Saturday, 22 March 2014

Newsletter From The European Parliament Saturday 22 March 2014 - Sir Graham Watson MEP

Sir Graham Watson MEP
While Ukraine again dominated the agenda and underlined how the EU cannot hope to influence Russia unless it is united, UK PM David Cameron chose last Sunday to outline, in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, a seven point plan to distance the UK even further from its continental partners. Many of the points he made involved setting up Aunt Sallies to knock them down again: such as saying he would free businesses from EU red tape to make them freer to trade with North America or Asia. There are currently no EU rules which restrict this; and the best way to boost such trade would be through trade agreements which EU countries negotiate jointly, such as the hugely successful recent EU  agreement with South Korea.

The EU's foreign ministers met on Monday and prepared the ground for the decision on Thursday by the European Council (the 'summit' meeting of the heads of state and government) to add more senior Russians to the list of those targetted with individual sanctions. Russia replied on Friday by acting formally to accept the Crimea into the Russian Federation. But these sanctions will gradually isolate Putin by creating resentment against his policies among people in his inner circle. The EU also offered Ukraine a further loan of €1 billion to help stabilise its economy.

The foreign ministers have had to delay the despatch of an EU force to the Central African Republic due to a shortfall in troops committed by the member states. But they approved the airlift of one hundred tons of emergency humanitarian supplies. The EU also committed a further €1million to UNICEF to help eradicate polio among children in Syria, where it reappeared last year. This will pay for the innoculation of two and a half million children under the age of five.

The European Parliament's transport committee decided on Monday to postpone until the next Parliament measures governing the operation of ports. This is a blow to Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas (LD, Estonia) who has had a pretty torrid time in the past week. The Committee also voted to reject the Commission's proposal to open up borders to heavier and longer lorries on the roads; and the environment committee voted to reject the agreement between MEPs and Council to delay the inclusion of intercontinental air journeys in the carbon emissions trading scheme. In this latter case so much is at stake that I imagine its proponents will try to reverse the vote on the floor of the House.

I presented in the foreign affairs committee (on behalf of an absent colleague) a call for sanctions against Russian officials involved in the death in custody of the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, similar to those adopted by the US congress. The committee voted to approve it, but it is not binding on member states.

An agreement reached by employment ministers in Council on the 'posted workers' directive - a measure which aims to  prevent trade unions blocking the import of workers from another member state to carry out contract labour - seems to my colleagues and me to have made the position less clear rather than more. Judgements in the European Court of Justice upholding the right to free movement of labour (most famously in the Laval case) highlighted how fraught with difficulty the practice of posting of workers is. There is still little light at the end of the tunnel.

I met representatives of EDF, who sought my support for the deal they have struck with the UK government for the construction of Hinkley C. The European Commission is looking at it for compliance with state aid rules. I am defending a different case for china clay extractor Imerys in Cornwall, which is at risk from a challenge to the UK government's aggregates levy. In each case many jobs could depend on the outcome.

On Tuesday I addressed a conference hosted by a German think tank on energy policy and climate. I argued that the EU is hamstrung in responding to Russia's annexation of the Crimea because of our dangerous dependence on Russian gas. I was therefore doubly pleased when the heads of state and government called for the rapid development of alternatives to Russian gas, putting a focus on speeding up the switch from fossil fuels to electricity.

On Thursday afternoon I closed sharply the pre-summit lunch I host for the Liberal Prime Ministers and a few other senior party figures to dash back to the UK for a meeting on the Devon-Cornwall border with Nick Clegg and local business people. Yesterday I campaigned with party members in Taunton before flying to Dublin. Today I address the annual congress of our Fianna Fail friends in Killarney. As I look out on the landscape of ordovician and silurian rock I am reminded of Seamus Heaney's 'rain and scoured light and wind dried stones'.  


Sir Graham Watson
Member of the European Parliament for South West England and Gibraltar