La Treizième Étoile: 07/02/10 - 14/02/10 Blog Archives
News from the European Union with a focus on the South West UK and Gibraltar region and its MEPs
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Parliament rejects controversial EU-US SWIFT bank data transfer agreement

Thursday, 11 February 2010
The European Parliament has refused to give its consent to the nine-month interim agreement that would allow US authorities to access financial transaction data of European citizens in the name of the fight against terrorism, held by the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT).

SWIFTIt was thought the eventual outcome would hinge on how many MEPs voted against their party lines, such was the unpredictability reflected in the divergence of opinions across the house. But in the end it was rejected with a large majority, with 378 MEPs voting to reject the deal compared to 196 in favour of it and 31 abstaining.

The subject succeeded in establishing serious divides amongst MEPs, with some supporting it in the fight against terror, while others expressed concerns over the level of data protection in place for EU citizens and discontent at the Council for not having consulted the parliamentarians earlier in the process.

The US had in fact begun accessing SWIFT data shortly after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, but the fact that the US was secretly accessing such data did not come to light publically until 2006.

SWIFT, whose headquarters are located just outside of Brussels, records international transactions to a value of some trillions of dollars everyday made between nearly 8,000 financial institutions in more than 200 countries around the world.

It is shortly to set up a Switzerland-based back-up database, which will mean the data relating to transactions of European citizens will no longer to be stored in the US, which is why the Obama administration is negotiating a legal framework for data exchange with the EU, to enter into force next year.

The EU governments had managed to negotiated a nine-month deal which would have allowed the US to continue accessing the Swift money transfer system, but MEPs, furious that they did not have a say in this process and did not have the opportunity to which should have been afforded to them under the Lisbon Treaty, said the deal provided insufficient privacy safeguards.

The controversial deal had two-weeks previous already been defeated at the committee level, when MEPs in the civil liberties (LIBE) committee called for the agreement's rejection in today's plenary vote, with 29 votes then in favour and 23 against.

Parliament's rapporteur on the dossier, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert (ALDE, NL), while admitting the use of such bank data was necessary in the fight against terrorism, said that "the Council has not been tough enough" on the issue of protecting this data.

She continuously expressed her disappointment that EU "continues to outsource its security services to the United States without any reciprocity", and also argued that the rules on data transfer and storage provided for in the interim agreement were simply not proportionate.

Prior to the vote, Martin Schultz, the German leader of the S&D Group, said that signing this agreement "was a mistake by EU governments [who] thought they could get away with such a poor agreement, which is not in line with fundamental rights".

"How will data be retained, how will it be stored, can I have access to it, when it is going to be deleted?" he asked, alluding to whether it could be kept for up to 90 years. "This is a bad agreement that we simply cannot sign up to", he declared.

His group voted to reject the proposal, alongside the ALDE, Greens and GUE groups. However, The EPP Group, the largest in the house, tabled a resolution to postpone the vote in order to allow the Parliament, the Council and the newly installed European Commission to formulate a more concrete view on the issue. But this suggestion was voted down as MEPs sought to express the extent of their discontent.

"We have to vote down the interim agreement, not defer it", said Rebecca Harms (DE) for the Greens/EFA group prior to the vote. "We should not be agreeing to an agreement when many of us have stated again and again that this is an infringing piece of law", she urged, adding that it was "disgraceful" that the Council had failed to engage in constructive dialogue, even though US colleagues were ready to do so.

Timothy Kirkhope (ECR, UK) said he was "frustrated and angered" by the Council's treatment of Parliament. "Parliament's right to consent should not be used as a retrospective tool", he said. "We are finally getting assurances from Council and Commission" on data protection issues, "but we now need some time before proceeding further in our considerations", he added.

Today's rejection by Parliament could come as another blow in EU-US relations since it is reported that numerous US officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself, made 11th hour appeals to Parliament not to reject the agreement.

Nonetheless, President Jerzy Buzek issued a statement after the vote stating that "the majority view in the European Parliament is that the correct balance between security, on the one hand, and the protection of civil liberties and fundamental rights, on the other, has not been achieved in the text put to us by the Council."

"These are difficult, complex and sensitive matters - and by definition not everyone can be satisfied with the result."

MEP starts first Citizen's Initiative campaign for an EU work-free Sunday

Wednesday, 10 February 2010
"Mum and Dads belong to us on Sunday" is the message at the heart of the first European Citizens Initiative launched today in Strasbourg by German MEP Martin Kastler (EPP) .

Presenting his campaign in a press conference, Mr Kastler said he wants to drum up enough support to force the Commission to formulate legislation to protect Sunday as a day of rest in all citizens in Europe.

Screenshot of Campaign Website"Everyone, who is convinced that a free Sunday and direct democracy matter, should register now,"Mr Kastler said, referring to the dedicated website found at

For the 35-year old Member of Parliament, the day of the Sabbath, the day of rest "is part of our European culture. We need time for our families and relationships, for civil society and religion. A life full of working days is unlikely to be fulfilling."

A father of two, he referred to the importance of free Sundays for children: "on Sundays, parents are there for their children and children are there for their parents."

Adopting a German labour union motto as the campaign slogan, Mr Kastler called for a European child strategy saying "Europe should be the most child-friendly region in the world."

Last year, he and four other MEPs from different countries introduced a written declaration on the protection of a work-free Sunday in Europe to the Parliament, and even though the required quota of more than 50% of the MEPs was missed, 261 still signed the declaration.

He is now hoping his campaign will get the support and signatures of 1 million EU citizens from all member states which will trigger the Commission to introduce draft legislation. This Citizens Initiative is one of the big success-stories of the coming into force of the Lisbon Treaty on 1st December 2009.

What once began as a suggestion from a Swiss teenager back in 2005, the Initiative is now enshrined in Article 11.4 of the Treaty on European Union, which reads: "Not less than one million citizens who are nationals of a significant number of Member States may take the initiative of inviting the European Commission, within the framework of its powers, to submit any appropriate proposal on matters where citizens consider that a legal act of the Union is required for the purpose of implementing the Treaties."

Mr Kastler's campaign is hardly like to win support from the British who because to their opt-out of the Social Charter are able to be employed and can browse the high-street on Sundays which would be closed in France, Belgium and others.

Nonetheless, Mr Kastler is confident of great success with his initiative saying that "people from different political and social backgrounds can rally behind Sunday protection. Therefore, every single person and organisation all over Europe is welcome to support the first European Citizen initiative."

You can sign the petition yourself at:

MEPs demand common EU action to help resettle Guantánamo detainees

Within 48 hours of taking office, a year ago last month, the new President of the United States Barack Obama announced his intention to close Guantánamo Bay detention centre within 12 months of him assuming office.

Today, 198 prisoners remain in Guantánamo, and it is estimated that some 50 of those prisoners have been cleared for release but cannot be returned home because of the risk of imprisonment, torture or other human rights abuses.

Guantánamo Bay (Photo: Guardian)In a debate during last week's Strasbourg session, MEPs called on the EU member states to do more to accept prisoners and help Mr Obama to close the detention centre, which many Members said "is in the EU's interest".

Representing the Spanish Presidency, Secretary of State for the EU López Garrido Diego, said that this impasse was a "thorn in the side of EU-US relations" and "we welcome Mr Obama's continued persistence to close the centre."

Portuguese MEP Carlos Coelho (EPP) admitted the centre was "the biggest mistake of the George Bush administration" and the EU needs to cooperate to accept these prisoners.

Compatriot Ana Gomes (PT, S&D) cited Article 24 of the Lisbon Treaty to state that the EU should have a common policy and that it was the High Representative Catherine Ashton who has the initiative. "We must do all we can to close this door on a gruesome part of our history," she said.

Sarah Ludford (UK, ALDE) said that "while understanding the difficulties in unravelling the mess left by George Bush, the delays which mean nearly 200 men remain there are extremely frustrating." She added to the calls for EU governments to act because doing so is a "duty both out of transatlantic solidarity and out of guilt at their own complicity".

The same theme was continued by Helmut Scholz (DE, GEU) who said that many member states have "dodged responsibilities to take prisoners" and that is genuinely a "problem of transatlantic cooperation".

Cuba Map (Photo: BBC News)Concluding the debate in which all political parties expressed similar viewpoints, Pawel Samecki, the now former Commissioner in charge of Regional Policy, reminded MEPs that it falls under the purview of each Member state to take prisoners.

MEPs have campaigned for the closure for the Guantánamo Bay detention centre for many years, and in June last year the EU and the US agreed a framework that would allow EU member states to accept some of these detainees.

This framework came about as a result of a joint resolution unanimously adopted by the Parliament in the February Strasbourg session four months before that, calling for EU states to accept low-risk prisoners who cannot be sent home for fear they might be mistreated.

In that debate then, Graham Watson (UK, ALDE) had said "Europe cannot stand back and shrug its shoulders".

Last week's debate came on the back of an announcement by Latvia that it will take in one prisoner from Guantánamo.

To date only seven former detainees have been welcomed into Europe as free men, and Latvia is one of several EU countries — including Albania, Belgium, Ireland, France, Portugal, Spain, Slovakia, Hungary, Italy, and non-EU Switzerland — that have agreed to accept former prisoners or have already done so.


A Twittering Commission!

Put yourself in the shoes of a newly-elected European Commissioner for a moment. You officially begin work at 9.00am this morning and so you arrive in your office, put down the coffee and pastry on the desk and start up your computer. But what is the first thing you do?

Set up a Twitter account of course!

At least that is what the Slovenian Janez Potočnik has done, and as a result he has scooped the prestitious award for the first Commissioner to do so.

Janez Potočnik's Twitter Page (Photo: Screengrab)His first tweet appeared shortly after 9.00am this morning, and reads "My statement on my nomination as Environment Commissioner:".

We have already witnessed the arrival of European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek on the micro-blogging site, so how long will it be before other Commissioners join the club?

Keep a track of them as they are created here:

László Andor (HU) - Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion (01/01/11)
Michel Barnier (FR) - Internal Market (16/01/09)
Maria Damanaki (HE) - Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (26/06/09 then 14/03/11)
Kristalina Georgieva (BG) - Humanitarian Aid & Crisis Response (15/03/10)
Siim Kallas (EE) - Transport (06/06/11)
Neelie Kroes (NL) - Digital Agenda (30/06/10)
Andris Piebalgs (LV) - Development
Janez Potočnik (SI) - Environment (10/02/10)
Vivian Reding (LU) - Justice, Citizenship and Fundamental Rights (11/08/10)
Maroš Šefčovič (SK) - Inter-institutional Relations and Administration (26/10/11)
Algirdas Semeta (LT) - Taxation, Customs Union, Audit and Anti-Fraud (27/09/11)

Update (10/02 - 23:50): Have discovered that French Commissioner Michel Barnier and Greek Maria Damanaki already have Twitter accounts, but were set up before they became Commissioners.

Update (30/06 - 15:55): Neelie Kroes added. José Manuel Barroso removed from the list as account is shown as 'suspended'.

Update (20/08 - 16:07): Vivian Reding added.

Update (10/01 - 14.00): László Andor added.

Update (17/03 - 13.43): Maria Damanaki has created a new account to replace her @damanaki account she had used before becoming a Commissioner.

Update (10/06 - 17.35): Siim Kallas added.

Update (17/10 - 23.55): Andris Piebalgs and Maroš Šefčovič added.

MEPs win substantial new powers over new Commission

Whilst it was overshadowed by the vote confirming the new Barroso II Commission, the European Parliament won a somewhat substantial victory yesterday as it seeks to flex its muscles thanks to its new powers provisioned to it under the Lisbon Treaty.

Shortly before the vote on the Commission, the Parliament approved, by a show of hands, a set of key principles to be put into place in the cooperation agreement that governs relations between the two European bodies.

The Hemicycle Debating Chamber by ajburgess, on FlickrBoth parties are currently in the process of revising the Framework Agreement that defines such matters as each party's political responsibilities, the flow of information and legislative coordination.

One of the key achievements made so far is a commitment on the part of the Commission to treating the Parliament and the Council of Ministers on an equal footing. This will mean MEPs will gain access to meetings and be able to view full documentation on the Commission's meetings with national experts.

President Jerzy Buzek will now be allowed to attend the weekly meeting of Commissioners when major laws are being proposed, and the twice monthly meeting of political group leaders in the Parliament will host Commission President José Manuel Barroso when legislative and budgetary matters are being discussed.

Another victory for the Parliament was is making Commission more accountable. The power-sharing deal suggests that Mr Barroso must "seriously consider" whether to ask an individual commissioner to step down if Parliament withdraws its confidence. If however, he chooses not to let the Commissioner go, he then has to explain his reasons before MEPs in the following plenary session (and he better have good reasons!).

As it stands the Parliament is permitted one sole vote on the entire Commission, whereas this new arrangement will certainly increase the MEPs' political clout. As it was well documented in the media and although it was not a legally-binding veto, MEPs recently forced the resignation of Bulgarian commissioner designate Rumiana Jeleva by threatening to vote against the Commission as a whole.

Jerzy Buzek listens carefully as José Barroso's addresses the hemicycle (Photo: European Parliament/FlickrThe other main change agreed so far will see a further reform to the Question Hour format which used to feature just Mr Barroso. Under the agreement, other Commissioners, including the High-Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton, can be summoned to face questions in the hour-long slot held each month in Strasbourg - implemented in the hope of mirroring the spectacle of the UK's Prime Ministers Questions (PMQs).

However, Parliament's negotiating team did not get there own way on everything - they lost out in two major areas:

Firstly, they failed to secure agreement from Mr Barroso that there should be hearings for senior appointees to the EU's future diplomatic service, as we have just seen for the Commissioner-designates. Instead they received commitment that the ambassadors will be appointed in a transparent manner.

And secondly, Mr Barroso rejected an attempt by MEPs to oblige the Commission to come forward with legislation if the chamber requested it. Mr Barroso thought this was something that was stepping on the Commission's rights as sole initiator of EU legislation.

As a compromise however, the Commission has pledged to respond to a legislation request by the Parliament within three months and propose a law, if it decides to do so, within a year, and will give reasons to MEPs if it chooses not to legislate.

In the debate preceding the show of hands on Tuesday morning, Diana Wallis (ALDE, UK), a member of the Parliament's negotiating team, referred to Mr Barroso's stated commitment to the "Parliamentary dimension of the EU" and said "post Lisbon, this Parliament is much more than a mere dimension."

"It is a reality, a real force, and a true Parliament worthy of the name. This Parliament is now a fully legislative partner, and a Parliament rightly able to hold your Commission to account."

BREAKING: Parliament APPROVES Barroso II Commission

Tuesday, 9 February 2010
José Manuel Barroso (Photo: European Commission)MEPs meeting in Strasbourg have APPROVED the proposed Commission team headed by José Manuel Barroso.

488 MEPs voted in favour, 137 voted against, and there were 72 abstentions.

The new Barroso II Commission will now be sworn in and will officially begin work tomorrow morning.

Their mandate will end on 31st October 2014.

With 70% of the vote in favour, the result for Barroso II is greater than that achieved for the first Barroso Commission five years ago. In October 2004, 66% of MEPs voted in favour.

Barroso II Commission finally set for Parliamentary approval?

Today, shortly after 1.30pm local time (12.30 GMT) in Strasbourg, the European Parliament is due to vote on the election of the new European Commission.

The 27-member college, headed for a second time running by Portugal's José Manuel Barroso, is expected to achieve the majority vote needed to finally allow it to take up office for the next five years.

Jerzy Buzek's Twitter Page (Photo: Screengrab)The previous Commission "left office" at the end of September last year, but has been operating in its caretaker status while the new team was put together, interrogated before Parliament in the series of Commissioner hearings, and reorganised following the withdrawal of the Bulgarian candidate Rumiana Jeleva.

Today however the new College is set to be voted in, but it might not be as smooth as many are hoping. On his Twitter page, pictured above, the President of the Parliament Jerzy Buzek proclaimed he was looking forward to the vote and that "We can bet on the result..."

However, at the pre-session briefing last Friday, not all political parties were so pronounced. The EPP said they would vote in favour of the new Commission, the S&D Group (the second largest) said they would not reveal their group's opinion before the vote citing some hesitation about "certain candidates".

The ALDE group also said they had reservations about a few candidates but that these concerns were not sufficient to vote down the whole Commission, while the Greens said they would vote strongly against the new College.

So the vote result is perhaps not as certain as expected. If the Parliament fails to deliver a majority vote in favour it will further delay the start of work of the new Commission, which is not what many want in the current climate.

Therefore the vote will be much anticipated and you can watch it live by clicking here at 13.30 (12.30GMT).

Ashton endorces and praises Ukraine on its Presidential Election vote

Monday, 8 February 2010
Catherine Ashton, the EU's High Representative of Foreign Affairs, has this afternoon commended Ukraine for holding free and fair presidential elections - a set of remarks that will make it harder for the losing side to contest the eventually pronounced result.

"The generally calm atmosphere in which the elections were conducted, the open campaign in the media and the fact that the electorate were provided with a genuine choice represent important achievements in Ukraine's democratic development," Lady Ashton said in a statement.

With just over 2% of votes still to be counted, Viktor Yanukovych, the leader of the opposition and seen as the most pro-Moscow of the candidates, currently leads the polls with a 2.65% margin over his rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, the current prime minister and one of the leaders of the pro-Western ‘Orange Revolution' in 2004.

Yulia Tymoshenko (left) and Viktor YanukovychIn the run-up to the vote, Mrs Tymoshenko, far left, the once dubbed "Princess Leia of Ukrainian politics" with her trademark peroxide-blonde hair traditionally braided over the top of her head, had accused Mr Yanukovych, pictured on the right of the image left, of fraud and threatened to take court action or to call her supporters to come out on the streets.

She had reportedly been pondering her next move as the results emerged, postponing a pre-organised press conference, but Lady Ashton's statement will not help her case that the elections were carried out fraudulently.

She said that the elections were held in “generally calm conditions” and that there had been an “open campaign in the media”. The electorate had been provided with a genuine choice, she said, calling all these facts “important achievements in Ukraine's democratic development”.

Lady Ashton added that the EU “remains committed to deepening the relationship with Ukraine", "supporting it in implementing its reform agenda" and said the EU “looks forward to working with the new president”.

Her comments follow a resoundingly positive assessment of the conduct of the vote by a delegation of MEPs and by international monitors, the ODIHR, earlier in the day.

Paweł Kowal (ECR, PL), the head of the Parliamentary delegation, said that “free elections were once again held in a country which overcame communism, got through the period of the Second World War and Soviet domination. It is worth bringing these facts to the attention of the international community which is watching Kiev today."

Alojz Peterle (EPP, SI) said: “we have visited 14 polling stations yesterday, urban and rural, and were impressed with the high level of attention to the rules and procedures. I think we can safely say that Ukraine has raised the level of electoral standards and can be a good example for many other countries.

But it should be noted that the result of the election is not yet official. In terms of protocol, Mr Yanukovych has to be officially named the winner by the country's Central Election Commission (CEC), who under Ukrainian law have to announce a final result no later than 17 February.

Its decision can be challenged in court for a further five days after this, but unless judges overturn the result, Ukraine must inaugurate its new president by the 19th March.

If Mr Yanukovych secures victory, it will represent a moral defeat for the Orange Revolution which swept him from power five years ago, and will most likely see a shift of national policy towards Russia rather than towards EU integration.

Unveiled: winning logo design soon to be displayed on all EU organic produce

The European Commission has this morning unveiled the logo that from July 1st will be obligatorily displayed on all pre-packaged organic products that have been produced in EU.

The "Euro-leaf" design, shown below, by Dusan Milenkovic, a student from Germany, gained 63% of the overall vote and displays the EU stars in the shape of a leaf set against a green background. The straightforward and easily-recognisable logo depicts two clear messages: those of nature and Europe.

The winning Euro-Leaf design (Photo: European Commission)From 1st July 2010, the organic logo of the EU will be obligatory on all pre-packaged organic products that have been produced in any of the EU Member States and meet the necessary standards.

It will however be optional for imported products and other private, regional or national logos will be allowed to appear alongside the EU label. The organic farming regulation will be amended in the coming weeks to introduce the new logo into one of the annexes.

"I'm delighted that we now have a fresh EU organic food logo," said Mariann Fischer Boel, the outgoing Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development. "This exercise has raised the profile of organic food and we now have a logo which everyone will be able to identify with. It's a nice elegant design and I look forward to buying products carrying this logo from July this year."

Approximately 3,500 logo designs were submitted for consideration and the best three logos in the eyes of the expert jury were subjected to an online vote which ended on 31st January. More than 130,000 votes were cast online with the "Euro-Leaf" by far the most popular design.

Last election:

Click here to see which six MEPs were elected.