Friday, 31 January 2014

Newsletter from the European Parliament, Friday 31 January 2014 - Sir Graham Watson MEP

Finance ministers from the 18 countries in the eurozone met on Monday. The biggest item of discussion was the sustainability of Greece's debt, though they also discussed recapitalisation of banks. A €60 bn recapitalisation fund - part of the 'European Stability Mechanism' - will be launched in November under the aegis of the ECB. On Wednesday negotiators from Parliament and Council met to discuss the role of the EP in overseeing bank resolution (winding-up) procedures. At the same time the European Commission proposed bans on proprietary trading and rehypothecation (ie. banks using their depositors' money to speculate) for banks considered too big to fail without a major domino effect.

At a meeting I chaired on Greece's problems, Greek Liberal MEP Theodoros Skylakakis pointed out that this country of ten million people has 2.6 million working in private industry supporting 1 million in the public sector, 1.4 million unemployed and 3 million retired. Despite an impressive cut in its deficit, further major reform is still needed, he said.

EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding has asked the UK, Ireland, Denmark, Malta and Cyprus to change their laws whereby citizens lose their right to vote if they live outside the country for a sustained period. While any EU citizen can vote in local and European elections in the country they live in, they cannot vote in national elections: a UK citizen becomes disenfranchised for national elections after 15 years out of the country; for Denmark and Ireland it is much less.

EU leaders had 'talks about talks' with Russian leaders at a brief summit meeting this week. They discussed ways to re-launch negotiations on a formal partnership and co-operation agreement (the current agreement is 20 years old). They discussed the economic consequences of closer EU ties with its eastern neighbours, including Ukraine. They also discussed Syria, human rights and routes used by EU airlines flying over Russia. Back in Brussels on Thursday Barroso received Poland's PM Donald Tusk, who is concerned about the impact of developments in the Ukraine ('on the brink of civil war', a former Ukrainian president has said) and the possibility of large numbers of refugees arriving in Poland, perhaps combined with Russia turning off the gas taps to the Ukraine which supply 70% of Russia's gas exports to the EU. He and the PMs of Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have called for a visa-free regime with Ukraine a.s.a.p. and want to send a clear signal that the country can one day join the EU. EU foreign affairs suprema Catherine Ashton sent her deputy to Kiev at the start of the week and joined him on Wednesday, expressing concern about maltreatment of protesters.

The danger to the UK of the Tories having left the mainstream centre-right European People's Party was again illustrated on Wednesday at a meeting of MEPs to discuss the anti money-laundering directive. The UK does not want the Directive to cover trusts. But without the Tories to argue the case, the EPP (parliament's largest group) has decided to support their inclusion. I was left almost alone to argue against it, with support only from Tory Tim Kirkhope MEP on behalf of the small group of oddballs to which the Tories now belong.

The highlight of my week was joining protesters from Gibraltar in the freezing cold on Tuesday and Wednesday for demonstrations outside Parliament, Commission and the Spanish Embassy against unjustifiable border controls and the long queues they create. I hosted a presentation they made in Parliament and delivered a petition with almost 10,000 signatures to the EP's Petitions Committee.

The EU's political parties are pressing ahead with selection of their candidates for President of the Commission. The Greens this week chose German MEP Franziska Keller and French MEP Jose Bove as their joint female-male ticket. The EPP announced the four candidates in their race: former PMs Juncker of Luxembourg and Dombrovskis of Latvia, current PM Katainen of Finland and EU commissioner Barnier of France. Tomorrow I chair the EU LibDem conference in Brussels to approve the nomination of former PM Guy Verhofstadt of Belgium, currently our Group leader in Parliament.

Possibly the most significant news of the week? Angela Merkel's speech to the German Bundestag    on Wednesday calling for a 'quantum leap' towards a 'real economic union' in the EU.