Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The 'Euro-myth'.

For the uninitiated, a 'euro-myth' is a story, usually in the Eurosceptic press, which is either wholly untrue, a deliberate distortion of the facts, a misunderstanding or taking an individual idea from a working paper and presenting it as a fixed decision.

In my work as an MEP I frequently come across examples of such stories when alarmed constituents get in touch, when I am asked about them myself by the press or when I come across them in the daily press summaries my office puts together for me.

Some of them beggar belief. For example, did you hear the one about 'barmy Brussels bureaucrats' working on secret plans to ban supermarkets and off licences from selling alcohol from Monday-Friday (Daily Star, 21 February 2005)?

Or how about the EU's ban on busty barmaids? The Sun (4 August 2005) was livid that Brussels bureaucrats had ordered Britain's barmaids to get rid of low cut tops in a bid to cut skin cancer rates. Sticking to the barmaid theme the Daily Star (1 April 2008) warned that under anti-discrimination legislation chatting up barmaids would result in fines, and the Sun (1 April 2008) and the Daily Mail (31 May 2008) were equally outraged that unelected bureaucrats in Brussels had imposed this on an unsuspecting Britain.

It really must have been a quiet month for the papers in April last year as the tabloids got really desperate for news and ran the story about the evil EU's secret plot to abolish Britain itself in response to some maps drawn up for regional cooperation programmes! (Daily Mail, The Sun, Daily Express, Daily Telegraph 23 April 2008).

Of course all of these stories are Euro-myths and are deliberate distortions. I personally cannot believe that the authors of these articles seriously believe their stories are true but then why let the facts get in the way of a good Euro-myth?

Whilst most are highly amusing, there is a more serious side. The blatant bias and euro-scepticism of some of the newspapers involved goes a long way to explaining why so many Brits are so hostile to the European Union.

If I believed everything I read in the British media I think I would be a UKIP voter too! I would think that 'Brussels' has the power to do whatever it likes and that decisions are taken by faceless, loopy, unelected bureaucrats in isolation, and somehow imposed on the UK, against our wishes, from one day to the next.

But of course they are not. The EU can only act in very specific areas where the treaties say they can. Vital issues for national sovereignty such as defence, healthcare, taxation, social security, and education remain primarily national competences and rightly so. This does not mean that we cannot cooperate in certain areas where it is clearly in our national interest to do so.

And where the European Union does have the competence to act, it's true that the procedure is complicated, but dealing with big global issues is complex – there are few easy answers and I believe British voters understand this . However what follows is a short guide for those who are interested.

The European Commission (the civil service of the EU) drafts proposals at the request of the national governments and MEPs, as well as overseeing fair and equal implementation of agreed legislation. The actual decisions and votes on legislation are taken by the democratically elected national governments in the Council of Ministers and by democratically elected MEPs in the European Parliament. The UK, as one of the largest countries in the European Union is a major player in this decision-making process with both the UK government and Labour MEPs punching way above our collective weight.

It is this basic understanding of how decisions are made that I wish more journalists would understand before putting pen to paper. Of course not everything that we decide upon is perfect and we must all have a sense of humour. I am prepared to engage in real debate about real issues surrounding the decisions we take in the European Union. However the tabloid focus on barmy Brussels bureaucrats and all the weird and wonderful Euro-myths does a grave injustice to our country's important membership of the European Union and is an affront to serious debate.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Czech what you say Mr Klaus

Yesterday in a formal sitting of the full European Parliament we were treated, or rather subjected, to a speech by the Czech President Vaclav Klaus, whose country currently holds the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union.

Mr Klaus launched into a diatribe winning much applause from the ragbag of neo-fascists, far-right and what's left of UKIP (those who haven't been locked up or made fools of themselves in the Australian outback), and provoking disbelief and embarrassment from the rest of us.

He spoke of how the very existence of the European Parliament actually increases the so-called 'democratic deficit' of the EU, distastefully made comparisons with communist parliaments of Cold War Eastern Europe, and questioned how many of the decisions currently taken at EU level should actually be taken at national or local level.

On his first point I wonder if he thinks that having a directly elected Parliament, representing the interests of voters and citizens at the heart of the decision-making process really makes the EU less democratic than other international organisations such as the UN where decisions are taken only by national governments with no formal parliamentary role. In the European Parliament we carefully scrutinise every legislative proposal, meet and correspond with our constituents and key stakeholders and subsequently shape the legislation as their democratically elected representatives. Those who stand on the sidelines and shout abuse, refusing to engage achieve nothing and betray those who they purport to represent.

On the point he made questioning whether the legislation we vote on really needs to be taken at the EU level I can only presume he has never heard of what in euro-speak is called 'subsidiarity'. Subsidiarity is a fundamental principle of European law and enshrined in the Treaty establishing the European Community. It means that decisions should be taken as closely as possible to the citizen. In the European Union, it means that each and every legislative proposal must be formally assessed to determine whether its objectives can be best achieved at the national, regional or local level. And even when the Commission argue that legislation at EU level is best MEPs and national governments in the Council do not always agree. It was Labour MEPs who led the battle against a proposed directive on soil, which would have imposed stringent regulation and requirements on soil users, duplicating much of the good work already being done in Member States. As soil does not generally cross borders, we could not see the added value of EU action so we voted to reject the whole proposal.

Of course I am not saying that the current state of affairs is perfect and that we cannot improve the way we work and what we do - indeed Labour MEPs are campaigning for reform on a wide-range of issues, a prime example being the one seat campaign for the European Parliament (getting rid of Strasbourg).
You can watch sessions of the European Parliament here.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Food labelling

Today in Brussels I am taking part in a debate in my full committee (Environment, Public Health and Food Safety) on a proposed new law on food labelling. We are essentially looking at how much information should be provided on the labels of the food we buy and how it should be presented. As with all proposed EU legislation, the European Commission has proposed the first draft and now it is up to MEPs and national governments to jointly decide on the final content of it (it's what in euro-speak is called co-decision).

Today we will be debating the 700 or so amendments submitted to the proposal by members of the committee! I have submitted my own amendments which aim to do the following:

  1. Ensure that when we buy our food in the supermarket we can see where it comes from, be it bacon, fruit or ready meals. This is known as country of origin labelling. At present there is no obligation on food manufacturers to provide this information and this must change. I think people want to know where their food comes from and I hope my fellow MEPs on the committee will back me on this. It is also important that the place of production is accurate - for example at present a ready lasagna could be labelled as British because it was last processed in Britain, even though the meat in it could in fact have come from Romania and the tomatoes from Greece. I support labelling of the place of agricultural production (birth, rearing and slaughter) of the main ingredients rather than just the country where the ingredients were all put together in a factory.

  2. Introduce a requirement to label the amount of energy and carbohydrates on alcoholic drinks. There is no reason why this information should not be given on a can of lager or a bottle of alcopops so those who want to can see how many calories and carbohydrates they are consuming.

  3. Introduce a mandatory requirement for the UK's own successful traffic light system to be used. Research shows that consumers prefer the use of red, amber and green to indicate whether a food is high, medium or low in a particular nutrient. It provides for easy to understand, at a glance comparison. My amendments would make these mandatory for all processed convenience foods such as pizzas, burgers, sausages, ready meals. Again I will be seeking to persuade other MEPs to support my proposed changes to the draft legislation.

After the debate today, there will be a vote by all MEPs on the committee in March and then the legislation as amended is scheduled to be voted on by the full Parliament (in what we call a plenary session) in May. If after the May vote there is agreement with the national governments, then the legislation will become law. If the European Parliament and the national governments cannot agree then there will be a second reading in the Parliament's next term, following the June elections.


Welcome to the first entry in my brand new blog. In creating this blog it is not my intention to give a comprehensive account of all my work as an MEP for the East Midlands and Leader of the Labour Group of MEPs in the European Parliament. However I do intend it to give constituents and any other interested parties a better understanding of the European Parliament and my work as well as looking at some of the key issues which we deal with. I hope you will find it interesting and useful.

If you want to find out more about who I am please see my biography. For more information about my work please visit my website