La Treizième Étoile: 18/04/10 - 25/04/10 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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Cameron attacked for links with 'nutters [and] homophobes' as Europe gets 10 minutes of campaign spotlight

Friday, 23 April 2010
David Cameron, the leader of the British Conservative party came under renewed pressure last night in the second televised election debate for his party’s links with "nutters, anti-Semites, people who deny climate change exists [and] homophobes" in the European Parliament.

Nick Clegg (left) attacks David Cameron (middle) in the Televised Election Debate (Photo: Reuters)Speaking as the leaders of the three main parties went head-to-head in Manchester, the former MEP and current Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg attacked the Tory leader for his decision to withdraw from the centre-right EPP to form the ECR group after last June's elections.

Mr Clegg was joined in the attack by Prime Minister Gordon Brown who also accused Cameron of abandoning mainstream politics by allying with "marginalised" figures in the EU.

He told Mr Cameron that his Conservatives had "walked away" from French president Nicolas Sarkozy and German chancellor Angela Merkel, whose MEPs sit with the EPP, and "gone in with right-wing extremists".

Describing his opponent as "anti-European", the incumbent PM said a Conservative government would damage Britain's influence in Europe. "Let us never again be an empty chair in Europe," he said.

In response, Mr Cameron repeated his now familiar eurosceptic refrain, restating that he wanted Britain to be "in Europe but not ruled by Europe", then launching into a criticism over the transfer of powers from Westminster to Brussels.

Mr Cameron said the British people "feel cheated" that a public referendum on the Lisbon Treaty did not take place, but perhaps the perhaps surprising remark came from the pro-European Mr Clegg who said a referendum was needed on whether or not to stay in the EU.

"I would argue we should stay in, not because it's perfect but because I think it's in our interests to do so," he said.

The Liberal Democrat leader acknowledged that there were problems with the EU, but added, "it seems to me that we punch above our weight when we stand together in Europe in a world where frankly you have got a lot of superpowers bumping up against each other and where, to coin a phrase, size does matter."

The most disappointing aspect of the evening was that for a session to debate “international affairs” the subject of the European Union only occupied 10 minutes of the whole election campaign.

Amazingly I found myself reacting to the leaders' debate in the same way as the former UKIP leader Nigel Farage who said, "Is that it? Is all we're going to have a 10-minute debate on the European Union?” (Needless to say I didn’t agree with the rest of what he said…)

EU still underperforming but MDGs ‘are still achievable’ admits Piebalgs

Wednesday, 21 April 2010
Posted on Th!nk3In Brussels today, the European Commission has adopted what it calls an “ambitious action plan” for EU-wide action to speed up its progress towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Despite the EU remaining the most generous global donor, providing over half of global aid, the levels of EU aid decreased in 2009 and amounted to some €49 billion. This equates to roughly 0.42% of EU GNI which shows that the 27-member bloc is still a way off meeting the intermediate collective target of 0.56% GNI by 2010, and the hallowed 0.7% by 2015.

Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs (Photo: European Commission)In its action plan of 12 steps, the Commission calls upon member states to take further action in support of MDGs and aim at increasing the level of aid while making aid more efficient and focused on those countries and sectors most in need.

Currently each European citizen indirectly contributes around €100 each year.

Speaking at a press conference this morning, the Commissioner for Development, Andris Piebalgs said this was something “we can be proud of and we can see progress towards the Millennium Development Goals. But poverty still remains with one point four billion people – almost three times the European - living in extreme poverty. Now is not the time for complacency – we need to redouble our efforts.

"I want Europe to remain the main and most credible leader in the fight against poverty,” he said. “We have to respect our promises of more and better aid to halve poverty by 2015.

This plan shows how we can keep the lead in working with developing countries to get back on track towards the MDGs. The Goals are still achievable, provided there is financial effort and political will from EU Member States."

The President of the Commission José Manuel Barroso, fresh from introducing the Commission’s Legislative and Work Programme for 2010 to the European Parliament plenary session in Strasbourg yesterday said that 2010 is a year of opportunity for the EU to renew its commitment towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

As we celebrate the ‘European Year against Poverty and Social Exclusion’, it is important to recall that the challenge of poverty does not stop at the EU’s borders,” he said. “Promoting development has to be part and parcel of Europe’s response to global challenges. We have a chance to make this a new decade for development and I am personally committed to push this agenda at global level during this year's G8 and G20 summits and in the UN MDG Review Meeting."

The EU’s Action Plan proposes ways to ensure the required increase of aid delivered by member states and supports the need for innovative sources of financing, while also addressing the quality of aid by sharing labour and responsibilities within the EU, to ensure there are no "aid orphan" countries. The Commission, under Mr Piebalgs’ watchful eye, also pledges to ensure that its policies are coherent with the development goals.

As for the contents of the Action Plan, it consists of 12 points:

  • Member States will be asked to establish realistic, verifiable annual action plans for reaching individual targets and publish the first plans before September 2010. The European Council should lead a process of peer review among Member States. The Action Plan also calls for fair international burden-sharing with other international donors to raise their level of ambition;
  • Increase of aid effectiveness by better coordinating national aid programmes at EU level. This means better value for money and could save around €3 to €6 billion yearly. The EU plan for Haiti reconstruction is a good example. Aid effectiveness should also be promoted at international level;
  • Target fragile states and those most off-track countries from the MDGs;
  • Target the most off-track MDGs, through sectoral measures on Gender, Health, Education and Food security;
  • Foster ownership of MDGs in developing countries by working in partnerships, such as the EU-Africa Joint Strategy;
  • Ensure that other EU policies such as security, trade, migration, food security and climate change work in coherence for development goals;
  • Mobilise domestic resources through better taxation in developing countries. In parallel, promote the principles of good governance in tax matters and support fight against tax evasion at international level;
  • Strengthen regional integration and trade for growth and jobs;
  • Support initiatives on innovative financing with high revenue potential and ensure they benefit the poorest ;
  • Use the EU's €2.4bn a year "fast-start" funding commitment in Copenhagen for climate change as a test for aid effectiveness and coherence.
  • Launch a new plan to address and intervene better in conflict situations and make development and security work better together;
  • Support a stronger weight of developing countries in the international governance architecture, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and the UN reform for more effective agencies.

Before the EU Action plan can be put into effect, it will face further scrutiny in the Foreign Affairs Council meetings scheduled in May and June, and should be on the agenda for the meeting of EU leaders in June.

Ash cloud disruption prompts MEP calls for improved European rail network

The now infamous volcanic ash cloud that drifted over from Iceland and grounded flights across Europe for days has prompted calls for the European Union to develop a better and faster rail network after highlighting the region's dependence on air travel.

A small plane (upper left) flies past smoke and ash billowing from a volcano in Eyjafjallajokul, Iceland on April 17, 2010 (Photo: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)In a heated debate in the European Parliament last night, the parliamentarians who had managed to get to Strasbourg, said the 27-country bloc had reacted simply too slowly to a crisis that had brought to light a serious and urgent need to bring other forms of transport up to date.

"Member states should finally learn a lesson from what has happened," said the EPP’s Marian-Jean Marinescu who is a member of the Parliament’s transport committee. “The modernisation of our railway transportation is a priority. We talk a lot about it but don't do much. In Europe today you can't buy a train ticket to travel in a civilized way from the north of Europe to the south of Europe."

For years now, rail travellers (myself included) have often bemoaned at not being able to buy just one single ticket when travelling between European countries, instead having to buy individual tickets for each stage of the journey. In addition, it is hard to find clear information about international transfers and train routes and that the cost is often high.

For Hannes Swoboda (S&D) improving onboard conditions is a priority. He told the chamber that he had used trains and roads in the past few days to travel from Belgrade to Vienna and then from Vienna to Strasbourg, and found the trains "pretty grim".

"The toilets on the train were completely blocked because so many people were on the train and using them. The corridors were full of people sitting in them because there weren't enough seats," he said. "It was a pretty big disaster, I can assure you."

The Parliament’s president Jerzy Buzek said in a written statement that action was needed to ensure the bloc representing more than 500 million people developed its rail network and was not caught unprepared again.

"This crisis reminds us how important it is to invest in all forms of transport on a long term perspective," he said. “We have experienced in recent days what it means to be stuck at an airport being forced to find alternative means of travelling. Other forms of transport are not always suitable for long journeys or emergencies."

The Current EU high-speed rail network (Photo: Wikipedia)
The EU has in fact been working on opening domestic rail markets to more competition since 2001 and introduced new legislation this year to help implement its plans, but it has itself constantly faced implementation problems because of “foot-dragging tactics” in some member states.

The Commission has previous complained that some countries (not mentioned) have not created a level playing field on issues including access to infrastructure and price setting, and accused of moving toward protectionism during the economic crisis.

Rail travellers should now as a result see the acceleration of previously announced expansions of high-speed lines throughout France, Italy, Spain and the UK over the next five to 10 years, with other international services close behind. Eurostar are looking into expanding its routes from London to Spain and Germany via Paris and Brussels respectively which should be good although will not happen before the Channel Tunnel is opened to other company services.

But the major obstacle arrives in the form of funding and the planning issues surrounding new high-speed lines. Construction of a new infrastructure is hugely dependent on large levels of financing and those decisions remain mostly a decision made by each member state.

What is the 'smell of freedom of leaving EU'? New UKIP product says Citrus

Tuesday, 20 April 2010
UKIP air freshener (Photo: UKIP shop)While some political parties stick to selling books, posters and rosettes on their respective online shops to raise funds, you can hardly say the UK Independence Party don’t do things differently.

After the infamous 'Keep the Pound dressing gowns' (no longer available so perhaps already sold out?) they have launched a new product: an air freshener.

Priced at just £1, it supposedly allows supporters to "enjoy the smell of freedom" that would come from leaving the EU whilst admiring the UKIP logo, free phone number and website address shown on the other side of the small 3’’ diameter cardboard piece.

The party’s website states that the product is “environmentally friendly and recyclable”, so at least that’s something.

But if the product is to be believed then the smell of freedom outside the EU carries some rather distinct citrus tones.

The delivery cost per single freshener doubles its price, but unfortunately for all those abroad will miss out since “orders can only be shipped within the United Kingdom”…

Plenary session kicks off amid travel chaos. Should it not have been postponed?

The European Parliament's regular monthly plenary session unexpectedly kicked off in Strasbourg last night despite the circumstances hampering travel across Europe caused by the cloud of volcanic ash. While estimates vary, one thing that is for sure is that not all of the 736 MEPs will be present at this week's plenary in Strasbourg...

With air travel still seriously disrupted thanks to the volcanic ash cloud from Iceland, there were calls for the planned session postponed, but instead the plenary opened in Strasbourg at 17:30 last night, a move which Parliament President Jerzy Buzek said was an obligation under the EU assembly's Rules of Procedure.

"A number of colleagues also suggested that the plenary session be moved from Strasbourg to Brussels but as the airports in both cities remain closed, there was no objective justification for such a last-minute change," the Parliament president wrote in a letter to MEPs.

But the he revealed yesterday that a number of changes would be made to the agenda given that many of the members were simply physically unable to be present.

"We have decided that due to travel restrictions there will be no votes,” he told MEPs at the opening of the session. “MEPs are fully aware of the dramatic consequences of the ash cloud. Many thousands of Europeans have been badly affected. There are dramatic economic repercussions for airlines. Jobs are at risk across Europe. Parliament has decided to debate this on Tuesday as a priority."

But the session will end earlier than usual, on Wednesday not Thursday. “Transport is still drastically disrupted and it was decided to finish on Wednesday to give everyone more time to get home,” Mr Buzek confirmed.

While the airspace in many European countries remains closed, workers on the French SNCF high-speed rail network are carrying out a partial strike further affecting transport options to the small town in Alsace and reigniting the calls for the monthly-commute to end.

One Liberal Democrat MEP, Sarah Ludford, was clearly not happy about this when after she learnt of the partial strike she fired off a waspish email that read: "Oh fab! That reallly takes the biscuit. I really don't wish to be rude or offensive to French friends and colleagues but it would be incredibly helpful if the French government and political community in general could carry through their championing of the obligation to have the travelling circus to Strasbourg by trying to ensure that state-owned tranport operators make that journey at least possible."

As for how many MEPs managed to make it to Strasbourg: says approximately 250 members signed in for the supposed start of the session on Monday, French blogger Jean Quatremer said the number was more like 120 while Marjorie van den Broeke of the Parliament’s Press Unit posted on Twitter that “408 MEPs were able to make it to Strasbourg”.

But someone definitely not there in Strasbourg (unsurprisingly?) is UKIP member Nigel Farage, who is also a candidate in the upcoming British general election. He said “the whole thing is farcical and, given the circumstances, I really fail to see the point of going ahead with the plenary this week. People will still be arriving on Tuesday only to be told they are going home again the following day. You couldn't make it up."

Meanwhile, Socialist MEPs have called on the EU to "ensure that the 6.8 million passengers stuck at airports around the world can return home as soon as possible in decent conditions".

The group’s German leader Martin Schulz said, "For five days now, volcanic ash from Iceland has caused major disruption in European airspace. It is time for the EU to give leadership in dealing with the consequences."

"Their problem is no longer one of inconvenience. It is a real difficulty, especially for people with small children, handicapped people and other vulnerable individuals,” he said.

These people need help – and the role of the EU should be to coordinate action so that problems are dealt with efficiently. This is the moment for the EU to show that it is there to help its citizens and that it is a union about people, not just about markets."

Last election:

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