Friday, 14 March 2014

Newsletter from the European Parliament, Friday 14 March 2014

Last week ran almost unbroken into this. I left LD party conference in York on Saturday evening to travel to Cardiff to take part in BBC TV's The Big Questions on Sunday, and managed only Sunday afternoon with family before travelling to Brussels for meetings on Monday.

BBC TV West came to Strasbourg this week to report on the European Parliament. Their visit coincided with the reports that the government will not apply for money from the EU's Solidarity Fund to help with the cost of flood damage, which Tory MEP Julie Girling and I both regretted.

This week was our penultimate Strasbourg week (formal debates on the floor of the House and legislative votes) before the House rises for the elections, so it was a busy one. As the Liberal Democrat spokesman on efforts to prevent money laundering I spoke in the debate and led colleagues in the vote on the fourth anti money laundering directive. UKIP voted against the measures. I also spoke in debates on Russia's occupation of the Crimea and on next week's European Council (heads of state and government summit) meeting. My speeches - and much more - can be found on my website, www.grahamwatsonmep.org.

Parliament voted inter alia this week on new air traffic control arrangements (excluding Gibraltar, to my intense frustration), on a ban on fluorinated gases, on a measure to introduce a common charger for all mobile phones which will save 51,000 tons of electronic waste every year, on new rules for the EU Solidarity Fund and on new rules to ban psychoactive drugs (legal highs) more quickly after their discovery. To loud cheers from the right, the House rejected by a mere handful votes a report calling for greater equality between women and men because the rapporteur (a German Green) was not prepared to compromise on very prescriptive demands and a controversial approach to prostitution. I voted for it despite some misgivings; a few of my Liberal Democrat colleagues abstained.

The European Institute for Gender Equality launched on Monday a report showing that the EU is not even halfway towards parity in positions of influence. Fewer than a quarter of national MPs and barely a quarter of national government ministers are women. Of business decision-makers, women make up less than one third.

MEPs and finance ministers met again to try to reach agreement on proposals for bailing out banks in the eurozone which are considered too big to fail, but failed to find crucial compromises. The talks will resume next week. Ministers want the new resolution fund to be intergovernmental; MEPs want decisions taken at EU level. A likely compromise will be a gradual transition from the former to the latter.

Finance ministers from the eurozone countries also met to discuss the revised EU savings tax directive. Following progress towards agreement with Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Andorra and San Marino, EU member states Austria and Luxembourg have undertaken to lift their vetos against the proposals; these may now be approved at next week's summit and introduced in conjunction with the new OECD rules on cross-border exchange of information between tax authorities.

Social affairs ministers also met this week. They agreed to launch a new €3.8 bn EU fund for the most deprived citizens, from which member states may draw to help fund food and clothing banks.

The European Commission proposed on Tuesday a new mechanism for dealing with member states which stray from the rule of law. Currently the others can suspend the miscreant under Article 7 of the EU treaties; but this is considered a 'nuclear button' option. The new draft procedure would provide for a series of gradual sanctions against the offending country.

I welcomed visitors to parliament this week from schools in Devon under the aegis of Devonport High School for Girls: visitors from Germany's Free Democrats from Baden Wurttemberg; and visitors from the Chinese Communist Party who came to discuss with me (in my role as President of the EU's Liberals) the relaunch of an EU-China political parties' forum.

This morning I'll be in London for the BBC's lunchtime Politics Europe programme, this afternoon in North Devon to meet Sir Nick Harvey MP and this evening in Paignton for a Totnes LD supper. As the poet Robert Frost lamented, 'I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.' Tomorrow morning I speak at the party's West Midlands regional conference and tomorrow evening at a supper in Taunton constituency.

Regards,

Sir Graham Watson MEP