Europe Without Greece in Unthinkable

Labour Party

Speaking in the debate following Alexis Tsipras’ address to the European Parliament, Gianni Pittella, Leader of the Socialist and Democrat Group, made it clear that Greece must not leave the European Union.

Despite the rare political firestorm which followed his speech, the Greek Prime Minister was generally in a relatively conciliatory mood. Once his ritual moan about the state of Greece – public debt at 180 per cent with increased poverty and unemployment – he conceded the need for reform

Tsipras demanded an agreement which would allow Greece to exit from its present crisis. He told the European Parliament that reform was required and that such reform should be credible and necessary.

Such realism was, indeed, sorely needed following the start of the Greek PM’s speech when he warned against Greek migrants leaving their country for other parts of Europe and referred to Greece as an “austerity laboratory”.

There were, inevitably, other references to the Greece’s financial and social state. Later on the Tsipras talked about the 7.2 billion euros disbursement and the requirement to pay back 17.5 billion euros. The past five years, he said, had been a huge burden on the Greek people

Yet there was a very real upside. As Gianni Pittella said in his intervention: “The conditions are there for an agreement this week”. Proposals from the Greek government had been submitted yesterday. While Greece rightly wants growth and sustainability, they now appear to be willing to enter constructive negotiations which will, hopefully, have at their heart restructuring the debt, support for Labour and measures against tax evasion. Jean-Claude Juncker has, in fact, showed considerable tenacity in moving Greece towards an agreement

Tsipras embraced the need to deal with tax evasion and corruption. Like a true Communist he blamed both what he called the oligarchs and, of course, previous Greek governments. In all fairness he does have a point if the statistic that 10 per cent of Greeks own 56 per cent of the national wealth is correct

Unsurprisingly Tsipras claimed that, following the referendum, the Greek government had a mandate from the Greek people. However, this is open to dispute. A hastily called plebiscite without time for all points of view to be heard may be not be a very democratic option according to Peter Kellner.

Unusually the European Parliament erupted in the debate after the Greek PM had spoken. Manfred Weber, Leader of the centre-right European People’s Party, accused Tsipras of not telling the truth to the Greek people and destroying confidence in Europe.

In the absence of the ECR (European Conservatives and Reformists) Leader British Conservative Sayed Kamall, his stand-in Mr Legutko said there was something rotten in the state of Greece with the European Union reaping the sour fruits of the original sin of currency union. Legutko’s contrived points only go to show that the ECR and the Tories  care more about their dogmatic views on the European Union than the need to find a workable settlement in Greece

MEPs and Danes battle over borders

Labour Party

Migration and free movement of people in the EU raised its ugly head in the European Parliament this week. MEPs are furious that EU governments want to deprive the Parliament of its right to legislate on arrangements for evaluating the functioning of the Schengen visa-free travel agreement. It’s shaping up to be a rare battle between the EuroParl and the Council of Ministers.

The European Council under Denmark, who currently holds the six month rotating presidency, has engendered wrath from across the political spectrum. Hannes Swoboda, leader of the Socialist and Democrat Group in the European Parliament, made our position clear: “You [the Council] have opened the door to populism and we will stand against you. Because there are so many refugees coming from Tunisia, should we shut down borders?” he asked, adding that “this is the wrong answer to the Arab Spring”. Mr Swoboda also warned: “we will use all political and legal tools at our disposal to stop this.”

MEPs are, in fact, considering bringing a case to the European Court of Justice.

Though the UK is not party to Schengen, migration and movement of people could potentially affect us, so we should follow this issue closely.

In the debate in the European Parliament in Strasbourg this week, speakers from most political groups strongly criticised the Danish Presidency.

MEPs asked the Danish justice minister Morten Bødskov to come to Parliament to explain why EU justice and home affairs ministers had decided on 7 June to change the legal basis of the rules governing the evaluation of Schengen from Article 77 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU to Article 70. This change effectively meant that the European Parliament no longer has any legislative powers over this draft law. The EU justice ministers merely promised to inform Parliament of the member states’ decisions.

Under the new arrangement the European Commission would also be prevented from exercising their supervisory role on behalf of citizens. Member states would be free to ignore any concerns that they put forward.

“This is a legal decision based on contents, not on politics,” said Danish justice minister Morten Bødskov. He called on MEPs to “look at this in a broader perspective”, adding that “with this compromise we are advocating a model based on more EU”.

On the other hand the Swedish Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malstrom said, “I’m convinced that the last word is not said on this, expressing her “clear disappointment” at the Council decision.  She added that “We will defend security, but also freedom of movement.”

This issue could run for a while longer. It’s a very real power struggle between the governments of the EU member states and the European Parliament. Although I suspect there will ultimately be no clear winner, the battle is an important one both on the principle of free movement and the powers of the EU institutions.

Hungarian Premier Orban Polarises the European Parliament

Labour Party

The European Parliament has just wrapped up a debate on the political situation in Hungary following the European Commission’s commencement of infringement proceedings a few days ago against Hungary’s right-wing Fidesz government. 

The Commission is taking action against three specific violations by Viktor Orban’s administration:

  • Risking the independence of the Hungarian Central Bank
  • Lowering the age at which judges and prosecutors retire
  • Undermining the independence of the data protection ombudsman in Hungary

This action by the European Commission could ultimately lead to loss of Hungary’s voting rights in the EU under Article 7 of EU treaty law. According to the Daily Telegraph, Lars Christensen from Danske Bank has said: “The EU is not bluffing. It will let Hungary go over the edge to make the point the EU countries must play by the rules.”

This is not, however, quite how Mr Orban sees it. Having been invited to speak in the European Parliament debate today – an unusual step which I think demonstrates a high level of fairness on the part of the Parliament – Orban was typically gung ho. An ardent anti-communist, he made sure we all knew that Hungary was the last iron-curtain country to get rid of its Stalinist constitution. The point being that it was Orban who did the deed.

Orban further maintained that the repressive measures brought in by his government were needed to sort out the economic mess he inherited, while claiming the country had also been on the verge of social collapse.

Following Orban, the European Parliament split on Party lines. The Socialist and Democrat, Liberal and Green Groups were passionately against Orban, seeing his government as anti-democratic, restricting fundamental freedoms. It was even suggested that the Parliament send a delegation to Hungary to find out why the homeless, the poor and vulnerable, and those in need of social care, not to mention intellectuals and free thinkers, were so afraid of Orban and his government.

The other side of the House, the European People’s Party (EPP), the European Conservatives and Reformists (the Tories’ group) and the ultra-right Europe for Freedom and Democracy took a diametrically opposite view. The EPP Leader Joseph Daul could hardly have more pro-Orban.

Such a very real political division is rare in the European Parliament. The Parties generally seek consensus, while EU matters quite often raise little controversy. A strong political debate therefore came as a breath of fresh air, one which should happen more often. A Parliament is a political institution and must have the oxygen of political disagreement and debate to be credible and effective.

Martin Schulz comes and Martin Schulz goes

Labour Party

Having been elevated to the dizzy heights of President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz has just been replaced by Hannes Swoboda as Leader (President) of the Socialist and Democrat Group.

Akin to the Speaker of the House of Commons, the President of the European Parliament is an influential post with the incumbent representing the EuroParl across the world. Likewise, Leader of the S & D Group, the second largest in the Parliament, is no mean job. It carries power and respect and is important in EU politics.

While I am pleased that a Socialist and Democrat was elected President of the European Parliament on the first ballot – 387 for Schulz, 142 for the ECR’s Nerj Deva and 141 for Diana Wallis, a Lib-Dem and one of the sitting parliamentary Vice-Presidents – the way in which the election was contested caused concern.

First and foremost, nothing was done to address the accusation that the election process is a stitch-up between the two largest political groups in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party (EPP) and the S & D Group. At the beginning of the current mandate in 2009, the EPP and the S & D did a deal whereby the EPP would hold the President position for the first half of the five year parliament then the S & D would take over. Such deals are always taken seriously and almost always hold, as happened today.

Such a way of operating leaves the smaller groups out in the cold, and makes it difficult for members of the two big groups to vote another way, secret ballot notwithstanding.  It is therefore not really democratic.

The Independent this morning ran a sadly British take on the election of the President of the European Parliament, maintaining that there is an anti-British bias. I’m not too sure that this was indeed the case, in spite of David Cameron’s stupid behaviour at the recent Brussels summit which marginalised the UK as one against 26. I am, however, certain that the European Parliament should stop accepting deals such as the one we saw today if it is to be at all credible.

The same goes for the election for the new Leader of the S & D Group which was called to fill the vacancy caused by Martin Schulz’s elevation. Won by the Austrian Hannes Swoboda, the EPLP candidate, Stephen Hughes did not fare too well, the result being Swoboda 102 and Hughes 37 with the French contender Catherine Trautmann securing 45 votes.

It is time the European Parliament sorted itself out and held open elections. All the political groups should stand a chance of gaining the highest positions. It would, in addition, be good to see more female and ethnic minority faces.

British Rebate in Jeopardy thanks to David Cameron

Labour Party

Joseph Daul, leader of the European People’s Party (EPP), has just told the European Parliament that the rebate Britain receives from the EU must be put into question following David Cameron’s veto last week.

David Cameron has certainly not fought for our national interest. Not content with isolating us in Europe thereby endangering Britain’s trade within the EU single market, his actions are threatening our cherished rebate first won by his heroine Margaret Thatcher.

Since Cameron consistently tells us he wants Britain to remain in the EU, the only conclusion to be drawn from his disastrous veto on Friday morning is that, far from being good for our country, it is very much against the national interest.

As EPP Leader Joseph Daul carries a lot of clout. The EPP is the largest political group in the European Parliament. The Tories ignominiously left it to set up shop with what Nick Clegg described at the time as “a bunch of nutters” and in so doing threw away whatever influence in the European Parliament they may have had.

After Mr. Daul had spoken, Guy Verhofstadt, Leader of the EuroParl Liberal Group said in English: “Mr. Cameron, if you do not sit at the table you find yourself on the menu.”

Martin Schulz, Leader of the European Parliament’s socialists, said that it was bankers in the City of London who had caused the crisis.

Britain is now a laughing stock. It is an open secret Cameron failed to properly use the British foreign office during pre-summit negotiations. They are the Rolls Royce of foreign diplomats, they are ours and yet our Prime Minister failed to put their expertise at the disposal of the British Government.

As Glenis Willmott, Leader of the Labour MEPs in the European Parliament said, “Cameron might think he is Churchill. In fact, never in the history of negotiations with our European partners was so much sacrificed for so few by so many.”

Thanks to David Cameron and the feral Eurosceptic Tories on whom he relies to stay in office, if not in power, when British financial interests are discussed by our EU partners, we will not be at the table to defend our national interest.

European Socialist Leaders call for Financial Transaction Tax

Labour Party

European Socialist Prime Ministers and Deputy Prime Ministers call today for a tax on financial transactions across Europe. The tax, often named the “Robin Hood” tax on account of its aim to take money from the wealthy financial sector to redirect it to the public sphere, has for many years been supported by members of the S & D Group in the European Parliament as well as a number of celebrities including Bill Nighy.

You may be interested to read the following statement from the Socialist Prime Ministers and Deputy Prime Ministers and the Party of European Socialists ahead of the European Council on 24th and 25th March:

At the European Council meeting on 24th and 25th March 2011, decisions will be taken which will have far reaching consequences on the European economy and our societies.

The Party of European Socialists (PES) and its Prime Ministers and Deputy Prime Ministers, firmly reiterate our call for a balanced approach in tackling the economic, financial and social crisis in Europe. We commit to promoting efficient and fair solutions to reunite the necessary fiscal consolidation with strong sustainable growth, high employment and social progress.

At the meeting in Athens on 4th and 5th March 2011, the PES Leaders identified concrete policies to restore a balanced common approach to the challenges Europe is facing and adopted a declaration to this purpose.

We are focusing on four decisive points:

Financial Transaction Tax

The PES has for a long time been at the forefront in calling for a European Financial Transaction Tax (FTT). We reiterate our call for the immediate implementation of such a tax in the European Union, to raise fair and sustainable revenue to support economic recovery and public finances in all member states and to mitigate speculation on the financial markets.

The Rescue Mechanism

We welcome the setting up of a permanent rescue mechanism for the eurozone, which rewards the tenacity of European socialists and social democrats over the past 13 months. However, more needs to be done. The future European Stability Mechanism, as well as the current European Financial Stability Facility, must furthermore apply balanced conditionality, allowing for sustainable public finances as well as growth and employment. Interest rates charged on rescue loans must for this reason be aligned to market financing rates.

Europe 2020

Within the framework of the reform of EU and eurozone economic governance and economic policy coordination, we reiterate our commitment to reaching the objectives of the Europe 2020 strategy. To ensure, that our 2020-objectives can be reached, we need to develop further the economic pillar of the eurozone in a balanced way. For this purpose, National Reform Programmes and Stability and Convergence Programmes must be prepared according to the integrated guidelines.

Furthermore, the issue of macroeconomic imbalances in the Eurozone must be tackled, notably by promoting economic efficiency in deficit countries and internal demand in surplus countries.

Balanced reform

We urge for a balanced reform which includes an “Employment and Social Progress Pact”, establishing common and ambitious measures to preserve and strengthen our social models, inter alia relating to labour standards, minimum income and workers’ rights. Moreover, we reiterate our demand that the autonomy of social partners, notably in wage setting processes for which the EU has no competence, must be respected.


Concern over State Control of the Media in Hungary

Labour Party

The newish right-wing government in Hungary is proving a real headache. Clearly not content with gaining two thirds of the vote (enough to guarantee constitutional change) in last April’s general election, the ruling Hungarian Civic Alliance or Fidesz Party now appears to be severely overreaching itself.

Like eastern European governments before, the current Hungarian administration under Viktor Orban is casting a distrustful eye over the country’s media and as a result the Hungarian Parliament has recently passed new media legislation.

However, this legislation appears far from benign. MEPs and other European organisations such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe have made representations along the following lines:

The new legislation undermines media pluralism in that the Hungarian Media Authority and Media Council, which are essentially part of the state apparatus, can sanction the content of all media

The Media Authority and Media Council are politically homogenous, led exclusively by members supported by the current governing party and the members were elected for a term of nine years

The legislation abolishes the political and financial independence of public service media as all heads of public service media were recently replaced by new directors all of whom were nominated by the governing party

These media laws can only be modified by a two-thirds majority on the Hungarian Parliament. In other words the media legislation could be on the statute books for a very long time.

The EU, which has competence over aspects of media policy through the Culture and Education Committee and Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes is rightly concerned about what is going on in relation to the media in Hungary. 

A joint meeting of the Culture and Education and Civil Liberties Committees yesterday debated Hungary’s new media law after hearing presentations from Mrs. Kroes and Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Justice Tibor Navracsics, who was questioned closely on the aspects of the legislation which require all media to register as such and provide “balanced” coverage of national and EU events.

Mrs. Kroes rightly chose a conciliatory approach saying, “We are looking very carefully at the provisions and will make a legal assessment of the law. We have been in contact with the Hungarian government in order to raise specific concerns”.  She added that the Commission is assessing the new law’s compatibility with the EU Audiovisual and Media Services (AVMS) Directive, and that preliminary examination had already indicated some problems, such as its apparent application to media firms established in other EU countries, the rules on media registration, unclear definitions and political control over the media authority.

Following a press conference this morning led by S&D Group President Martin Schulz, the Socialist and Democrat Group in the European Parliament has decided to wait for the Commission’s legal assessment before taking any further substantive action.

Although I believe both the Commission and the S&D Group are doing the right thing, there are clearly serious concerns about the way the Hungarian Government appears to be going after the media and seeking to diminish press and media freedom. If there is a case to answer the European Union must not shirk its responsibilities.

The State of the Union Address was all about Mr Barroso

Labour Party

“Where was the European Commission during the crises of the past year?” asked Martin Schulz, Socialist and Democrat Leader in the European Parliament following Jose-Manuel Barroso’s “State of the Union” address.

Schulz is indeed right.  What did the European Commission do about bankers’ bonuses at the beginning of the world economic crisis and what have they ever done in real terms to reduce the gap between the have and the have nots?

The debate, while wide ranging, was ultimately unsatisfying, largely because it was nearly all theory and very little about practical politics. More of a manifesto than a report on last year’s activities, European Commission President Barroso’s address, though upbeat, was curiously lightweight.

Barroso, of course, pressed all the right buttons, but as Martin Schulz pointed out, failed to expand or deal with any of the real issues.  The European Union, in particular the European Commission, really needs to get out of its wishful thinking mode.  As Martin Schulz said, Mr Barroso and his Commission nearly always cave into to the Franco/German alliance which is effectively in control of the Council of Ministers.

In fact, there is a real divergence between the aspiration of the European Council/Council of Minister and the European Commission.  While Martin Schulz disparages what he terms increasing intergovernmentalism, I think we should view this from another perspective.

Following enlargement of the European Union in 2004, not to mention the opposition to further EU integration from some other Member States, the vision of further European integration is, I believe, profoundly unrealistic.  But it’s a vision which has legs with the Leader of the centre-right European People’s Party, Joseph Daul from France, stating in his response to Barroso that people need “more Europe”.

To be fair to Mr Barroso he did not quite give us that.  It was, in effect, a shopping list with no really coherent political basis.  He talked, amongst other things, about the need for a functioning European single market, support for universities and lifelong learning, a European patent, energy security, climate change and creating green jobs and a global role for the European Union.

I have to admit, there was little I disagreed with.  Martin Schulz was again right when he called it a state of the union address for all people.       

However, while Barroso’s strong condemnation of racism and xenophobia was admirable, he failed to mention President Sarkozy’s expulsion of the Roma. Not exactly the approach we would expect of a serious political leader.

It’s hardly surprising that there were those who thought MEPs may not be in the Chamber to hear Mr Barroso.  The quality and content of his speech were more about boosting his profile than tackling the serious issues currently facing Europe.  However, the bribe to dock money from those MEPs who did not attend was extremely undignified and ultimately had to be withdrawn. Yet many were, in fact, present.  It’s a shame they were not regarded sufficiently to be given a speech of substance and, dare I say, vision.

David Poyser

Labour Party

Many readers of this blog will know David Poyser, latterly EPLP Press Officer following many years as the European Parliament Socialist Group audiovisual specialist.

David is leaving the European Parliament, we hope not for too long.  I will miss him as, I know, will many of my colleagues.  David’s readiness to help anyone was legendary; he would go out of his way to be be of assistance wherever and whenever possible. Nothing was ever too much trouble.  He always had time for EPLP members and always did his very best for us.

Holly Sutton from Journalista, who do my press work, was helped by David when she first began in the European Parliament.  David’s expertiese and easy going manner proved invaluable and enabled Holly to establish herself as a strong player in EU media work.  

For the time being David is returing to London.  I, and I’m sure every MEP who knows him, will wish David all the very best.

Getting Creative with Creative Rights

Labour Party


I had the pleasure of being invited to take part in a panel discussion at a conference run by the EU Observer, called Online Content and Creative Rights. The discussion was entitled ‘Get paid when you get played’ and I shared the platform with Liberal MEP Cecilia Wilkström, Jörg Evers, Chairperson of GEMA, and Jean-Eric De Cockborne from the European Commission.  The debate focused on what we as legislators could do to tackle this important and difficult issue while Mr. Evers provided an industry perspective.

It was an enlightening debate, one that brought in to sharp relief the complex nature of the problem.  The Reflections paper released by the European Commission has suggested that there be a single European Market for copyright, with big international collecting societies providing a “one stop shop” for everyone – from i-Tunes to BBC Radio 1 – wishing to purchase a license to play or distribute music.  This sounds like a perfectly sensible and workable idea, especially when you think about the current situation where rights to music have to be negotiated on a country by country basis, meaning that some music available in one country won’t be available in another.  This can encourage piracy, since if a song is not available legally in a particular country then some would simply look for an alternative, most likely illegal, source on the internet. 

But this single market idea does have a lot of problems, especially when you consider cultural diversity, something that the European Parliament is very keen to protect.  Artists and creators from smaller member states or more niche markets might get lost or forgotten in a huge, pan-European system.  So already a difficult question and we haven’t even started talking properly about piracy yet.  Needless to say when we were asked questions by the floor, a great many forthright views were expressed.  It was very useful for me and my fellow legislators to see the strength and diversity of feeling on these issues.

The Labour Government is introducing some very good legislation at the moment which is going to tackle this issue head on, punishing those who download and upload content illegally.  I hope that we can be as constructive at the European level.  This is one of the big issues in the Culture and Education Committee, and as the Coordinator for the S&D group, I will be working with my colleagues to make sure we find the right solution.  The internet has meant that the old way of doing things for collecting societies and the record industry is now quickly becoming obsolete, so it is up to them as well as us here in the Parliament to find solutions.  It is time for us all to get creative with creative rights.

I did an interview for the EU Observer website afterwards which you can find here, along with a number of other interviews from people speaking at the conference.