La Treizième Étoile: 13/06/10 - 20/06/10 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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Iceland gets official candidate status as UK and Holland pledge not to veto negotiations

Friday, 18 June 2010
As expected, EU leaders meeting for their monthly summit in Brussels have agreed to open membership negotiations with Iceland, despite its failure so far to refund the UK and the Netherlands for lost savings.

Iceland, while still reeling from the collapse of its major banks, submitted its application to join the EU last July and has now achieved full membership candidate status although the majority of Icelandic citizens (57%) still say they will vote against joining the 27-member bloc according to a recent poll published in Le Figaro.

In the Summit meeting on Thursday, the European Council signed off on language approving the start of official talks, with the British and the Dutch leaders insisting on the agreement’s wording that made implicit mention of the ongoing ‘Icesave’ banking dispute.

The UK and Dutch governments want Iceland to reimburse them some €3.8 billion (£3.2 billion) that they paid out to savers who lost money when Iceland's online bank Icesave went bust in 2008.

The European Council "notes that Iceland meets the political criteria set by the Copenhagen European Council in 1993 and decides that accession negotiations should be opened," says the text.

"It recalls that negotiations will be aimed at Iceland ... addressing existing obligations such as those identified by the EFTA Surveillance Authority under the EEA Agreement, and other areas of weakness," the communiqué, which notably continues to state "including in the area of financial services."

The European Free Trade Association Surveillance authority essentially performs the same executive role as the European Commission, but for the countries of the European Free Trade Association, the free trade body linking Iceland, Norway, Lichtenstein and Switzerland to the EU.

The Icelandic government has already agreed to pay the countries back, but the terms at which the repayments are to be made are widely considered onerous by a majority of the population. Under the agreement the loan will be paid back over 15 years with interest, with some estimates suggesting every Icelandic household will have to contribute around €45,000.

Apparently, in the meeting, the outgoing Dutch Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende told his fellow leaders that his country would not block negotiations, so long as Iceland fulfils its “hard demands”.

Following the announcement, Iceland's ambassador to the EU, Stefan Johannesson, said "It is self-evident that Iceland will live up to its obligations. There is no question.

We are fully committed to the ongoing negotiations and see the issue being resolved with the UK and the Netherlands,” he said. "We're not expecting any special treatment, we want to be judged on objective criteria but one can't deny that the track is very short."

The island situated in the North Atlantic gained its independence from Denmark on the 17th June 1944 – exactly 66 years ago today. It has a population of just 323,000 and is also in the Schengen zone, so Icelanders already enjoy passport-free travel to much of Europe.

The Commission must now develop a negotiating framework, which due to the largely positive accession assessment of Iceland's prospects made by the EU executive in February, should realistically only take a few months to formulate. The negotiating framework must then be adopted by the Council of Ministers, which consists of representatives of all the current member states.

After this step, a first intergovernmental conference between Iceland and the member states takes place. The next stage of the accession negotiation process should occur before the end of the year, according to the Commission.

French now a 'useless' language - Chris Bryant, former EU minister

Tuesday, 15 June 2010
Chris Bryant, who served as the Minister for Europe under Gordon Brown, used a speech in the House of Commons yesterday to highlight the waning value of the French language in today’s political and social society.

Mr Bryant, now a shadow Foreign Office minister, said that young people should be pointed towards languages that were more useful for business.

Speaking in a debate on 'Emerging Economies: UK Policy on the Middle East', he told MPs "unless we have sufficient numbers of people who speak modern foreign languages – and not just the useless modern foreign languages like French ..."

Amid protests from Conservative MPs across the chamber that this was "insulting" to the UK’s near neighbours, Mr Bryant said: "I've said this to the French. I think they realise there are problems."

He then sought to defend his remark insisting that while French had been the "most useful language to use because it was the diplomatic language", things had changed over the last 30 to 40 years and now "it certainly isn't".

The most useful languages to speak at present are Mandarin, and Spanish and Portuguese because of Latin America, and we need to focus on Arabic as well,” he said.

My biggest concern is that the effortless British superiority with which we stride around the economic world means that all too often we are the only country that presents business people in other countries who do not speak even the rudiments of a foreign language. That is a big problem.

Nick Clegg speaking German in Germany last week (Photo: Guardian)Mr Bryant then paid tribute to the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, and his ability to speak “so many foreign languages” – a skill he has exhibited on trips around Europe these past few weeks.

But Mr Clegg is an exceptional case; while French has traditionally been the first foreign language taught to British schoolchildren, figures released earlier this year showed that the popularity of French and other European languages among secondary school pupils had fallen to a new low, with fewer than half of teenagers gaining a good GCSE grade.

We did not get it right, and ever fewer people in the UK are learning foreign languages,” Mr Bryant told the House. “My experience in the Foreign Office was that the number of people who spoke foreign languages has diminished, and the number who can confidently speak them is pretty low.

Before losing power in May's General Election, the Labour government pledged to make languages compulsory for all seven- to 11-year-olds from 2011.

Parliament elects former bishop László Tőkés as new Vice-President

László Tőkés MEP in BrusselsLászló Tőkés, a Romanian MEP representing the European People's Party was today in Strasbourg elected as one of Parliament's 14 Vice-Presidents on Tuesday by 336 votes in favour, 160 against and 207 abstentions.

The vote was organised following the departure of former Hungarian Vice-President Pál Schmitt, also of the EPP, who was elected as Speaker of the Hungarian Parliament following their last general elections.

It continues the tremendous rise of Mr Tőkés, a Romanian politician of Hungarian ethnicity, who sits in the Culture and Education Committee as well as the subcommittee on Human Rights and is a part of the Parliament's delegation for relations with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo.

It was only in 2007 that he decided to run for the European Parliament as an independent candidate, and won a seat after receiving the backing of Hungary's largely conservative centre-right political party Fidesz, who sit within the EPP majority group in Strasbourg.

Before becoming an MEP, Mr Tőkés was a Bishop in the Reformed Church in Romania.

MEPs demand 'strong EU commitment' to get MDG progress back on track

Posted on Th!nk3A the recent plenary session of the European parliament in Strasbourg, the Parliament officially adopted a resolution setting out its position as regards the EU’s progress on meeting the UN Millennium Development Goals. The verdict? Innovative development funding mechanisms need to be backed by the EU, as the world's leading aid donor if the MDGs are to be met by the 2015 deadline.

The report, produced by the British MEP rapporteur Michael Cashman, states that the EU is off track even for its 2010 interim 0.56% target and there is a real risk of not meeting the MDGs on time.

"What I want to see is leadership from the EU, not the minimum set that they can agree on, but a commitment to that 0.7% of gross national income, a commitment to additional financing", said Mr Cashman during the plenary debate on the resolution held on Monday 14th June.

Lithuanian Liberal MEP Leonidas Donskis welcomed the resolution but urged MEPs that any attempt to reduce poverty cannot exist without tackling security issues outside EU borders and the "extreme poverty" in Europe, such as in Moldova and Ukraine.

UKIP MEP Gerard Batten also took to the floor in this debate and while he welcomed the aims of the MDGs, he declared the targets as being simply "unrealistic".

'Innovative funding mechanisms'

While no additional money is likely to be committed by member states to combat climate change and the effects of economic crises in this time of austerity measures, a series of “innovative funding mechanisms” have been promoted and by the passing of the resolution have gained the support of the MEPS.

These advocated measures, as stated in the resolution document, include:

• renewed efforts by member states to ease the debt burden of least developed countries (LDCs) with a track record of accountability, transparency and good governance,

• further energy devoted to cracking down on tax havens and tax evasion and illicit financial flows as well as systematically disclosing profits made and taxes paid by companies,

• reducing the costs of transferring money earned by migrant workers back to their families in their home countries.

"Policies on voluntary family planning, safe abortion, treatment of sexual transmitted infections and provision of reproductive health supplies made up of life-saving drugs and contraceptives, including condoms should be supported" by member states and Commission, reads the resolution.

In addition, MEPs have said member states and the Commission should allocate at least 20% of all development spending to basic health and education and should prioritise maternal health and combating infant mortality. This is because they believe overall EU progress on achieving the MDGs is still insufficient.

The resolution was approved with 353 votes in favour, 206 against and 75 abstentions.

Michael Cashman MEPReacting to the vote, Mr Cashman, pictured left, expressed his delight his report was adopted but regret that many members from the right and centre-right of the Parliament had refused to support the report.

"I feel sorry for the 281 MEPs who do not wish to reach out, help and speak out on behalf of those who do not have a voice. Now is certainly not the time for ideological differences to prevent MDGs being achieved", he said.

He also regretted not being able to put forward a tax to finance additional funding or an interest-free moratorium until 2015 on debt repayments for developing countries, due to the opposition of the Conservatives (EPP) and Liberals (ALDE).

"Billions were made available to get Europe through the financial crisis, and a tiny, shameful percentage went to the developing and to the less developed countries."

But for Dutch Green MEP Judith Sargentini, a member of European Parliament's Development Committee (DEVE), the report of the progress achieved paints “a mixed picture”.

"We are not on track to reach those goals, a failure due also to the EU and its member states, who didn't develop ambitious enough policies,” she said. The economic crisis "is for many countries even a reason to cut their development aid, and during the next five years we need a catch up.

"The Greens want the European countries to finally take their responsibility for the success of the MDGs. As a start, all European countries should spend 0.7% of GNP on development aid,” she said.

GUE/NGL German MEP Gabriele Zimmer said approval of the report "sends a strong signal to member states that they cannot relinquish their responsibilities in the fight against poverty and hunger".

"I would have gone further and demanded that the EU cannot sign off on agreements unless they contribute in one way or another to the fulfilment of the MDGs," she said.

With only five years to go to the 2015 deadline for achieving the MDGs, MEPs expect the European Council "to agree on an ambitious and united EU position" shortly ahead of the UN MDG summit meeting in New York on 20-22 September 2010.

Flemish separatist N-VA party wins big in Belgian general election

Monday, 14 June 2010
Voters in Belgium’s General Election have given what can only be described as stunning win to a Flemish separatist party that wants Dutch and French-speakers to end years of acrimonious linguistic disputes or fail that go their own way and break up Belgium.

N-VA leader Bart De Wever (Photo: New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) won 27 seats, up 19 from the 2007 elections, to become Belgium's biggest party, and true to tradition, the big winners in Wallonia were the Socialists who won 26 seats, up six. Their leader, Elio di Rupo, also a would-be premier, said, "many Flemish people want the country's institutions reformed. We need to listen to that."

But the main story of the election is the N-VA result which has been seen as a warning to Francophone politicians to negotiate seriously about granting Dutch- and French-speakers more self-rule, or Dutch-speaking Flanders will bolt, but Bart De Wever, the leader of the N-VA does believe that Belgium's "natural evolution" is to split into two separate halves.

Instead, what he proposes is a confederation - a rare constitutional creation consisting of two separate sovereign states that would agree to pool certain aspects of their sovereignty and share things like foreign policy or defence, under an umbrella that will be called "Belgium".

One of those states would be his homeland of Flanders, in the Dutch-speaking north and the other would be Wallonia, in the French-speaking south of the country where the reaction to the result was one of shock with the French-language daily newspaper Le Soir proclaimed that "Flanders has chosen a new king".

For those unfamiliar with the language-situation in the European capital, French and Dutch speakers have been at loggerheads over which should have priority usage in the country. Indeed because there has been no agreement, both are used everywhere, and so the country’s 6.5 million Dutch-speakers and 4 million Francophones live very side by side lives.

In fact, just about everything in Belgium (especially in Brussels where English is also dominantly used) from political parties to broadcasters to boy scouts and voting ballots already comes in Dutch and French-speaking versions. Even charities such as the Red Cross and Amnesty International are forced to have separate chapters.

BHV voting districtThe election was called following a long-running dispute over the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde bilingual voting district comprising the capital, Brussels, and 35 Flemish towns bordering it as the Flemish liberal Open VLD party pulled out of the Prime Minister Yves Leterme’s five-party coalition, and threatened to force a parliamentary vote to split the voting district, pictured left.

The high court had ruled it illegal back in 2003 because Dutch is the only official language in Flanders, but over the years, Francophones from Brussels have moved in large numbers to Brussels' leafy Flemish suburbs, where they are accused of refusing to learn Dutch and integrate.

The country has been torn by political infighting between the parties of the Dutch-speaking majority and French-speaking minority over their respective rights in the Brussels electoral district ever since elections in 2007.

Flemish parties, including Mr Leterme’s own Christian democrat CD&V, want to split the three BHV districts along language lines, which would end the deal now whereby French-speakers in the Flemish districts can vote for both Dutch and French-speaking parties, while Dutch-speakers in Wallonia have no such rights.

On Monday, King Albert is expected to start one-on-one meetings with political leaders to see who should form a new government. In 2007, those talks lasted more than six months.

If he becomes premier of Belgium, De Wever will head a coalition government which will force him to tone down his independence talk and negotiate for more regional self rule within Belgium.

Regardless of final coalition, many will hope the solution is found quicker than previously since Belgium assumes the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union in just over two week on July 1st, in what is set to be a very important period for the country and the 27-member bloc.

UK 'will not allow Budget preview' - Hague on the Commission's latest idea

Foreign Secretary William HagueTake one European Union that is keen for financial unease to be stemmed sees monitoring budgets to ensure deficits don’t spiral out of control and mix with it one new coalition British government keen to make its mark and resonate with a largely eurosceptic population.

Turn up the heat a little and leave to simmer and what do you get? A recipe for a scrap; and that is what Foreign Secretary William Hague has vowed over the Commission's latest proposal.

Speaking on yesterday’s Andrew Marr breakfast programme broadcast on BBC1, he defiantly declared that Britain will not accept EU proposals to give the European Commission advance sight of its Budget before it is presented to Parliament.

It is not a proposal that we can support. The Prime Minister, Chancellor and I have all made that very clear,” he said.

The British Budget must be presented to the British Parliament. That is a position we will argue for and we will maintain.

His comments follow the news that emerged last week that British officials from the Treasury have discussed met to discuss proposals from Brussels for a "peer review" of draft budgets by the Commission and EU finance ministers, which was drawn up in response to the financial crisis in countries like Greece.

The idea is expected to be raised at this month's European Council summit in Brussels on Thursday, David Cameron's first as Prime Minister, although Mr Hague stressed that it was still in early "embryonic" form and no final decision was expected this week.

"The discussions on this have some way to go but our position is pretty categorical,” he said.

"Our position will be pretty trenchant, that the national budget of this country can only be presented, the draft budget can only be presented, initially to the British Parliament."

Will Slovakia's PM Fico remain as centre-right opposition wins majority?

Sunday, 13 June 2010
Europe’s swing towards the right continued today as it appears the centre-right parties have together won the majority of seats in Slovakia's parliamentary election.

While the governing centre-left SMER party remained the biggest party in the vote results, the Prime Minister Robert Fico, below, looks set to be ousted by a centre-right coalition focused on cutting the budget gap and mending ties with neighbour Hungary.

Current PM Robert Fico is preying he can keep office following the election result (Photo: Aktuality)Although preliminary results showed the PM Fico's SMER party had won 34.8% of the vote (63 seats), 79 of parliament's 150 seats have been awarded to four centre-right and ethnic Hungarian parties by the Slovakian electorate.

However, Mr Fico has since declared that as the largest vote winner he would try to form a new government: “This is a number that gives us the right to accept a mandate from the president to form a cabinet,” Mr Fico said. But this is perhaps unlikely to happen to form a stable government since before the election the opposition parties declared that they would not break ranks and join forces with SMER.

The conservative SDKU party, which was in power from 1998 to 2006, came a distant second with 15.4% of the vote and has already initiated coalition talks with the conservative Christian Democrats (KDH), the newly formed liberal Freedom and Solidarity party (SaS), and the ethnic Hungarian Most-Hid party.

The SDKU were in power when Slovakia became a fully-fledged member state of the EU in 2004.

Iveta Radičová casts her vote (Photo: parties’ leader Iveta Radičová, left, was pleased with the results and announced her party’s “wish that this country will be called the tiger of Europe once again".

SMER is the winner of the election, but it is not enough to be the winner. You also need to be able to form a government,” she said.

The result was also warmly greeted in Brussels by the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) political group within which the SDKU and KDH are member-parties.

The EPP president Wilfried Martens was clearly delighted with the result in Slovakia, commenting in a statement that “citizens gave their trust to EPP and like minded parties and a majority that can form a government, led by Iveta Radičová.”

Slovak voters turned their back to Socialist/populist Fico and his xenophobic allies," he said.

Slovakia adopted the Euro single currency in 2009 and, with living standards at just 72% of the EU average, many in the country have questioned whether they should help richer debt-laden Eurozone countries.

While both SDKU and SaS pledged during the election campaign that they would refuse to pay Slovakia's €800 million share of the EU bailout for Greece, some analysts have said they may back off the threat if they form government.

Last election:

Click here to see which six MEPs were elected.