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Monday, December 21, 2009

The top 100 most costly EU regulations

Open Europe has today published a list of the top 100 most costly EU regulations, detailing the annual cost of the laws, the cumulative cost of them by 2020, and the article base in the Lisbon Treaty for each regulation . We estimate that these laws will in total cost the UK economy a staggering £184 billion by 2020. To put that figure in context: for the same amount, the UK Government could abolish the country's entire budget deficit and still leave the Exchequer with some £6 bn. All cost estimates are based on the UK Government's own impact assessments so the figures are instructive.

The top four items on the list account for almost £97 billion - or 53% - of the total cost of the 100 regulations by 2020. Looking at these four laws clearly illustrates the enormous, and often overlooked, potential for the UK economy to save money by making a few key regulations less burdensome. Notably, cutting down the costs of these regulations could happen without any of the stated benefits being lost in the process.

1) The Working Time Directive, to cost the UK economy £32.8 bn by 2020: This Directive has been widely criticised for being overprescriptive, impractical and generally out of touch with reality - particularly as it applies to the NHS. Merely changing the on-call time and compensatory rest rules entailed in the WTD could save the UK's public sector millions - if not billions - of punds every year.

2) The EU's Climate Action and Renewable Energy Package, to cost the UK economy £28.2 bn by 2020: As we've argued before, the EU could find a much more cost-effective way to achieve carbon emission reduction by setting overall targets, and then allowing for individual member states to decide for themselves how best to reach them (as opposed to the current micromanaging approach). This would hurt the economy less and provide a more credible alternative to follow for countries outside Europe.

3) Energy Perfomance Certificates for buildings, a.k.a Home Information Packs, to cost the UK economy £20.2 bn by 2020. Again, this cannot possibly be described as the most cost-effective way to achieve reductions in carbon emissions from the residential sector.

4) The Temporary Agencey Workers Directive, to be implemented in 2011 and set to cost the UK economy £15.6 bn by 2020: When he was Business Secretary, John Hutton warned that this Directive could consign "literally thousands of people to benefit dependency" (this was in 2007, before Gordon Brown was outnegotiated in a horsetrading deal involving the UK's opt-out from the EU's 48 hour working week. The Government is now trying to defend the Directive).

Making these laws less burdensome or tailor them to better fit the UK is not easy - but it certainly isn't impossible. Neither is avoiding repeats of these laws. But this does require a far tougher and smarter approach to EU regulations/negotiations than that employed by the current government. See here for our ideas on what such an approach should entail (chapter 5).

An excellent place to start would be for an incoming UK government to opt out altogether from the articles in the EU treaties which give rise to EU's social legislation (articles 151 to 161 as amended by the Lisbon Treaty). With correspondng domestic reforms, this could instantly reduce much of the cost stemming from, for instance, the Working Time Directive and the Temporary Workers Directive.

At a time when every penny is needed to close a massive public deficit, surely cutting the cost of regulation should be a top priority for the next government?

Friday, December 18, 2009

The EU in 2010

As 2009 draws to a close, Open Europe today looks ahead to 2010 and what the EU has in store.

From 1 January 2010, Spain takes over the six-month rotating 'presidency', currently held by Sweden.

The new Lisbon Treaty rules mean that the country holding the Presidency is stripped of its power to 'represent' the EU because of the appointment of a permanent EU President and Foreign Minister. However, Spanish ministers will chair most meetings of the Council of Ministers, and as the first in the next 'trio' of presidencies, Spain gets to lay out an agenda for the EU for the first six months of the year.

In a new briefing note, Open Europe outlines the main priorities for the Spanish EU Presidency, and takes a look ahead to key events and developments in the EU in 2010.

Key things in the pipeline:

- New social legislation to bolster 'European citizenship', including turning the EU into a "factory of rights" Yikes!
- "Common economic governance", including the creation of controversial new EU financial supervisory authorities and new rules for managers of alternative investment funds
- Speedy establishment of the new EU Foreign Service - hoped to become "the biggest diplomatic service in the world"
- Efforts to turn the controversial 'Stockholm Programme' into concrete justice and home affairs legislation

What's clear is that the Spanish government wants to use its Presidency to achieve greater political, social and economic integration in Europe - to work for a more 'unified' EU. This is fundamentally at odds with British priorities for the EU in 2010. Reformist governments must resist moves towards 'building Europe' for the sake of it, and instead concentrate on promoting economic reform.

In particular, the Spanish government's determination to push for new EU social legislation over the next six months and beyond should ring alarm bells at Westminster. The UK Conservatives have said that if they win next year's election, they will fight for control over social and employment policy to be returned to the UK where it can be properly controlled closer the people it affects. This kind of legislation already represents a huge regulatory burden in the UK, and the Spanish government's talk of turning the EU into a 'factory of rights' tells us fundamental reform is more urgent than ever.

Please click here to read the briefing: The EU in 2010 - what to expect from the Spanish Presidency:


Thursday, December 17, 2009

Lisbon Treaty = even more cash for MEPs

Amid all thee excitement over the EU bureaucrats' demands for an inflation-busting 3.7% payrise smack in the middle of the worst recession since the 1930s, Bruno Waterfield at the Telegraph brings us news that according to an internal document seen by the paper European Parliament officials have proposed a 9 percent increase in the partliamentary assistance allowance, taking it to £203,000 in 2010. It is also understood that staff expenses will be further increased by another £16,000 in 2011, taking the total annual allowance to almost £220,000.

Why? Because EP officials reckon all the extra cash is needed as a result of the Lisbon Treaty.

Don't forget this is on top of the "general expenditure allowance" worth over £44,000 that MEPs can pocket without having to provide any receipts. While working in Brussels or Strasbourg, MEPs also trouser a £265 cash subsistence payment, worth over £40,000 tax-free every year.

And with the expected 3.7% salary rise, an MEP will earn almost £86,000 a year.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Euro: rewarding bad behaviour

There has been no shortage of stories recently about the troubles looming in Eurozone countries Greece and Spain. These problems have now prompted Angela Merkel to call for direct EU intervention in the economic and social policies of highly indebted countries in the Eurozone, thereby marking a highly significant shift in German policy.

As German daily Handelsblatt notes: "until now, Germany had always defended national economic sovereignty and rejected stronger European coordination of economic policy in the Eurozone”. The German Chancellor, says the article, is conscious that any such moves “would diminish the national sovereignty of member states”. Yesterday, the EU followed Merkel as it was reported that “the EU has put its member states on a leash”, referring to how Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has called for binding “quality control” on member states’ budgets.

Only two weeks ago, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard observed that the ECB had begun to turn off the liquidity tap:

"The move to knock away emergency support for banks is likely to hit some countries harder than others, creating intra-EMU tensions between North and South. There are particular worries about Greece and Ireland, where banks have relied massively on ECB support because they cannot raise money cheaply on the open market. The ECB has let them use a wide range of low-grade mortgage debt as collateral for loans. Private markets are unlikely to be so forgiving, raising the risk of a roll-over crisis for weak lenders."

Now, he notes that "the eurozone's weakest link starts to crack", and, "Without wanting to rehearse all the pros and cons of euro membership yet again, or debate whether EMU is a ‘optimal currency area’, there is obviously a problem for countries like Greece that were let into EMU for political reasons before their economies had been reformed enough to cope with the rigours of euro life - over the long run."

However, some countries are not keen on the idea of a cross-border bail-out. Finland and Sweden oppose giving financial support to Greece. “The EU cannot help, that’s part of our rules. They were established to let member states take care of themselves”, said Finnish Finance Minister Matti Vanhanen. And Vanhanen is absolutely correct – as we’ve argued before.

Last week Edward Hugh asked, “How far is it the responsibility of richer and economically healthy states to continually come to the rescue of those who insist on doing nothing to improve their own situation?”

On the wider point about eurozone membership vis-a-vis reform he noted:

"Rather than acting as a stimulus to deep economic reform, Euro membership has rather acted to reward those countries who would get into more and more debt, with ever less sustainable economic models, by supplying them with funding at far cheaper rates of interest than the markets would otherwise make available.”

If you don’t believe him, check out what the EU President himself, Herman Van Rompuy, who was one of the key figures behind Belgium’s entrance into the Eurozone in the nineties, has to say on the issue. Looking back on Belgium's experience with the Euro, he wrote in 2007, in his book "In search of wisdom":

“The monetary pressure in Belgium has fallen away with the disappearance of the Belgian franc. This because the euro is standing far from us and is moreover very strong in recent years. The absence of that external pressure makes it extra difficult for the government to act. Without those sticks behind the door, society easily sinks away in reform fatigue. In a couple of countries around us, economic fate has however hit so hard that fundamental reforms have been carried out. But politics in a democracy needs that pressure. Sad, but it is like this.”

ETS awards millions in windfall profits to oil companies and heavy industry

As national ministers meet this week in Copenhagen to discuss a new climate change deal, Open Europe has found that under the EU's Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), oil and gas companies' operations in the UK were granted a surplus of carbon permits worth €28.6m in 2008. For example, ExxonMobil received €4.3m and Total received €5.4m.

Meanwhile, heavy industrial polluters such as Corus received €47m, while cement firms Hanson and Lafarge received €17.3m and €20.2m.

The EU is keen to be seen to take the lead at the UN climate change summit in Copenhagen and has already announced ambitious targets to reduce its carbon emissions. However, the EU's principle policy for achieving those reductions, the ETS, is fundamentally flawed.

Due to the economic downturn, many heavy polluters, such as oil and gas companies and heavy industrials, have been left with a surplus of carbon permits - essentially a free asset that firms can sell on to bolster their short term profits.

The glut of surplus permits on the market has driven down the price of carbon and led to a sharp increase in the number of permits being traded via carbon exchanges. Open Europe has found that the two largest carbon trading exchanges, European Climate Exchange[1] and Bluenext[2], which includes members such as Barclays Bank, JP Morgan, Merrill Lynch and Shell, have earned a combined average of €245,000 a day from the trading of carbon permits so far in 2009, in transaction fees alone. In total, they have made over €57m between them in 2009.

Instead of producing a firm carbon price to encourage investment in greener technologies, the ETS has become a subsidy to some of the UK's biggest polluters and has simply created a new breed of carbon traders, which are cashing in on a policy that is failing to achieve its core objective.

Click here to read more.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Dear Dirk

Last week, we were told by journalists that Dirk Ahner, the Commission's Director-General for regional policy, had apparently sent a letter to the members of the European Parliament's Budgetary Control committee, criticising Open Europe's 50 examples of waste involving EU funds.

Despite the fact that the letter addressed our publication, and cited extensively from it, Mr. Ahner did not send a copy to Open Europe, and has failed to send us one after repeated requests both on the phone and by email.

In the end we managed to get the letter from other sources. You can read it here.

Here's an excerpt from the letter:

As I committed to do, I have asked my services to investigate their claims on the projects in question. However, it is essential to underline to the citizens you represent that, given the shared management system, the European Commission is not responsible for the selection of the projects... Most of the claims are true, in the sense that European money has co-financed the projects mentioned. However, Open Europe seems to take the view that anything related to tourism and culture is a waste of money, regardless of whether the projects create jobs and are part of an overall development strategy. Some statements are misleading or completely incorrect: just to take an example, the Commission will not pay a cent to the mentioned Slovakian bulletin-board tender (project 49).

Well, we don't take the view that anything "related to tourism and culture is a waste of money", but, as we set out here, the structure and nature of the EU budget often facilitate poor project selection, to a greater extent than national spending schemes do. We also wanted to illustrate how having a massive redistribution scheme involving some of the richest countries in the world sending money back and forth via Brussels (at a huge admin cost) is becoming increasingly hard to justify economically. In addition, we wanted to highlight one of the wider problems with the EU budget (the co-financed part in particular, i.e. the Structural Funds and the Rural Development Programme), namely the blurred line between the spending of public money and accountability.

Predictably, Mr. Ahner passes on the responsibility for the project selection to member states, as the Commission usually does (but then goes on to defend the projects, interestingly).

It is true that the managing authorities in the member states select projects - no one is disputing that - but the Commission runs the policy and does have a thing or two to say about the project selection as well - in addition to being one of the staunchest defenders of the Structural Funds. And some of the people on the ground won't let the Commission off the hook that easily. For example, responding to one item on our list - the ‘gender equal’ wood design centre in Sweden - one of the local officials involved in the project defensively wrote, "The gender-part of that project was just a small part, put there to please the EU officials."

So as a taxpayer, if I'm not happy with the way the Structural Funds are ran and spent, who should I approach? As we've said many times before, the Commission could do itself a massive favour by encouraging member states to scrap the Structural Funds in the most well-off member states - say, those with a GDP of 85-90% of average EU GDP or more - where the value-added of the EU funds, on the whole, is negligble at best. None of these issues were addressed by Mr. Ahner. Anyway, here's our open letter to Mr. Ahner:

Open letter to Dirk Ahner, Regional Policy Director-General, European

Dear Mr. Ahner,

We write to you in regards to a letter you sent to members of the European Parliament’s Committee on Budgetary Control (“Subject: OPEN EUROPE 'fraud and waste' list of projects”, REGIO B1/AM D(2009)). Since the correspondence with the MEPs was addressing material published by Open Europe, we thought it appropriate to respond and also to address some of the claims you make in the letter (see attached document).

First, it is regrettable that the Commission continues to single out Open Europe for criticism, and has not given us opportunity for the right of reply. You sent the letter to MEPs, without copying to Open Europe, and failed to respond to telephone calls as we sought to find a copy of the letter. Despite repeated requests over the phone and via email, your office has still not sent us a copy of the letter. In fact, Open Europe was not even acknowledged when we tried to get hold of the letter. Instead we have acquired the letter from other sources. Your refusal seems to be in violation of the European Ombudsman’s Code of Good Administrative Behaviour.

Of the 17 Regional Development Fund projects analysed, you seem to be saying that one of them is incorrect, in that EU funds were not in the end used for the purposes mentioned: the ‘Bulletin-board tender’, which Open Europe said was indeed being investigated by the Commission. You claim that the point about Lazarote hotels having illegally received EU funds is “incorrect”, but are only able to clarify that “the Spanish authorities removed the hotels from the ERDF programme. This means that the hotels will not receive any funding from the EU budget.” No evidence is provided to show that the hotels did not receive the money – only that they “will” not receive money in the future – so we remain unconvinced by your claim that this is incorrect.

For all the other projects, you either defend the use of funds, or simply state that the example is correct, such as the fact that the Chairman of Porsche received €2,500 in EU rural development funds for a small estate in Bavaria where he goes hunting in his free time. For one or two you quibble over the amounts spent.

It is most concerning that you have spent so much time piecing together this rebuttal, and sent it to members of the European Parliament with an instruction that they “underline to the citizens you represent that, given the shared management system, the European Commission is not responsible for the selection of the projects funded.” There is no acknowledgement of Open Europe’s wider point which is that the waste is ultimately down to the structure of the EU budget (as Open Europe has set out here, for instance: http://euobserver.com/7/28979 ) - and that the budget in general and the Structural Funds in particular are in need of fundamental reform.

Open Europe maintains that all are examples of the EU wasting money, and an illustration of how the EU budget is spent, which was the objective of our report. Your comments represent a different point of view about how public money should best be spent, which Open Europe is seeking to challenge.

We look forward to a more open dialogue with the European Commission on these issues in the future.

Yours sincerely,

Open Europe

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Out there in eurospace

Foreign Secretary David Miliband appeared before the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee this afternoon to discuss developments in the EU, ahead of the formal six-monthly European Council meeting in Brussels on Thursday and Friday this week.

Although Foreign Ministers usually attend these meetings, the Lisbon Treaty states that it should only be EU heads of state. The Swedish EU Presidency, on the advice of the legal service for the Council, according to Miliband, had decided that Foreign Ministers will not be invited, which has put some noses out of joint. Thanks to Lisbon, EU Foreign Ministers are no longer welcome but instead EU Foreign Minister Cathy Ashton gets a seat.

However, Miliband added that the Treaty still allows for heads of state to bring along a minister when the agenda requires it, and that EU leaders will have a discussion over dinner about "whether the Treaty means what it says", with regards to whether or not foreign ministers may be allowed to attend these meetings in future. What a bizarre thing to say - what do we do if they find the Treaty does not "mean what it says"? That goes down as another admission from the Government that the text is indeed highly ambiguous and that, as we argued, MPs were effectively signing a blank cheque when they agreed it.

Miliband also revealed that, although the final outline and recruitment policy of the new European External Action Service, EEAS, is still to be decided (another of Lisbon's 'unanswered questions), the Foreign and Commonwealth Office anticipates that it will be contributing 18-25 staff to the new EU institution.

You may remember back in October, a document from the Swedish EU Presidency on the outline of the EEAS. This stated that staff from Member States should represent at least one third of staff at the senior level, including diplomatics in delegations - with people keen to keep in mind a geographic balance for those working in the new institution. The rest of the staff would be taken from the Commission and the General Secretariat of the Council.

Since it has been suggested that the size of the EEAS could reach anything between 6,000 and 8,000, it is not quite clear how those two ideas tally. Unless the UK will be sending a bloc of staff way below the number which other member states are sending, it may turn out that long-time eurocrats (the same ones striking for a payrise next week) may make up the bulk of the staff in the EEAS after all.

There were also some Select Committee questions regarding the appointment of Cathy Ashton, and the role of the new EU Foreign Minister, specifically in relation to the EEAS. One MP pointed out that it was a rather strange message to send, for Ashton to have her office in the Commission building, when the nature of the job was supposed to be 'intergovernmental', i.e. to represent the foreign policy of all 27 member states.

Asked this very question recently, Ashton said she was staying in her office in the Commission simply because she knows where the coffee is. Hmm.

Conservative MP for Wells David Heathcoat-Amory pointed out that as a sui generis institution, without precedent, it is extremely unclear where the lines of responsibility for the EEAS are, and it sits in some kind of limbo-like "euro-space" between the Council and Commission.

Indeed. The problem with this brand new institution, which the EU has made clear will become a seperate institution in its own right, with its own budget (£45 billion over 3 years, according to Javier Solana), is that for the very first time it is an institution which seems to straddle both the Commission and the Council - blurring the lines between the intergovernmental and the supranational if you like. In this sense it will be a real "EU foreign office" - with EU diplomats for the first time, instead of mere European Commission 'delegates' and representatives abroad. They will supposedly speak on behalf of the EU as a whole, as opposed to representing just the Commission.

How will that work in practice? It seems Miliband and even Ashton aren't too sure about that. We left the Select Committee hearing none the wiser.

On another planet Part 585

In his PBR today Alistair Darling has announced a public sector pay freeze for 4 million UK workers, including vital frontline staff such as nurses, police and teachers.

Meanwhile, over in la-la land, the Dutch, French and Spanish press report that EU civil servants in Brussels are planning a strike for Monday against attempts by 15 member state governments (including the UK) to stop 38,000 EU civil servants (including Commissioners) getting an inflation-busting 3.7% payrise. (Standaard Standaard 2 Le Monde)

The member states are resisting because the wages of national civil servants are being frozen or cut. The national governments claim that because of the economic crisis, an exceptional clause in the civil servants' statute should enter into force. The clause states that "in times of serious and sudden deterioration of the economic and social situation" in the EU, the Commission can impose a new wage proposal.

However, according to some reports, it looks likely that national governments will have to agree to the pay rise, because they are contractually bound to the agreement and are likely to lose the case if it goes to the European Court of Justice. Trade unions are demanding that member states "respect the rules".

Not only that, but a Trade Union President with 38 years experience working in the Commission told Spanish paper El Mundo today that the payrise should go ahead because the money "has already been put aside", and would otherwise "end up being lost in the EU budget and will go on milk quotas."

Great. So either we grant the unjustified payrise, or we waste the money on milk quotas. What a choice.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Campaign against EU ban on herbal medicine

Today, a campaign to 'save herbal medicine' was launched. Campaigners are calling on the Government to prevent herbal medicines disappearing from the high street when an EU ban comes into place in April 2011.

Save Herbal Medicine fears that much of the herbal medicine trade will be lost if EU legislation comes in, which states that only "statutorily regulated" professionals, such as doctors, would be able to prescribe the alternative remedies.

The EU Directive will restrict herbal medicines that can be supplied over-the-counter to licensed "traditional" medicines used to treat "mild and self-limiting" conditions.

Save Herbal Medicine is calling on the Department of Health to produce a statutory register for herbalists who meet certain standards, so that they would fall within the EU law.

It wants all herbalists who meet agreed standards of education and training, adhere to a strict Code of Ethics and Standards and who are properly insured, to be recognised.

The website notes:

"Please be clear, this issue is NOT about whether herbs work or not, the evidence is out there for all to determine this for themselves (we have links to resources on this web site), this is about YOUR FUNDAMENTAL BASIC HUMAN RIGHT to have a CHOICE. As things stand right now, your right to choose from a range of choices DISAPPEARS in April 2011."

See here for more: http://www.saveherbalmedicine.com/

Friday, December 04, 2009

Saying it like it is

Yesterday saw the last debate on European Affairs in the House of Commons before the next General Election, and by the look of it it was, as usual, very poorly attended and only by the usual suspects - many of whom happen to be extremely well-informed, we might add.

Labour MP Gisela Stuart gave a particularly good speech which touched on many important things, including David Cameron's proposed 'Sovereignty Bill' and the so-called 'referendum lock', which she points out is pretty meaningless given that there will in future be no treaties to have referendums on.

The whole debate is worth a read but here are some of the more thought-provoking extracts of Gisela's speech:

The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby talked about what has happened to the word "subsidiarity". My argument is that rather than argue about reclaiming powers, we should have a different presumption.

Subsidiarity has disappeared from the scene because it does not work. In the past 10 years, the Commission has only ever had one proposal rejected because it was deemed to breach subsidiarity-the zoo directive, which we tried to bring in during our presidency. That is hardly a great record. Every EU directive that comes forward ought to contain in the preamble proof that the measure cannot be implemented in nation states, and therefore has to be handled at EU level. That would change the whole argument and would mean that rather than people always having to defend what is done at EU level, the EU would make the case that the nation state cannot do certain things.

That point brings me to an issue that we never mention here. The debate is about European affairs, and we ought at some stage to talk about the nature of the nation state. I want to do that briefly today. What is our relationship? We say that Europe is great because we are all in favour of co-operation, but co-operation and political integration are two very different things. We saw this earlier when we talked about fiscal stimulus. That was not about political integration: it was about co-operation, and member states doing something at the same time.

The reason why I am so angry about the referendum is that with the passing of the Lisbon treaty, we have created a supranational institution. There is all the talk about rowing back, but it has gone. Forget it, folks; it has been sold. There is now a supranational institution that has never had the endorsement or consent of the 350 million people across the European Union, because referendums were either ignored or were rubbished on the basis that the issue was too complicated and people were too stupid to take part. That is an argument worth talking about. Governments should show leadership and take people to places that they do not yet know are good for them-but although political leaders have to adopt that leadership role on occasion, there is always the reality test of a general election, when a Prime Minister who takes the country in a direction that it disagrees with gets kicked out.

There is no mechanism in the EU that allows the people to be asked whether this new supranational institution is what they want. My suspicion is that they probably do not, but that is neither here nor there. I have become agnostic on this matter. I grew up in a federal state so I have no problem with federalism, but I also remember the Austro-Hungarian empire- [ Interruption. ] Not personally, of course, but I grew up with its heritage. That extremely authoritarian institution finally collapsed because it tried to replace national identity with ethnicity. It is always very bad when identity is represented through ethnicity rather than through institutions in the nation state, and we need to be extremely careful in that regard.

She continued:

I want to make two other points, and the first is about this place. We are kidding ourselves if we think that by voting on Select Committee Chairmen, setting up better visitor centres or going online and so on, we will achieve a deepening of parliamentary democracy. We are losing power every step of the way: we have not even begun to come to terms with how we deal with legislation coming out of Brussels, because merely being told more about it is very different from actually having power and influence over it.

We have devolved power to Wales and Scotland, but we did not think about what would happen to England as a result of that process. We sit in Westminster, but we have lost power on both sides and we have lost our purpose. I suggest that that is why the expenses scandal has been so damaging. We have failed to defend ourselves, individually and collectively, because we have lost our sense of purpose as an institution. The real challenge for the next Parliament, when it comes in after the election, is to remind itself that its function is not just to talk about things but to hold the Executive to account. We have singularly, totally and completely failed to do that in respect of Europe.

We couldn't agree more.

Glad to see our MEPs are focussed on what really matters

This won't be news to most people, but Members of the European Parliament get up to a great deal of stuff that goes pretty much completely unnoticed.

Today the slightly underground French news service Agence Europe reports that the European Parliament's political families are negotiating the membership and creation of 24 to 26 so-called "intergroups" for the Parliament's new term of office. These strange groups are made up of MEPs from the different political groupings and apparently focus on single issues, such as Tibet or anti-racism. The groups are set up if they receive the backing of three or more groupings in the Parliament.

For more on the secrecy and the bearing of lobbying on these groups see here.

Agence Europe tells us that the Christian Democrat-dominated European People's Party (EPP) (the group the Tories have now left) has submitted a list of "priority issues" that in its opinion warrant the formation of an intergroup. The list includes issues such as "small and medium-sized enterprises", "The Family and Children's Rights" and the all-encompassing "Youth".

Among the list is a proposal for an intergroup on "The Santiago of Compostela Pilgrimage". The pilgrimage, also known as the Way of St James, is a collection of old routes which cover the whole of Europe, all of them ending up at Santiago de Compostela in north west Spain.

What exactlty do they want such a group to discuss? The pilgrimage has lasted for a 1,000 years so far without the help of MEPs.

It it really one of the top 25 issues or challenges EU citizens face? Also, why propose a group that so obviously focuses on one particular religion? Why not a group looking at European Muslims carrying out the Hajj?

The EPP's proposal is obviously not a big deal in itself but it's a microcosm of the the backward-looking and introspective culture that dominates EU politics. The desire for a nostalgic homogenous European culture closely based on 'Christian values'. You might argue it's this failure to embrace diversity of opinion, attitudes, and cultures that hinders the EU's ability to look outward to the rest of the world and compete with emerging nations.

Surely MEPs have more pressing things to spend our money on?

Thursday, December 03, 2009


Via the very useful Euractiv we learn that, now that the Lisbon Treaty is in force and the EU has the power to legislate on sport, the European Commission is set to launch a "wide stakeholder consultation" to prepare for the first EU sports programme, expected in 2012.

Reading through the EU Sport Commissioner's ideas for such a 'programme', we're finding it hard to keep a straight face.

In particular, he wants the programme to "Contribute to the promotion of European values (physical and moral integrity of sportspersons, fairness of competitions): projects could address issues such as doping, racism and protection of minors".

Since when were the physical and moral integrity of sportpersons and fairness of competitions European values? Bit of an arrogant insult to the rest of the world wouldn't you say? And looks pretty stupid coming hot on the heels of the Ireland/France World Cup Qualifier!

Stuck in the past

Following the revelation last week that 38,000 civil servants working for the European Commission are in line for an inflation-busting 3.7% pay rise for salaries, pensions and allowances this year, 15 EU member states have recognised that this is a step too far in this time of belt-tightening and have blocked the Commission proposal. Those countries blocking the pay rise include the UK, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and six member states that joined in 2004.

Absurdly, the pay rise is based on a calculation of civil service salaries in 8 of the richest member states, and a cost of living allowance for Brussels. The legal service of the Council has warned member states that departing from the formula could be vulnerable to a legal challenge - and the unions have not missed their chance to urge the Commission to take the issue to the ECJ (although it would have to be the Commission, and not the unions which filed the legal challenge.)

A representative of the Union Syndicale revealed just how hopelessly out of date the formula is when he described it as an "honest bargain which has given us social peace for 20 years."

A pay rise formula which is 20 years old? How many institutional and EU Treaty changes have we seen in the last 20 years - and yet there has been no change in the way that Commission staff's pay is calculated?

Interesting, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung had a bit of an expose yesterday, breaking down all the perks and allowances that EU civil servants get. It quoted one senior EU official saying that living abroad, the rationale behind such generous compensation, is "really not such a pain anymore" adding that "actually it's hard to get most bureaucrats to leave Brussels these days". No sh*t Sherlock - with working conditions so obviously insulated from the real labour market why on earth would you give up a cushy number in Brussels?

Just to put this pay rise in a bit of context, public sector pay in Latvia has been cut by up to 25% during the recession, and Ireland has planned to cut 1.3 billion euros from the public sector wage bill, not to mention the pay freeze announced by Alistair Darling for many UK senior civil servants and NHS staff, and more.

So the question here really is, should Brussels and those working in the EU institutions be protected from the economic recession, which is affecting public sector workers across member states? If so, why?

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Flip-flopping Ashton

New EU Foreign Minister Catherine Ashton has faced MEPs today for an informal grilling. It is not her official European Parliament confirmation hearing - that will come later in January.

Interestingly, Lady Ashton is described as "dodging a hail of bullets" by the Times for her failure to answer in any detail, questions on issues of foreign policy such as Turkey's EU accession bid, the Honduran Presidential election, Georgia, EU policy on the Arctic, etc.

This policy tapdancing earned a rebuke from the German Liberal MEP Alexander Lambsdorff who said: "I do have to say we want more specific answers from you when you come back to us in January."

She responded: "At my hearing there will be more considered policies...This is brand new. I do not have an office, I do not have a Cabinet, I do not have a team. I inherited a blank piece of paper and at the moment I have written one or two small things on it."

Hmm... brand new? Nothing but a blank piece of paper? That's not what you said when you were nursing the Lisbon Treaty through the House of Lords.

Responding to concerns about the unclear remit of the post and the general ambiguity of the Treaty, Baroness Ashton of Upholland told the Lords in April 2008, "Noble Lords have rightly indicated that the high representative brings together the current high representative introduced in Amsterdam [Treaty] and the Commissioner for External Relations. As I said it is an important move."

She added, "The proposal is that we have a high representative who becomes the vice-president of the Commission with very specific functions. That is a defined role within the treaty which is vested in one person."

So... the EU's new Foreign Minister, who once said that the job would simply bring together two existing roles, and would have very specific functions, is now admitting that her job description is so ill-defined in the Treaty that within two weeks of her appointment, she still has no real idea what her job either means or will entail and the Treaty provisions are in fact a blank cheque... which is exactly what we have said would be the consequence of so much of the vague and ill-thought out language in the Lisbon Treaty.

We also came across this other rather telling tidbit from the Noble Lady in the same Lords session from 2008: "The new title makes it absolutely clear that the high representative will represent the agreed views of member states. He will not in any sense be a Foreign Minister."

Yet less than two weeks ago, in a press conference following the announcement of Cathy Ashton's new job, Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said: "The Secretary of State of the United States should call Cathy Ashton, because she is our Foreign Minister, if I may say so."

How quickly these people change their tune.

Surprise surprise

Now that the Lisbon Treaty is safely in force (as of yesterday) the Lib Dems have predictably abandoned their support for a referendum on Britain's EU membership.

The tactic to support such a referendum was nothing more than a pathetically transparent and feeble attempt to get them off the hook for abandoning their manifesto commitment to a referendum on the Constitutional Treaty. Pretending to favour giving people a referendum that was never on the cards, the Lib Dems shamefully teamed up with Labour to block calls for referendum on the Treaty as it went through Parliament last year.

Safely over that hurdle, Nick Clegg can now ditch the dishonesty and go back to what he really believes - which is that the British public should never be given a say on the EU of any kind.

Avoiding the issue

Within the next year, the UK Government (whoever it will be) will find itself in crucial negotiations over the next EU 'financial framework', which will decide who pays what into the EU budget over the period 2014 to 2020.

You will remember that Tony Blair sealed the deal on the current financial framework (2007 to 2013) back in December 2005, giving up £7 billion of our rebate in return for what turned out to be an empty promise about reform of the CAP. Cheers Tony.

In order that we don't make the same mistake again, politicians of all colours need to be thinking carefully about a new way of negotiating, and what exactly we want from the talks.

So it was good to see the Tories trying to raise the subject with the Government in Parliament yesterday. Unfortunately, Europe Minister Chris Bryant wasn't remotely interested in discussing the issue. This is despite the fact that the huge problems with the EU budget go right to the heart of many people's criticism of the EU. We desperately need to start talking sensibly about what it is the Government and also the Opposition intend to do about the budget.

But instead we get:

Philip Davies (Con): Given that the accounts of the EU have not been signed off by the auditors for 15 years running, why do the Government keep giving more and more money to the EU? Surely if the Government are serious about reform of the EU budget, they should say that the EU will not get a penny more from the British Government until it gets its accounts properly audited.

Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that if we were to follow his policy, which is to get out of the EU, it would significantly harm British interests. He knows perfectly well, too, that, as the director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, David Frost said only a few weeks ago: "Business", by which he meant British business, "wants a pragmatic approach to the EU, not an ideological one" such as the hon. Gentleman's.

Great - thanks for that.

This follows the Government's refusal to publish forecasts for how much the UK will pay into and get out of the EU budget beyond 2010-2011, following a request by David Heathcoat-Amory MP. How can we possibly formulate a strategy for negotiating a better deal for British (and indeed European) taxpayers if the Government won't acknowledge there's a problem, won't engage in the debate, and won't even let us know how the land will lie in a year's time?

It's going to get a whole lot worse

In a speech yesterday David Cameron cited Open Europe's recent report which showed that the UK has spent more than £35 billion complying with EU employment, health and safety law in the last decade.

What he didn't mention, is the report's even more important findings that if the problem of EU regulation isn't tackled, EU social and employment laws will cost a further £71 billion over the next decade, even in the highly unlikely event that no more regulations are added to the rulebook in this time.

In our view, the Conservatives should negotiate a blanket opt-out from all the social and employment related articles in the EU treaties, and bring control over these laws back to the UK, where we can scrap, amend or fine tune them to the needs of our own economy.