than the 8th. On Tuesday morning, members of the Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee organised a hearing on the theme of violence against women, with national parliaments, press and NGOs invited to discuss the issue. Violence against women is a subject that I have blogged about on several occasions, and it is an issue that the European Parliament has tried to address at every available opportunity, particularly since the take over of the Spanish Presidency.

The event was opened by the President of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek, giving a supportive speech for women subject to violence. It was followed by an address by Bibiana Aído Almagro, who is the Spanish Minister for Gender Equality. She underlined that no society can hope to achieve full gender equality if violence against women cannot be eradicated, and stressed the need for EU Member States to develop national strategies to deal with violence, including trafficking. A Bulgarian journalist who attended the event described a horrifying practice in his country whereby acid is thrown on women, leading to blindness and disfigurement. He highlighted that in Bulgaria violence against women is far more accepted than other parts of Western Europe, with large numbers of women affected. It is true that in many parts of the world certain forms of violence are treated not as crimes but as private family business in which the state should not interfere. The distinction between the public and the private is one of the main reasons why violence against women is not always investigated and prosecuted.

One proposal put forward during the discussion was that of setting up a Europe-wide hotline for victims of abuse. In Spain, a hotline has already been established, providing advice and support for women who have been subject to violence. To implement a similar system at the EU level would offer a valuable support network to women who need it, and could, I believe, have a hugely positive impact. The problem is deciding what form this hotline would take. We already have in operation a Europe-wide hotline for missing children; yet many Member States simply haven’t made full use of this service. It is not enough to put in place a hotline with a number that victims can ring. It is also necessary to set up an infrastructure, with a link to police, NGOs and other bodies. This requires money, and a strong willingness on the part of national governments to implement it.

We know that violence against women, in whatever form, violates human rights and presents a significant obstacle to the achievement of equality between men and women. It imposes huge costs on society, and creates a major public health problem. For this reason, it is indispensable that the EU continues to address this issue and encourages Member States to do the same. As I explained in previous blog posts, in 2000 the EU-funded Daphne programme was set up to prevent and fight all forms of violence against women, adolescents and children, taking place in either the public or the private sphere. At present, an ad hoc committee is also drafting a European convention which will establish common standards aimed at preventing and fighting the problem of violence against women.

There are just five years to go before we reach the deadline for implementing the Millennium Development Goals and there is still an awful lot more needing to be done. However I will strive to ensure, along with my fellow members of the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, that violence against women remains at the top of the EU agenda. I hope that when we reach International Women’s Day in 2011, we will have seen more substantial improvements in the fight against this grave crime and a greater level of awareness about its damaging effects.

UN-EU Collaboration on Women’s Issues

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Asha-Rose Migiro was at the European Parliament earlier in the week for the third time since becoming Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN). Migiro, who is from Tanzania, is both the first woman and the first African to hold this position. Her appointment by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, was a huge turning point for the organisation, and fulfilled the Security-General’s earlier promise to select a woman from the developing world for the post.

Ms. Migiro is deeply committed to gender issues, and has travelled extensively in her short time as Deputy to encourage world leaders to promote equality in the home and workplace. She arrived at the Parliament armed with a report entitled Renewing Hope, Rebuilding Lives, outlining how the partnership between the UN and European Commission can help vulnerable states to recover from natural disasters or conflict.

Migiro has repeatedly highlighted the need to combat sexual violence against women, which is so often used as a tool in war. The conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia, and Cote d’Ivoire, have all seen widespread gender-based sexual violence used as a war crime. For Migiro, the collaboration between the UN and the EU can play a crucial role in curbing this grave crime and providing help for victims. The UN-EU partnership has supported, amongst other things, the development of key EU policies, research collaboration, and landmark conferences leading to the adoption of policies and guidelines. The latter includes the 2008 conference From Commitment to Action and the 2009 conference International Colloquium on Women’s Leadership.

Inevitably, the UN cannot preach gender equality unless it shows that it also practises it. According to Migiro, the Secretary-General has made it his aim to get more women working at the UN, and has given many top positions to women. She argues that the organisation has seen a 40 per cent increase in the numbers of women taking up high-level roles since Ban Ki-Moon came into office.

UN-logoAlso commendable is the UN’s decision to create a ‘super-agency’ for women. Until recently the way that the UN system works for women has been deeply fragmented and under-resourced. It has been a severe disappointment for the world’s three billion or so women, many of who continue to face discrimination on a daily basis. With the creation of a UN Women’s Agency, one that has as much weight as the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP) or the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN will have a greater chance of protecting women in need.

It is now 15 years since the UN conference on population vowed to put gender equality and reproductive rights at the centre of development. Yet there has been no reduction in the numbers of women who are dying as a result of childbirth. I agree with Asha-Rose Migiro that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to cut maternal mortality and achieve universal access to reproductive health care must remain a central focal point. Let’s just hope that in the next 15 years, with both the creation of a UN Women’s Agency and with greater collaboration between the UN and EU, we might see some of the changes that are so desperately needed.