Martin Callanan MEP is Chairman of the European Conservatives. Follow the ECR Group on Twitter.
STOP THE STRASBOURG CIRCUS!
Last week the European Parliament met for two sessions in Strasbourg. The EU's Treaties say that we must hold 12 sessions per year there. Normally, to make up for the lack of a sitting in August, we have two sittings in either September or October. This means that we spend the month shuttling between the two sites. However, thanks to the efforts of my South West colleague Ashley Fox, the European Parliament is only making eleven trips to Strasbourg this year. Ashley was able to secure cross-party support for an amendment to the parliament's calendar which brought the two post-summer sessions into one week, with a fallow day in-between. The move saved around 15 million Euros and 1600 tonnes of CO2.
Of course, it has also been challenged in the European Court of Justice by France and Luxembourg. France has an obvious financial interest in keeping the 'Strasbourg Circus' whilst Luxembourg is the site of the parliament's 'Third seat', housing many of the administrative functions, so it also had a concern that it could be next if the parliament were to centralise in one place. We will know the result of the European Court case in the next few weeks and I sincerely hope that – for once – common sense prevails.
MEPs only have limited powers over our calendar and eliminating the monthly shuttle would require a Treaty change that only national governments can agree. We are putting pressure on our own government to raise this matter at the European Council. After all, ending the Strasbourg Circus is one of the few bankable European policies in the UK Coalition Agreement so let's put the issue on the table – especially as budget negotiations begin. Sign Ashley's petition calling for action by the UK Government here.
THE EU BUDGET TALKS
Speaking of EU budget talks, Westminster is not the only place where the debate about the future of the EU budget is heating up. In Strasbourg, MEPs are getting very vexed by what they see as David Cameron's 'Anti-European' stance. Last week we debated three budgets: the annual budget for 2013, a resolution on the next seven-year budgetary framework, and a so-called draft amending budget authorising yet more money for this financial year because some major EU programmes have run out of dough.
When it came to the 2013 budget, the parliament is sticking by the European Commission in calling for a 6.8 percent increase. National governments have already indicated that the biggest increase they are willing to see is 2.79 percent (which was even too much for the UK government, which voted against that position). The commission's argument is that as we reach the end of the current seven-year budget cycle, a number of programmes that have had EU money committed to them are now reaching the point where they must be paid, and this is pushing up the demands. They may have a point but I believe that there is so much fat that should be trimmed and waste that should be dealt with before even daring to come close to asking for more from countries making incredibly difficult decisions about spending cuts.
Because EU budgeting is treated more like an art than a science, this year the EU has quite literally run out of cash. The problem is that as we reach the end of this current budgetary period a number of new EU member states are submitting the bills for major projects with a 'use it
or lose it' mentality towards certain funding lines. The EU looks at what money it wishes to spend and then dishes it out, instead of looking at what its policy priorities should be and allocating spending accordingly within a set budgetary envelope. It's a crazy way to spend taxpayers' money and it guarantees poor value. It also meant that the commission has had to go cap in hand to national governments asking for a top up, otherwise projects such as the (they say) Erasmus student exchange programme will have to stop running. It's a bit like a child saying he's blown his weekly pocket money on sweets, asking for more saying that it's for school textbooks, then saying that he needs a raised allowance next week to ensure he has enough textbook (sweet)
money. Most right-thinking parents would tell their children to cut out the sweets and look after their pocket money better. Frankly, we were shocked by the size of the Commission's demand for more money, and we are not the only ones. France, Germany and even more absurdly, Italy are
all on the hook for huge sums of cash. The commission have known all year that this problem was coming and have done nothing to address it in advance. We in the ECR dispute the Commission's calculations and we certainly do not think they need the amounts they have requested. This is pure irresponsible budgetary management.
Of course the real battle will be over the next long-term budget. This is the one where national governments all have a veto, as does the European Parliament. MEPs adopted a resolution which was effectively their wish list for the negotiations. Naturally, we voted against it and we will continue to be the only group in the parliament calling for budgetary restraint and a fundamental reorganisation of EU spending. Our position was striking in its contrast to that of the other political groups that contain the main UK political parties. The leader of Labour's group, Hannes Swoboda, launched yet another tirade against David Cameron and the national leaders pushing for a budget freeze. Perhaps he hadn't received the memo from his socialist parties in the UK, in France (which is now part of the group pushing for restraint), or Neil Kinnock's daughter in law, the socialist PM of Denmark, who has said that she will veto any deal that does not include a rebate for her country.
This row will rumble on far beyond the special EU summit planned for a few weeks' time.
THE EURO CRISIS
As well as the debates on the budgets, we also had a debate with Presidents Van Rompuy and Barroso on the outcomes of the October EU summit. In my speech I noted how the EU was squandering the opportunity handed to it by the ECB and the June summit to finally get ahead of the euro crisis. I noted that the October council meeting had actually reneged on some of the decisions taken in June regarding using the bailout funds to recapitalise banks. I also remarked on the Nobel peace prize being awarded to the EU, saying that such a prize is more deserved by the incredible and courageous leaders on both sides of the Atlantic in the 20th century who brought down an iron curtain and held post-war Europe together. Compare those leaders – Thatcher, Reagan, Pope John Paul II etc – to the leaders of the euro zone today. You can see my
FUTURE EU WORK
We also received the 'Commission's Work Programme', which is a list of the initiatives that the commission will propose for the coming year. The ECR has carried out a significant amount of work to influence the programme, trying to reflect a letter that David Cameron and 11 other European leaders sent to the commission and council earlier this year. It set out an agenda for growth based around modernising the single market and opening up trade with fast-rising economies. To be honest, we were disappointed. The document contained some of our ideas but
generally it was something that a New Labour spinner would have been proud of – lots of repackaged initiatives and headline grabbers, but little of substance. Malcolm Harbour was critical of the Vice-President of the commission. In the debate, he said: "The parliament asked the commission to improve the quality of its legislative drafting and deal with our concerns about the quality of impact assessments. There is nothing about that important work in the programme. Why not? We need to focus on continuous improvement, quality and implementation. We need to
make what we have work properly and stop dressing up common sense ideas as trendy new initiatives. We need to do our job better."
SINGLE EUROPEAN SKY
My Conservative colleagues had some reports on the agenda last week. Jacqueline Foster (North West) authored a report on the Single European Sky, where airspace is fully coordinated across the EU to increase efficiency. In her report she called on national governments to deliver on the commitments they made more than ten years ago in order to cut delays and to make air travel safer, cleaner and cheaper. Full implementation of the SES would create more than 300,000 high-quality and highly-paid jobs, save 50 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, make air traffic more efficient and reduce costs for passengers, she said. Mrs F described the moves as, 'just good business.' My South East colleague Nirj Deva also steered through the parliament a new food aid convention to replace the current 50-year old one, so that it focuses more on alleviating starvation rather than dumping agricultural surpluses on poorer nations. It calls on the European Commission to provide assistance in the form of targeted nutritional interventions and vouchers for local farmers.
We've also been doing a significant amount of work for British farmers, directed by my south west colleague Julie Girling. As well as trawling through thousands of amendments to the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy currently passing through the parliament, she has also been working behind the scenes to ensure that any vaccination developed could be used against Bovine TB without imposing export bans on British cattle. I hope that Julie's persistence will soon pay off and we can find a less emotive and more permanent solution to this devastating disease.
Finally, two weeks after EU governments agreed to tighten sanctions against the Iranian regime, and with Israel poised to take action against a nuclear threat, the European Parliament was due this week to send a delegation of communist, green and socialist MEPs in order to reinforce our message of cooperation!
I was dead against the idea, believing it would send mixed signals about our resolve, and would be used and abused for Iran's own propaganda purposes. On the 18th October, in the parliament's Conference of Presidents (the main political decision-making body of the parliament on which group leaders sit), I forced the matter to a vote. Despite receiving assurances from the EPP and from ALDE that they would support me in pushing for a cancellation of the delegation, they sat on their hands. Infact, the Liberal leader picked up his bag and tried to squirm out of the room just before the decision was taken. He was called back by the President of the Parliament! Liberal Democrats are the same the world over! Without the support, I was unsuccessful.
However, last week in Strasbourg, I received enormous backing from across the centre and centre-right of the parliament, with MEPs agreeing to put a significant amount of pressure on their group leaders. Last Friday we met in the Conference of Presidents again, mainly to decide who should win the European Parliament's human rights award – the Sakharov Prize. There was unanimity around the table that it should go to two Iranian opposition figures and I considered it to be extremely odd that we would chastise Iran on a Friday and then send a friendship
mission there that weekend. So, again, buoyed from the support I'd received, I raised the matter. Again, the EPP and Liberal leaders sat on their hands, saying that they would allow the delegation to go as long as the MEPs could meet with the Sakharov winners. Immediately after, the formal announcement of the Sakharov winners was made by the Parliament's President Martin Schulz. I decided to raise my concerns in front of the whole House. And, as you'll see from the video, I received such strong support that the faces of the EPP and Liberal leaders (who the camera cuts to several times) dropped to the floor. Of course, the Iranians were never going to agree to the MEPs' demands to meet the Sakharov winners so the delegation was cancelled
That's all for this month. Please do let me have your thoughts below. I find them all very interesting and enjoy reading them.