Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Good news for Brits on holiday

As from tomorrow (July 1) the cost of using your mobile phone in another EU country will fall even further and the risk of racking up a bill for thousands of pounds for using e-mails and internet on your phone will also disappear.

The new maximum tariffs will mean that the maximum permitted charge when making a call will be 32p per minute and 12.5p for receiving a call. This latest reduction means that mobile phone roaming charges are now 73% cheaper than 5 years ago.

You phone company will also be obliged to stop your mobile internet connection if you exceed £42.50. This is in direct response to the horror stories of holidaymakers returning home and finding themselves landed with a bill of thousands of pounds, having not realised the true cost of their internet activity. (If you wish to remove this cap you can do so by contacting your mobile operator before you travel).

Euromyths by the dozen

Never mind the arrival of summer, it was silly season which broke out this weekend with the UK papers gleefully denouncing the EU's supposed ban on selling eggs by the dozen, whipping themselves into a fervor over this despicable attack by barmy Brussels bureaucrats on the traditional British way of selling eggs. The tabloids and the Torygraph were ready to send the valiant David Cameron into battle with his European counterparts to save our 'eggs by the dozen'.

Make no mistake, this was a classic Euromyth and the words 'eggs by the dozen' could have been replaced with any other term, with the story adapted accordingly.

Anyone who follows European issues will know the score. Last time it was the traditional British jug of milk
and before it was barmaids' breasts! The familiar voices of disgust are wheeled out such as the Metric Martyrs, Open Europe or the so-called Taxpayers' Alliance, and there is always the odd (in both senses) Tory or UKIP 'rent-a-quote' MEP who is only too happy to add their voice to the outrage, despite having not the faintest idea of the issue at stake.

Of course there was absolutely no truth to the story. I should know as I have been working on this proposal for the best part of two years on behalf of the second largest political group in the European Parliament - although no newspaper saw fit to contact me before publishing their stories, it appears they were only interested in getting their story out. Armed with the facts, I would have only got in the way of their good story!

For the facts (which have fortunately now been published by most of the offending publications) you can check out the rebuttal from the European Parliament here and the Press Association article here.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Supermarket supply chains and workers in the developing world

Yesterday in the European Parliament, I hosted a major event bringing together supermarkets, NGOs such as Oxfam, Fair Trade organisations, consumers organisations, MEPs, representatives from the Commission and trade unionists, both from Europe and Latin America.

We discussed the impact of supermarket dominance and their supply chains on workers in the developing world and how the abuse of the supermarkets' dominant market position is leading to downward pressure on prices and on workers' conditions and basis human rights.

We heard first-hand from Gilberto Bermudez from the Costa Rican trade union SITRAP of the appalling anti-union practices workers on the banana and pineapple plantations in Costa Rica suffer from, and I think his testimony opened a few eyes in the room.

It really is up to the supermarkets to ensure their suppliers in the developing world are respecting at the very least basic human rights, including, freedom of association, and an appropriate living wage for their workers - otherwise we will have to take action to address the market dominance enjoyed by Europe's largest supermarkets, and consumers also have an important role to play in changing their behaviour.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A mixed bag of food labelling

Now the dust has settled, last week's plenary vote, as I blogged beforehand might well be described as a mixed bag.

We lost our headline campaign, which was to get mandatory traffic light labelling on processed convenience foods and unfortunately the provision for voluntary national schemes such as the FSA's traffic light scheme was also deleted, with the support of Tory MEPs, which means, somewhat bizarrely, that Tory MEPs voted to reduce their own government's scope to implement its own front of pack labelling scheme, preferring a harmonised EU scheme of percentage GDAs (Guideline Daily Amounts).

Their basis for opposition to my proposals for colour coding appeared to be wholly based on the arguments industry put forward and on industry-supported research.

The first criticism made by Tory MEPs was that the colours were too simplistic so they preferred GDAs. Despite all the information I had sent to them in advance of the vote, they must have failed to spot that the amendments on the table provided for a combination of GDAs and traffic lights - colour-coded GDAs - so rather than simplistic, it actually provided more information than GDAs alone.

The other argument used was that traffic lights would favour diet coca-cola over apple juice on sugar, given the high levels of natural sugars in apple juice and the artificial sweeteners used in diet Coke. If they had bothered to look at my proposal, again they would have seen that fruit juices would not be covered by my amendments.

Colour coding aside, we did win a major (but narrow) victory on mandatory country of origin labelling, with a majority of MEPs voting to ensure honest and transparent food labelling. My amendments as adopted would see food producers obliged to label all meat, poultry, dairy products and other single-ingredient products with the country of origin, and also the meat, poultry and fish contained in processed or multi-ingredient products.

We also secured front of pack labelling for the key nutrients such as calories, salt, sugar and fats and fought off industry-backed attempts reduce consumer protection from misleading advertising of health and nutrition claims.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Left Food Forward article - Cameron plays the statesman in predictable Brussels affair

Cameron plays the statesman in predictable Brussels affair

Our guest writer is Glenis Willmott MEP, Labour’s leader in the European Parliament.

As ever at these occasions, the choreography was exquisite. David Cameron’s first European summit as British prime minister was always going to be of intense interest to the media. Yet in the end, yesterday’s event looked very much like the many that have gone before it. That’s partly because most of the business is sorted out well in advance of the leaders’ arrival.

But it’s also because that’s what international diplomacy demands – it’s in everyone’s interest to head home looking statesmanlike. Here’s a quote from how Cameron sums up the summit’s conclusions on bank levies and a financial transaction tax:

“We do not want to have some sort of Europe-determined bank levy with a specific use of funds. The text talks about – and I quote – introducing systems of levies and taxes, which actually referred to ensuring fair burden-sharing. That is absolutely the approach that we wanted this to take.”

Look elsewhere and you get a different take though. Colleagues tell me that German TV news last night hailed Angela Merkel for her success at the summit. And what was Merkel’s win? They report how she persuaded a sceptical British Prime Minister to change his position and to sign up in favour of a financial transaction tax. Based on the text, either interpretation could be accurate.

That’s the key to summits: you don’t embarrass world leaders. The detail will be ironed out later by diplomats and ministers when they come to debate each individual dossier, so the real battles are yet to come. What can we learn from the summit? Well, I suspect that we can already discern how Cameron will deal with these events. It’s a system that has served British prime ministers, both Tory and Labour, for many years.

First, identify a threat looming on the horizon. Find a dragon to be slayed by St George: in this case all the talk of the European Commission vetting the budget before it is announced to parliament. Second, mark out your red lines, which you already know are unlikely to be crossed. Then, go to the summit and agree a lengthy document that has already been stripped apart and put back together by teams of diplomats. Ensure that anything contentious is qualified with phrases like “taking account of national budgetary procedures”.

I've got a union background, so I know negotiating tactics when I see them. But what's interesting about this example is the fact that this isn't about winning against the other EU leaders. It's all about getting the upper hand over Britain's band of eurosceptics, the press certainly, but also Cameron’s own back benches. It is clear that the Tory leader wants to calm the fears of our EU neighbours by demonstrating that he is willing to work with them.

But it was telling that of all the leaders at yesterday’s event, Cameron felt closest to the European Commission President José Manuel Barroso. That’s partly because both men are ideologically similar – at least economically. Both want to see the state cut back, with a focus on deregulation and leaving more to open markets.

Crucially though, it’s also because Cameron is no longer a member of a mainstream political family. Having spurned the EPP, Europe’s mainstream centre right grouping, he had no one to meet when other leaders got together with their opposite numbers from sister parties. Instead he had to meet Michal Kaminski, the MEP who leads the political ragbag of parties with which the Conservatives now sit in the European Parliament.

Cameron is still paying for having left the EPP. It means he has to work harder to get his point of view listened to – not in the summit, but in the corridors and backrooms where the real battles are won.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Tense vote

In just a few hours time MEPs will be voting here in Strasbourg on amendments to the new regulation on food labelling and things are quite tense. The votes are shaping up to be very close on two key point: traffic light labels for sugar, salt and fats and mandatory country of origin labelling so that it is clear where our food comes from.

The industry lobby has been intense and unrelenting throughout - and it has caught the attention of much of the media over the last few days, including the Independent, Daily Mail and BBC with headlines such as "Food firms spend millions in push to kill traffic light labelling" and "Food companies in massive lobby to block colour coded warnings".

Thursday, June 10, 2010

First European test for the coalition government's programme

MEPs will be voting next week in Strasbourg on a new legislative proposal which would see mandatory country of origin labelling on much of the food we eat, including meat, poultry, fish and dairy products, as well as fresh fruit and vegetables. My amendment to do this was already accepted by the EP's environment committee in March and now there will be a full vote of all MEPs next Wednesday.

The Conservatives supported this in March but rumours are now afoot that they will withdraw their support. This would surely fly in the face of their coalition deal with the Lib Dems, which on page 13 specifies "We will introduce honesty in food labelling so that consumers can be confident about where their food comes from and its environmental impact". Well, this must be done through European legislation and their one chance to do this is in the vote next week....

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The first of our meetings with the candidates

Labour MEPs met with David Miliband yesterday who was over in Brussels as part of his campaign for the Labour Party leadership.

We had a positive and constructive meeting, with a good discussion on the role of MEPs in the party's structure and how as a party we can work together, both locally, national and internationally as part of a labour movement and of course David set out his vision for the future of our party.

I am looking forward to having similar discussions with the other candidates in the forthcoming weeks.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Reducing red tape and bureaucracy

It's a committee week in Brussels this week which is where in-detail scrutiny of legislative proposals occurs.

I have been voting this morning in the Environment committee on an updated directive restricting hazardous substances in electrical and electronic consumer goods. The aim is to get rid of the most harmful substances used such as brominated and chlorinated flame retardants, as well as PVC and the hazardous additives it contains.

We also need to stimulate substitution efforts, to replace substances used in consumer electrical goods with safer ones wherever possible.

This type of work really is the bread and butter here on a daily basis, but nonetheless it needs to be done and these type of rules simply cannot be set nationally - otherwise we would end up with 27 different sets or rules and standards for producers to comply with - so in doing this we are actually reducing red tape and bureaucracy.

Positive meeting with new Europe Minister

From my facebook page:

Glenis Willmott Had a meeting with the new Europe Minister yesterday - surprising to see that he wasn't taking the usual eurosceptic line that we hear so much of. I await with interest to see if all of his MEPs will follow suit. For all of the eurosceptic rhetoric in opposition maybe the reality of having to co-operate in Europe in the national interest has finally hit home.