Thursday, March 31, 2011

The power of MEPs

Earlier this week as part of a wider poll, a YouGov Poll included some questions on MEPs and the European Parliament.

Asked "Do you think the European Parliament has too much power, too little power, or about the right amount?"' 67% said the Parliament has too much power. This was highest among Conservative voters (86%) compared with other parties, and amongst older voters compared with younger ones.

This raises several questions, not least how much power the European Parliament actually possesses.

Parliament certainly has more muscle than it had. The much misunderstood Lisbon Treaty makes virtually every new piece of EU legislation a matter of “co-decision” in that it has to have the agreement of Parliament (the directly elected MEPs) and Council of Ministers (the representatives of the 27 member states governments). Before Lisbon, there were certain areas where MEPs had no part in the decision making process.

However, while MEPs have greater powers, they clearly cannot just railroad things through. “Co-decision” means just that. Both Council and Parliament have to agree.

Neither does Europe as a whole have the power to legislate anywhere it chooses. The treaties between the member states lay down which issues are to be agreed across the EU and which should remain the responsibility of individual countries. Education, health, social services provision, local government, and much else are still decided in Westminster, not in Brussels. According to a study by the highly regarded and independent House of Commons Library, between 1997 and 2009, only 6.8% of the UK’s primary legislation and 14.1% of secondary legislation emanated from the EU.

And the Parliament is not a monolithic institution heading in a single direction. Politics ranges across the political spectrum, from left to right, with no one political group having an overall majority. Arguments between Labour and Conservative are at least as great in Brussels and Strasbourg as they are in Westminster.

Ultimately, of course, your view on whether the European Parliament has too much power will depend on what you want to get out of it. In my (now almost entirely digital) postbag, for every letter I get saying Europe should keep out and stop interfering, I will get four or five demanding we take action on Libya, on cross border crime, on blacklisting workers, on animal rights or on holiday homes in Spain! Too much power? Constituents like these would like to give us rather more clout!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The EU's role in Libya

For the last few weeks the situation in Libya has dominated the news. David Cameron has certainly not been camera shy, and has been seen as playing a leading role in reaching international consensus for a no-fly zone.

However what many people forget is the important role that the EU plays in international talks, and that at the forefront of this is British Labour politician Baroness Cathy Ashton. Cathy is the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs, and she has been working round the clock to ensure that we have agreement in the international community, not only with the Western powers but also with the key players in the region, including the Arab League.

It is crucial that the international community acts as a whole to stop the Libyan government from killing its own people. Cathy Ashton, representing all 27 members of the EU, has used her trademark 'quiet diplomacy' to reach important decisions not only on the UN resolution, but also on evacuating EU citizens from Libya. In crises such as these, co-operation with our allies in Europe and elsewhere is vital, and I'm glad we have someone as pragmatic as Cathy to build alliances between people during these difficult times.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Europe and the Citizen

In a European Union of 27 member states and around 500 million people, it’s often difficult to see how the individual citizen can have an impact.

That’s why MEPs, as the directly elected part of the EU, have an important role to fill.

One way we can do this is to put direct questions to the Commission on behalf of individual constituents, and I do this on a whole host of issues.

Putting a question requires the Commission to respond, and to investigate if required, sometimes with surprising results.

About a year ago, a constituent from Nottinghamshire contacted me about Ryanair and the fact that, though they operate online and take bookings this way, there is no email address on which to contact them direct.

I put this question to the Commission suggesting that this was against EU rules on e-commerce. Commissioner Barnier found that this was the case and has asked the Irish authorities, who are responsible for the enforcement, to take action.

So Ryanair – a major business concern - could be forced to change its communication procedures, all as a result of a single email from a constituent to an MEP.

A fuller account can be found on the “This is Money” financial website.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The battle for better food labelling continues

 This week work on the Food Labelling legislation resumes as the European Parliament's Committee for Environment and Public Health hold their first discussion.  However, we already know what the key issues and battles will be.

In the first reading of the proposed legislation I fought hard for more and better information for consumers who want to know what's in the food they buy.  I wanted to see the key nutrients; calories, fats, saturated fats, sugar and salt, labelled on the front of the pack.  I won that argument, and the Parliament accepted my amendments.  The Council, and some MEPs, don't want this information on the front of pack, but is something that I will be staunchly defending.

What we unfortunately lost was a system of colour coding, similar to the traffic light system many retailers in the UK are already using.  This system allows consumers to quickly compare similar products, and for people who, for example, want to cut down on the amount of salt they eat, to do so easily.  As we were not successful with this in the first reading we can't introduce it now, but I will continue to campaign for traffic light labelling, and will be calling on the European Commission to come forward with new proposals as soon as possible.

Those on the centre right of the Parliament are trying to stop us from using traffic light labelling voluntarily in the UK, which is another thing I will be fighting hard against.  They are also trying to weaken the proposals I got through last time on country of origin labelling.  I think that for those consumers concerned about animal welfare and the environment it is important to know where the meat you buy comes from, including meat in processed products like sandwiches and ready meals.

The coming months will see big battles and negotiations over these important issues, and I'll keep you updated on my blog.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Single Seat

This week I led the way within the Socialists & Democrats group in gathering support for a cross-party initiative to condense two Strasbourg sessions into one. I am delighted to say that we were successful in this campaign as on Tuesday a majority of MEPs voted to approve our amendment.

This is not as arcane as it sounds.  It is a win for the taxpayer as it will decrease the costs involved in what has become known as the 'Travelling Circus' of MEPs moving between Brussels and Strasbourg for 12 monthly sessions. The amendment will also help decrease the European Parliament's carbon footprint.

As a result of a deal made by Europe’s leaders, including John Major, in 1992, MEPs have to have 12 sessions in Strasbourg a year. Strasbourg as a city holds important historical significance for Europe, having changed hands between France and Germany five times during the years 1870 to 1945. The fact that the city hosts the European Parliament symbolises the important role European integration has played in avoiding war in Europe on the scale seen during the two World Wars of the 20th century. Whilst I understand the historical and political importance of Strasbourg for the European movement, we have to think about the practical implications.

The amendment passed this week will only mean one less trip to Strasbourg a year, however it is part of a broader issue. I am a supporter of having a single seat for the European Parliament, which makes sense for many reasons. Firstly, the European Parliament is the only elected assembly in the world which does not have one sole parliament. Strasbourg itself costs over 200 million Euros a year and produces a large and totally unnecessary carbon footprint. Given the amount of work we do at EU level to combat climate change, this kind of waste is unjustifiable.

Many people agree.  Over 1.3 million people have signed an online petition to scrap Strasbourg and a majority of MEPs also share my view on this issue. MEPs, however, are not in a position to abolish Strasbourg as only a unanimous vote by the governments of EU countries could do this. Hopefully this calendar amendment will raise the issue of the single seat and force member states into coming round to the most sensible, cost effective decision to end the travelling circus once and for all.


Tuesday, March 8, 2011

International Women's Day

Today is International Women's Day and although things have become better for women at work and in politics, glass ceilings still remain to be shattered.

Studying isn’t for women. That was my introduction to the world of work aged 16. Having started working for the National Coal Board aged 16, I thought myself lucky to have found a boss who gave me time off to take my A-levels. Then I was called to his office.

“Management” had demanded to know what he was thinking giving a girl time off for studying. It was clear: study leave was for men. My path was blocked. My experience would be unrecognisable to women starting out today. So despite the mountains we have yet to climb it's good to know that we’re making progress. But that progress is slow.

Among the political leaders of Europe, just a few are women. Angela Merkel is probably the dominant force in European politics at present. But in a world of men, female politicians inevitably have to fall back on the male style of politics. Margaret Thatcher relied on macho posturing to keep her party in line and it is easy to see similarities in Merkel’s approach. To beat the men, Merkel has to play the man’s game.

Labour’s Cathy Ashton has discovered just how sexist some of Europe’s male politicians can be. She has had some rotten press over her first year as the EU’s foreign policy supremo. Much of the criticism from politicians does come with sexist undertones. Yet through all this she has shown the traits that so many women look for in politicians: tough when she needs to be and more interested in getting the job done.

The problem is that we will only be able to challenge outdated views by normalising the existence of women in political life. Even in the European Parliament, women still have to fight harder to be heard. We need more women to be taking an interest in politics and deciding that they could do the job of a politician as well as anyone. But for many that path looks too daunting.

Labour can be proud of its record in encouraging people from all walks of life to get involved. But still our politicians are perceived as coming from a small elite, who have had little experience outside the macho world of politics. That not only affects how we as a party relate to the public, it is also off-putting for many people outside the bubble.

Looking back to the National Coal Board, what was my reaction to being told to quit the studies and get back to work? My first act was to leave, move on to a new job where I would be valued. But more important than that, I got organised. The 16-year-old who was told to know her place would hardly recognise herself years later, sitting in Shadow Cabinet. Those early experiences are what led me to the trade union movement – and it was the unions that gave me the confidence to speak up and speak out. It’s time the unions took up that challenge again.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Where exactly does the Conservative Party stand on Europe?

 Quoted on the Foreign Office website, Foreign Secretary William Hague makes it clear that the Government intends to be ‘active and activist, positive and energetic’ when it comes to Europe.
The Tory Europe Minister, David Lidington, is even more fulsome in his praise for the EU.   In his recent speech in Vienna, he refers to the European Union as, “ . . the truly historic achievement of establishing a model for a community of nations governing relations among themselves according to the rule of law.”

And recently, in an interview with Al Jazeera, even David Cameron made - for him – a very clear statement specifically regarding any referendum on EU membership.  Setting the cat amongst the eurosceptic pigeons, Cameron totally rejected the idea of an in/out referendum on EU membership, and said he wanted the UK to remain a full member.

So far, so (relatively) clear.   The independent observer would suggest that the Tories are a firmly pro-European party with a commitment to Britain’s membership of the EU.
And yet . . .  the Tories continue to keep strange and undesirable company in the European Parliament, preferring to be in a political group, not of the mainstream centre right parties of Merkel and Sarkozy, but made up, in Nick Clegg’s words, of “nutters, anti-Semites, people who deny climate change exists and homophobes."

And their votes, on issues ranging from human trafficking to rights for same-sex couples and the treatment of the victims of the Equitable Life scandal, continue to suggest that the Tory brand is still pretty toxic.

The truth is that – whatever his own real views – Cameron has to play both ends against the middle.  Within his own party, the eurosceptic right is strong.  He can keep them at bay by pointing to the pro-European demands made upon him by his LibDem Coalition partners.  Of course, he then says much the same thing - in reverse - when accused of being anti-European by Clegg and the small number of Tory pro-Europeans.

I blogged last year that the much-vaunted EU Bill going through the Westminster Parliament at the time was much ado about nothing and I’m sure we can look forward to more such non-events as Cameron continues to try to ride his two European horses!